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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Are kids today just users?

6 September 2018

As a child, I always wanted to know what was inside stuff and how it worked.

I strongly suspect that many regular Aardvark readers were the same - and most have retained this curiosity to this day.

Buried deep in the recesses of my memories are fond recollections of stripping down things such as radios, clocks, lawnmower engines and such, in an attempt to see for myself exactly what was going on within.

Everyone loves a mystery... right?

I strongly suspect that my interest in electronics was primarily down to the fact that, unlike an engine or a clock, you couldn't actually deduce how they worked from a simple inspection. There were "magic" things happening inside those valves, transistors, coils and resistors!

The greater the mystery, the stronger the curiosity... at least in my case.

Like many of my peers at the time, this insatiable curiosity drove me to learn about electricity, electronics and many related fields. It was totally fascinating.

Of course when computers and software came along, it was a foregone conclusion that I'd also be captivated by the ability to control these electronic devices by simply tapping on a keyboard, rather than rewiring swathes of components.

With this background in mind, I am left scratching my head as to why so few of today's kids seem as fascinated by the technology they're using.

Perhaps it's just that I am "out of the loop" but I don't see much sign of today's kids wanting to rip stuff apart or learn the intricate details of how their computers, phones, cars or whatever -- actually work.

I get the overwhelming impression that they're "users" who have little sense of curiosity.

If this is the case, where will our future engineers, scientists and technicians come from?

In an era when so many young folk think that they will simply become a social-media superstar and live off product endorsements made to their millions of followers, I fear that we're at risk of running out of curious minds with which to continue our quest for better science, technology and engineering.

Yeah, I know... I'd bet that the ratio of curious kids to "users" hasn't changed at all in the past 100 years, it's just that I'm an old fart who can't see this.

The real worry however, is that if I'm right, the effects of automation will be even more devastating than predicted.

As we move towards smarter, more capable, cheaper automation which is able to replace an increasing range of low-"smarts" jobs, we're going to end up with increasing numbers of unemployed and unemployable. This makes it much harder for governments to balance budgets and starts placing a greater burden on (tax) on those who are in paid employment.

This is a recipe for social discontent.

Could it be therefore, that systems such as AI and robotics *do* threaten the future of mankind -- but not in the way that Stephen Hawking was suggesting. Do we not so much risk a take-over by machines with superior intelligence -- as a revolt by those who have been disenfranchised and impoverished by these technologies?

I pass the floor over to readers from whom I welcome sage comments.

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