In the AI era, universities must make us ‘robot proof’

With up to half of white and blue collar jobs expected to vanish due to artificial intelligence (AI), the priority for universities is to make people ‘robot proof’ by teaching ‘humanics’ – technical, data and human literacy – and providing experiential and lifelong learning.

That was the message from keynote speaker Joseph Aoun, president of NorthEastern University in Boston in the United States, talking on higher education in the age of AI, at the ‘EnlightED: Reinventing education in a digital world’ conference in Madrid, Spain, on 3-5 October.

The conference, which drew an international audience of around 1,000, was organised by Fundación Telefónica, IE University (a private non-profit university owned by the Instituto de Empresa SL) and South Summit (a ‘leading innovation global platform focused on business opportunities and disruptive trends’).

Aoun began by highlighting studies that show that up to 50% of jobs will disappear in the future because of AI, and that these will be both blue and white collar jobs, as “AI is colour blind”. He said other studies suggest the figure may be 30% or 40%, but whatever the figure, the implications are huge.

“It is true that new jobs are arising but we don’t know in the short term if the new ones will compensate for the loss,” he said.

In this context “we need people to become robot-proof”, he said. The first step is for everyone to master what he called “humanics”, which has three elements: technical literacy, as everyone has to understand how to work with tech and robots; data literacy, to help interpret “the sea of data” that is now available; and human literacy, which includes identifying what we can do that machines can’t do, such as innovate, understand body language, work in teams and “be globally and culturally agile”.

The second step is to understand that we have to engage with experiential learning. “At my institution our students spend six months on placement,” he said. “They learn how to work in teams, identify opportunities, build companies and work with people from many different backgrounds,” he said.

“Every single one of us is going to be obsolete,” he argued. “So we need lifelong learning. In the US, this is seen as second rate but 70% are lifelong learners and universities are ignoring this group. But these people don’t want courses at universities they want it when they want it, and wherever they are.

“Universities have to be humble and sit down with employers and mature students and create ‘stackable certificates’. This is not only about online education; [the training] has to be embedded in companies,” he said. “Universities will have to have bases everywhere,” he said.

The session was moderated by Luis Garicano, economist and professor, and the first questioner from the floor argued that “the things we think are hard, computers find easy (like Google translate) and the things we think are easy, computers find hard. What is the core of being human?” she asked.

Aoun replied that “humans can be entrepreneurial, empathise, think of new ways to do things and give insights that machines can’t”. He added that when people use the word ‘entrepreneur’ they think of starting up a new company but it is simply about seeing things in a different way. “You can be an innovator in a large company; let’s go beyond the narrow definition,” he said.

The importance of humans needing human contact was then raised. “We have had coffee machines for a long time,” said Garicano, “but people want eye contact when they buy a coffee.”

“In this room people are not looking at us now,” he continued, “They are looking at the TV screens of us, even though we are here. What sense does a university have if people do that?”

People go to university not just for knowledge, said Aoun: “The role of the university is to bring people together and then experience the education together. That is humbling for lecturers. Why are we here today? Because of our need to network and talk to others; [in the same way] students want to encounter other students and integrate their classroom experience with real world experience.”

Aoun explained how his institution prioritises experiential learning and the positive effect it has had. “Employers love it,” he said. “We have more demand than supply because employers love the creative energy that students bring. Many employers then offer them jobs,” he concluded.