How College Students Should Prepare for Our Automated Future

4 minute read

Aoun is president of Northeastern University and the author of Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.

Economists across the political spectrum agree that the single biggest threat to future job growth is neither immigration nor trade — it’s the artificial intelligence revolution already underway. Studies by Oxford University, McKinsey and Pricewaterhouse Coopers forecast that up to 50% of current jobs could be replaced by smart machines within the next 20 years. Already, more than 5 million U.S. factory jobs have been lost to automation since 2000. It’s become clear: If a job can be automated in the future, it will be.

What’s less clear is how educational institutions — the incubators of human talent — will respond to this sea change in the future of work. Despite being the envy of the world, American universities have been slow to modernize — too often educating students for 20th century career fields that will be obsolete by the time they graduate. Beyond simply conferring degrees, the foundational purpose of colleges and universities must be to educateand that means equipping people of all ages, at all stages of their careers, to build successful and fulfilling lives. This means we need to take several important steps to make our students robot-proof.

First, we must design and implement a curriculum that empowers humans to do those jobs only humans can do. Call it humanics. This curriculum provides students with three literacies: technical literacy, data literacy and human literacy (such as teamwork, entrepreneurship, creativity, ethics and cultural agility). Then it integrates them, allowing learners to develop a creative mindset and the mental elasticity to invent, discover and produce original ideas in the A.I. age. Even as smart machines become smarter, we will still need humans to launch new companies, engage in global diplomacy, and supervise diverse teams of other people.

But a modernized curriculum will not be enough. Students must also gain workplace experience before fully entering the workforce — to deepen their understanding beyond “what” into “why” and “how.” For example, an engineering student might leverage her classroom studies in circuitry design during an internship at Waymo, Google’s autonomous vehicle project. By integrating firsthand experience with intelligent machines with her academic work, she learns agility and adaptability, and, most important, she learns how to continue learning.

We must also recognize that technological progress doesn’t come with a brake pedal. As machines get smarter, the shelf life of a human education gets shorter. It’s time to end to the fiction that four years of college, plus a smattering of graduate studies, is enough to last a lifetime.

For-profit educational providers were early adopters that recognized the growing demand for lifelong learning, as have many employers. Some, like General Electric, have adopted in-house bachelor-completion programs. Others, such as IBM, offer an extensive array of educational badges and credentials. Non-profit universities must embrace the opportunity to serve nontraditional students, who today comprise 85% of all learners.

Lifelong learning must become a central facet of what universities do, not an ancillary endeavor. This means authentic, sustainable partnerships with industry to design courses that fill competency gaps employers actually need. It means going to where the learners are, providing them with an educational roadmap customized for every walk of life. And it likely means access to a multi-campus network, in which learners circulate among nodes across the country and around the globe — where they live and work.

The economic stakes are high. The well-being of societies has long been tethered to vibrant systems of higher education. By rising to the challenge of artificial intelligence, universities with the audacity to change represent humanity’s best chance to win the jobs of the future.

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