Robot-Proof: How Colleges Can Keep People Relevant in the Workplace

January 27, 2016

A report this month from the World Economic Forum says 5.1 million jobs could be lost over the next five years because of automation. In 2013 a study from the University of Oxford found that about 47 percent of jobs in the United States are at risk from automation. Those statistics lie at the heart of a popular narrative of doom: the robot revolution in the workplace.

According to a continuing spate of books, articles, and studies, advances in the processing power of artificial intelligence are sending us down a cybernetic rabbit hole in which human labor no longer commands value. As computers climb to previously unheard of levels of sophistication, sectors like transportation, nursing, and even legal services may be poised for a machine takeover.

That robot ascendancy poses a trenchant question for higher education. Among the many important outcomes we expect, one is to prepare students for meaningful occupations. If workers are fast becoming irrelevant, then how and why should we educate them? Like daguerreotypists, will we quietly shuffle off into history?

The fact is, a college education, updated to reflect the roboticized economy, is every worker’s best hope. But we need to rethink its focus. Given a world in which machines will perform much of what we view as knowledge work, colleges will have to reduce their emphasis on knowledge transfer, and pivot to building students’ capacity for coming up with original ideas.

If we do that, the dawn of the robot age will be an opportunity, not a threat. By taking on so many aspects of the knowledge work that human beings do today, robots and computers will free us to focus on more-interesting tasks. They’ll give us the liberty to discover the infinite mysteries of our world and ourselves. They may even free us to form a vibrant, new creator class.

Because for all of their dazzling power, machines are incapable of plucking inspiration from the subconscious, forming a new theory of physics after seeing an apple fall to the ground, or seizing a window of opportunity to start a business. Those sorts of cognitive abilities are impervious to automation. They are, indeed, robot-proof.

The robot age invites people to be not drones, servants, or vagabonds, but creators. Technology will free us to ask questions that have never been posed, to envision beauty never before unveiled in the mind’s eye. To achieve this, though, we’ll need to educate people very differently.

In a paper published by the Roosevelt Institute this past summer, Roisin Ellison and Joe Hallgarten, of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, called for a remodeling of elementary and secondary education to teach creativity instead of "routine cognitive skills." Colleges, too, should heed that call.

Most colleges specialize in the business of transferring knowledge. They show every sign of continuing to do so. For instance, one of the most lauded trends in higher education is the rise of competency-based learning, which gives credit to students for demonstrating knowledge they acquired previously, and allows them to pro­gress through courses as quickly as they master the content.

Of course, everyone should master content. But while a future biologist will need plenty of baseline knowledge, computers may undertake much of the observational and analytical work she performs today. Her role will be to identify opportunities for research, directing computers to do it, and pushing her inquiries across disciplinary boundaries.

Our future biologist may, indeed, not work as a straightforward biologist, since career arcs will increasingly branch across different sectors. In a freelance or "gig" economy, successful workers will be flexible and inventive, quick to deliver services, products, or solutions on demand. Creativity will be their most valuable tool.

To flourish in such an economy, all students — regardless of their academic inclinations — will require a new literacy, supplementing their specializations with studies from other parts of the curricular spectrum. That literacy includes quantitative skills as well as humanities such as art and design. It broadens students’ viewpoints, pushes them to make connections, and helps them contemplate the deeper truths of human existence. Above all, it encourages exploration, hence creativity. Creativity doesn’t arise according to a rational sequence of steps. It strikes as the mind sifts through a wide range of concepts and experiences.

The biologist, for example, will continue to learn about cells and genomes, but she will also immerse herself in behavioral, social, and cultural studies to gain a more thorough understanding of human health and development. A history major will continue to study colonial settlements in New England but will use spatial-analysis programs to turn data into geographic visualizations.

Education is most powerful when it integrates classroom work with the world. To that end, experiential learning is another invaluable means to acquire robot-proof skills. Long-term internships impart independence, problem-solving skills, and teamwork. Original research trains students to redefine problems and generate ideas. Entrepreneurship provides students with opportunities to develop business plans and enact them. And through experiencing the world, students learn a broader, more empathetic way of thinking.

As machines fill an ever-larger role in our economy, our species could take a giant leap forward. By adapting to the realities of this next stage in our technological progress, colleges can ensure that untold fields of new learning — and new opportunity — will blossom in the light of human creativity.

Unlike our robots, we can imagine such a future. Higher education’s role is to ensure that we’re prepared for the challenge.

Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.