Rethinking higher education in the age of automation

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The future workforce needs to have the skills to do the jobs that AI cannot.

The common assumption today is that robots will soon drive our cars, manufacture our goods, and automate our assembly lines. Given the prospects for an economic future in which large swaths of the working population are at risk of losing their jobs, it suggests the need for rethinking a range of social policies.

Artificial intelligence (AI) could transform a range of professions including finance, healthcare, transportation and national security. At the very least, the impact of AI will mean rethinking the nature of contemporary higher education systems.

Adapting the current labor force to the era of AI will mean marrying human intelligence and machine intelligence in new and creative ways. This includes developing educational programs tailored to improving AI-driven technologies— engineering, data science, software development and interface design. But beyond basic numeracy and literacy, advanced competencies that build on human ingenuity will become foundational to an era of accelerating innovation. The future workforce needs to have the skills to do the jobs that AI cannot.

Creativity in the Age of Automation

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Rising anxiety about technological unemployment parallels fears of machine production in the early 20th century. But just as previous generations managed to adapt their societies to steam power and electricity, so must we develop the policies and planning for the Age of Automation. As new waves of automation displace a wide range of labor, it is likely that technology will now be complementary to new kinds of creative work.

As studies demonstrate, creative problem-solving, people management and social intelligence remain significant bottlenecks to AI. These “soft” skills will only increase in value as AI matures. As the British think tank Nesta concludes, human creativity remains the only strategic response to automation. In order to avoid being made redundant, future workers will need to work with machine intelligence and improvise in ways that AI simply cannot.

Even as disruptive technologies like AI begin to transform post-industrial societies, advanced economies will increasingly need educational programs that focus on “big picture” thinking. This includes the ability to think critically and integrate knowledge across domains. It also includes the need to examine questions of ethics and forecasting as well as sustainable design within the context of accelerating technological change.

Marrying technology with the humanities and the liberal arts

students enter and exit university building

Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple, understood the nature of innovation – that innovation emerges at the intersection of technology, the humanities and the liberal arts. Bridging technology with the humanities and the liberal arts will be critical to generating the kinds of intuitive thinkers that understand the future. The challenge moving forward is to better understand how to prepare schools and universities for an era of creativity and innovation.

Unfortunately, as the British journalist George Monbiot points out, schools and universities established for the industrial era were not designed for fostering creativity and innovation. Monbiot is right. The main problem with our current education system is that it was designed for the needs of a factory workforce in the 19th century, not a creative workforce in the 21st century. As our societies adapt to new waves of technological disruption, the design of higher education will need to meet a new and different standard

The value of humanities and liberal arts programs is that they focus on the study of context. That is, how people process and document the human experience. AI is a technology that is transforming every facet of human experience, forcing leaders and governments to rethink how we manage our organizations and safeguard our living environment. As postindustrial societies are reconfigured around a working class made up of robots, liberal arts programs will be critical to shaping the future of human development.

The value of humanities and liberal arts programs is that they focus on the study of context. That is, how people process and document the human experience.

Reinventing higher education

On the other hand, there is also a need to transform the nature of liberal arts and humanities programs themselves. Marrying technology with the liberal arts and humanities could mean extensive opportunities for artists and designers to build on the disruptive capabilities of machine intelligence.

At MIT, for example, the Mellon-funded programs in Digital Humanities focus on creating computer tools for enhancing humanities education. At Bates College, a liberal arts college in Maine, a program has been developed to deliberately combine liberal arts education with digital and computational studies.

Progressive educational policies that experiment with new forms of learning and education will become increasingly important to reinventing higher education. Bridging critical thinking and digital humanities with technology and design, liberal arts and humanities programs could begin generating the kinds of visionary thinkers that can effectively respond to accelerating technological change.

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