Prepare for the time of the robots

COMMENT

I was recently offered the presidency of a university in Kazakhstan that focuses primarily on business, economics and law, and that teaches these subjects in a narrow, albeit intellectually rigorous, way. I am considering the job but I have a few conditions.

What I have proposed is to transform the university into an institution where students continue to concentrate on these three disciplines but must also complete a rigorous “core curriculum” in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences — including computer science and statistics. Students would also need to choose a minor in one of the humanities or social sciences.

There are many reasons for insisting on this transformation but the most compelling one, from my perspective, is the need to prepare future graduates for a world in which artificial intelligence and AI-assisted technology play an increasingly dominant role. To succeed in the workplace of tomorrow, students will need new skills.

Over the next 50 years or so, as AI and machine learning become more powerful, human labour will be cannibalised by technologies that outperform people in nearly every job function.

Higher education must prepare students for this eventuality. Assuming AI will transform the future of work in our students’ lifetime, educators must consider what skills graduates will need when humans can no longer compete with robots.


It is not hard to predict that rote tasks will disappear first. This transition is already occurring in some rich countries but will take longer in places like Kazakhstan. Once this trend picks up pace, however, populations will adjust accordingly.

For centuries, communities grew as economic opportunities expanded. For example, farmers had bigger families as demand for products increased, requiring more labour to deliver goods to consumers.

But the world’s current population is unsustainable. As AI moves deeper into the workplace, jobs will disappear, employment will decline, and populations will shrink accordingly. That is good in principle — the planet is already bursting at the seams — but it will be difficult to manage in the short term, as the pace of population decline will not compensate for job losses amid the robot revolution.

For this reason, the next generation of human labour — today’s university students — requires specialised training to thrive. At the same time, and perhaps more than ever before, they need the kind of education that allows them to think broadly and to make unusual and unexpected connections across many fields.

Clearly, tomorrow’s leaders will need an intimate familiarity with computers — from basic programming to neural networks — to understand how machines controlling productivity and analytic processes function. But graduates will also need experience in psychology, if only to grasp how a computer’s “brain” differs from their own. And workers of the future will require training in ethics, to help them navigate a world in which the value of human beings can no longer be taken for granted.

Educators preparing students for this future must start now. Business majors should study economic and political history to avoid becoming blind determinists. Economists must learn from engineering students because it will be engineers building the future workforce.

And law students should focus on the intersection of big data and human rights, so that they gain the insight that will be needed to defend people from forces that may seek to turn individuals into disposable parts.

Even students studying creative and leisure disciplines must learn differently. For one thing, in an AI-dominated world, people will need help managing their extra time; we won’t stop playing tennis just because robots start winning Wimbledon. But new organisational and communication skills will be required to help navigate changes in how humans create and play. Managing these industries will take new skills tailored to a fully AI world.

The future of work may look nothing like the scenarios I envision or it may be far more disruptive; no one really knows. But higher education has a responsibility to prepare students for every possible scenario — even those that today appear to be barely plausible. The best strategy for educators in any field, and at any time, is to teach skills that make humans human, rather than training students to outcompete new technologies.

No matter where I work in education, preparing young people for their futures will always be my job. And today, that future looks to be dominated by machines. To succeed, educators, and the universities we inhabit, must evolve. — © Project Syndicate 1995–2018

Andrew Wachtel is president of the American University of Central Asia

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