“Robot-Proof:  Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” by Joseph E. Aoun!

Dear Commons Community,

I have just finished reading, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Joseph E. Aoun, the president of Northeastern University.   A brief summary of the book from the jacket cover comments on how artificial intelligence will evolve to the point where knowledge industries such as higher education will have to change to survive.  

“…a way to educate the next generation of college students to invent, to create, and to discover — to fill needs in society that even the most sophisticated artificial intelligence agent cannot.

A “robot-proof” education, Aoun argues, is not concerned solely with topping up students’ minds with high-octane facts. Rather, it calibrates them with a creative mindset and the mental elasticity to invent, discover, or create something valuable to society — a scientific proof, a hip-hop recording, a web comic, a cure for cancer. Aoun lays out the framework for a new discipline, humanics, which builds on our innate strengths and prepares students to compete in a labor market in which smart machines work alongside human professionals. The new literacies of Aoun’s humanics are data literacytechnological literacy, and human literacy. Students will need data literacy to manage the flow of big data, and technological literacy to know how their machines work, but human literacy — the humanities, communication, and design — to function as a human being. Life-long learning opportunities will support their ability to adapt to change.”

Some of what Aoun says such as the new literacies are on target but not likely to fill the large gaps that artificial intelligence will cause in the future.  Data literacy, technological literacy, and human literacy are already taking off as important areas of study to which college students are gravitating.  Life-long learning likewise has emerged and will continue to accelerate.  Advanced graduate degrees and continuing education are seeing record enrollments.

One of the most important comments Aoun makes is when he quotes Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford:

“Exponential progress [in artificial intelligence] is pushing us toward the endgame.  Preventing business owners from adopting labor-saving technology would require modifying the basic incentives built into the market economy.”

While some of our colleagues in higher education and science research hope and believe that we can control “the tsunami of automation that is about to wash away white-collar jobs” I have my concerns.

Aoun’s conclusion is that “the only certainty about the future is change.”  Higher education as will most other enterprises will change also. 



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