Prime Minister David Cameron is encouraging more British children to study Chinese. He recently set of goal of doubling the UK’s Mandarin students to 400,000 by 2016 to help seal the business deals of tomorrow.
But some tech experts say Mandarin has a rival claimant to the title of the world’s new most important language to coincide with the rise of the machines; and that language is code.
The Government has already put programming on the school curriculum from this autumn. Every British student will learn the subject from September. As many as 2.3 million British people have already had a taster. In March they were given a “Hour of Code” tuition. The aim was to demystify code in the minds of children.
Joanna Shields, the UK’s digital industries ambassador, believes coding should replace French in our schools.
Shields argues that children spend 200 hours a year (or 2,000 hours in their lives) learning compulsory French. But how, she argues, can French translate better into the realities of the world than skills that are more practical, such as Java or HTML?
But maybe Shields and the technocracy are missing the point. There is a wider, human picture here.
People don’t learn languages simply to get jobs. There are lots more other benefits to being armed with a good know-how of other languages.
Firstly, you’ll be able to communicate better in face-to-face in human interactions.
Secondly, languages can be extremely useful when you’re travelling.
Thirdly, languages will equip you better to understand other cultures and thought processes.
Many Britons fear the rise of the machines
Even Shields admits that it is not only children from rival countries that the UK’s education chiefs should be concerned about in the global race.
Some argue that tomorrow’s biggest competitors will come from robots and computer programmes (or collectively “bots”).
They are already being employed to “re-imagine” entire sectors, whether fashion, farming, medicine or logistics.
In so doing, they are instilling a growing, uneasy sense of usurpation among many Britons, according to a new poll.
One in three of us fear a Terminator-style rise of the machines; a sense that we are the dinosaurs now and could soon rendered obsolete. This is the proportion who fear that machines will endanger mankind. The same ratio fear that bots may take their jobs.
The survey questioned 2,000 people on attitudes surrounding bots and tech to mark the start of next Monday’s (May 12) launch of sci-fi Robocop TV drama Almost Human.
Nearly half of those surveyed believed technology is growing too fast and threatening traditional human life.
One in 10 forecast robot police within a decade, 35% were worried by unpiloted military drones and 42% expect bots to replace teachers.
So how high is the risk according to experts?
Oxford University published a research paper on the subject last year.
Jobs that seem safe
It found that social workers and therapists have the least to worry about.
If people are going to lose their jobs to bots, then therapy will be in high demand and this could be the boom career of the future.
Jobs most at risk
Tax preparers (99%), legal assistants (94%) and estate agents (86%) are the professions most in danger of becoming automated or eliminated in the not-too-distant future, along with 47% of jobs in general, according to the report.
So, the techies argues, the world is becoming more global and connected and machines can help us communicate.
But are they really the answer?
Machine translation has left a series of embarrassing gaffes around the planet, not least with the launch of the ObamaCare website last year.
It left many Hispanics perplexed with its awkward, often incorrect translations due to its lack of human touch.
A computer translation may know a language, but unlike a human translator, it can’t “feel” or “smell” it, which is where it falls down.
And, finally, learning coding over French is all very well, Ms Shields.
But will your coding skills allow you to order a drink in a snug, friendly Parisienne bar or get you a hotel during your stay?
And it certainly won’t help you conduct business abroad.
Perhaps us humans might still have the last laugh yet.