The advancement of artificial intelligence means more high-skilled jobs are within the capability of smart machines. How should higher education adapt to prepare students to thrive in this new and fast-changing economy?

Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun explores this challenge in his new book, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Below is an excerpt from the book that addresses the rise of A.I., higher education’s transformation, and the future of work.

Robot Proof Book Cover

Chapter 1

Just as our ancestors could not compete with a steam engine in pulling a load of coal along a railway track, we cannot compete with thinking machines for their sheer brainpower and computational heft. In 1996, Garry Kasparov could not outthink Deep Blue, the chess-playing IBM supercomputer, and since then machines have had twenty years of exponential growth in processing power. As such, the most useful education for today’s age will not teach people just how to calculate chess moves or pull metaphorical coal. It will teach people how to do what machines cannot. This means educating people to think in ways that cannot be imitated by networks of machines.

Until now, keeping ahead of technology meant escalating levels of education. The ability to read a handbook once qualified you to operate a mechanical loom; a high school diploma was all the schooling you needed for a lifetime on the factory floor. A college degree was once enough to put you behind a manager’s desk, while a master of business administration or law degree opened the doors to the boardroom and the corner office. Look at the LinkedIn profiles of successful tech workers today, and you often will find that they have a master’s degree in information technology or project management. But because machines are becoming exponentially smarter, we will need more than simply greater amounts of education to keep pace.

Nor will we simply need education in the content that currently is in vogue among employers. One of higher education’s primary purposes has always been to impart content, but intelligent machines are upending the utility of simply knowing things. Information is now instant, ubiquitous, and free. As a result, we need an education that teaches people to learn throughout their lives, bolstering their talents to do what machines cannot.

Which raises a question: what are human beings singularly good at doing? Compared to other animals, we have enormous brains and a knack for digital manipulation that makes us deft with sharpened stones or computer keyboards. But unlike economic eras of the past, we no longer are comparing ourselves to other animals. Robots and advanced machines will soon surpass our most obvious evolutionary strengths, dwarfing us in cognition, precision, and power. But human beings also have evolved as supremely social animals. To survive, our offspring required the social bonds of family and tribe and the imprint of learned knowledge—in other words, of education. This mental flexibility—the ability to learn to speak Mandarin, to catch antelope, or to ride a bicycle—is perhaps our species’ greatest survival tactic. At an early age, we can learn almost anything and adapt to any cultural circumstance.

Another result of our sociability is what the historian Yuval Noah Harari, channeling Lewis Carroll, calls “the ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast.” We can invent, communicate, and buy into social fictions and abstract concepts (such as money) that unite us and allow us to work together in vast numbers, far exceeding the social capacities of other animals. These fictions can be myths, religions, or ideologies; they can be ideas like human rights, market economics, or national identities. The unique power of these fictions is that they enable us to cooperate on scales vastly larger—to the point of abstraction—than those of our genetic groups or physical communities.

In other words, we have evolved to imagine. We have evolved to be creative. Other animals apply intelligence to solving problems: crows fashion tools to pluck bugs out of wood, and sea otters wield rocks to crack clamshells. But only human beings are able to create imaginary stories, invent works of art, and even construct carefully reasoned theories explaining perceived reality. Only human beings can look at the moon and see a goddess or step on it say we are taking a leap for all mankind. Creativity combined with mental flexibility has made us unique—and the most successful species on the planet. They will continue to be how we distinguish ourselves as individual actors in the economy. Whatever the field or profession, the most important work that human beings perform will be its creative work. That is why our education should teach us how to do it well.

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