A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 22, 2018

Why Most College Grads Aren't Ready For An Artificially-Intelligent World

It's not just mastering STEM disciplines, it's learning to adapt to new forces people may not fully understand but can be trained to optimize. JL

Douglas Belkin reports in the Wall Street Journal:

As many as one-third of American workers—about 50 million people—may need to find new lines of work by 2030, according to a report projecting the impact of artificial intelligence and automation on the labor market. To provide a robot-proof education: understanding how to interact with machines; understanding this flow of information and how to make sense of it; human literacy, what we as humans do that machines are not able to, such as creativity, innovation, work with others, be global, be culturally agile.
Are the robots coming for your job? As many as one-third of American workers—about 50 million people—may need to find new lines of work by 2030, according to a McKinsey & Co report released in December projecting the impact of artificial intelligence and automation on the labor market.
The prediction is the latest in a long series of warning shots fired across the bow of the American labor force. Be prepared to be smarter, think faster, work more creatively—or risk being unemployed.
But how exactly do you do that?
Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University, says a lifetime of education is the key. He spoke with The Wall Street Journal about his new book, “Robot-Proof,” which includes a blueprint for higher education in the age of artificial intelligence, and about the roles of employers and the government in keeping people productively employed. Following are edited excerpts of that discussion.
A new kind of education
WSJ: There are a lot of predictions out there about how big an impact artificial intelligence is going to have on the job market. What’s yours?
DR. AOUN: What everybody agrees on is the fact that jobs are going to disappear, others will be transformed, and new jobs will be created. The difference that you see is the scope. Some people are projecting up to 50% of the jobs disappearing. It’s going to be less, but it’s going to happen. It’s happening as we speak.
WSJ: Do you think universities are preparing their students for a job market where artificial intelligence is embedded into everyday life?
DR. AOUN: Overall, I don’t think it is happening. We’re still focusing on learning in academic silos, and we don’t have enough integration across academic disciplines.
WSJ: How do you provide a robot-proof education?
DR. AOUN: First, a curriculum based on the integration of three curricula: One is technological literacy, understanding how machines work, how to interact with machines, etc. The second is data literacy, understanding this enormous flow of information and how to navigate it and how to make sense of it. Third is human literacy, what we as humans do that machines are not able to replicate, such as creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, the ability to be empathetic with others, the ability to work with others, understand their body language, work in teams, be global, be culturally agile.
The other point is that it’s not enough to talk about creativity, it’s not enough to talk about entrepreneurship, it’s not enough to talk about cultural agility in the classroom and to study that. You have to practice it. You have to experience it. This is why experiential education is essential, the integration of the classroom experience with world experience. By doing that, you come to understand the world, you come to understand yourself, and you come to understand the opportunities that exist, what you are good at, what you are not good at, how you can innovate, how you can create, how can you launch a new idea.
WSJ: So your argument is that while artificial intelligence will be able to out-process or outwork human beings, it will remain limited to narrow channels, and an education should teach people to think across those channels to innovate?
DR. AOUN: Yes. The creativity, entrepreneurship, that ability to work with others in teams, the ability to be empathetic and the ability to be culturally agile, those are not something that computers, that AI, are good at.
Let me give you an example. There is something called Idea [a Northeastern University program that helps students develop business ideas]. Students come and launch products. In order for them to do that, they need to have the idea, they need to have a business plan, they need to get funders from outside to come and fund them. And they need to work across systems, because a person in engineering cannot do it by herself. She needs people in business, in design, etc.
You need to practice being in a situation where you can convince people of something, work with other humans, understand them, see what moves them and how you can move them.
WSJ: What about adults who are already in the workforce?
DR. AOUN: Society has to provide ways, and higher education has to provide ways, for people to re-educate themselves, reskill themselves or upskill themselves.
That is the part that I see that higher education has not embraced. That’s where there is an enormous opportunity. We look at lifelong learning in higher education as an ancillary operation, as a second-class operation in many cases. We dabble with it, we try to make money out of it, but we don’t embrace it as part of our core mission.

Government’s role
WSJ: Republicans in the House recently proposed a new higher-education act. Do you have a sense of how effectively the federal government is dealing with this train that is barreling toward us?
DR. AOUN: We looked into that. We did a word search [in the bill] and looked for artificial intelligence and looked at lifelong learning, etc. It has 532 pages. There was no mention of AI at all.
Lifelong learning is the most important aspect here, and it requires incentives for companies and organizations to provide opportunities for employees for lifelong learning. In the U.S., our financial aid has been geared mostly to people who are in a traditional college framework, which is for four years. We need to go beyond that. We need to incentivize people to go for certificates, to go for constant re-education and upskilling.
WSJ: What else do you feel is off about our government’s approach to higher education?
DR. AOUN: I would provide incentives that will bring employers and higher education together, to codesign curricula and codesign a program that will impact the workforce directly and will allow them to move forward.
Also, we need more incentives for experiential learning. Financial aid is leading you to take courses. But we need to incentivize the people who are going to go and focus also on the internships, co-ops, work study.
And I recommend a national board on higher-education innovation, to bring together people from higher education and industries to work with government on meeting the challenge of the AI age.
People are going to be displaced dramatically, in terms of jobs, and society has an obligation to give them the opportunity to remain relevant, to find new jobs in new fields. We need to find ways to educate them wherever they are and whenever they need it.
WSJ: The English degree of tomorrow will differ how much from the English degree of last year?
DR. AOUN: Let me give you an example. We have here at Northeastern a vibrant digital humanities center. They are looking at text from a social perspective, like every English department. However, they integrated data scientists and network scientists to work with them, and they are working together, for instance, on the concept of fake news historically, in previous centuries and today. The silos are breaking down.


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