Robot-Proof Skills Require Lifelong Learning

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Uncertainty about the impact advancing technology will have on the future of employment is causing anxiety for workers and employers around the globe. Joseph E. Aoun’s new book, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (MIT, 2017), responds to this anxiety by offering insights and recommendations for how colleges and universities can better equip students to succeed in the 21st century.

A renowned scholar, higher education policy expert, and President of Northeastern University, Aoun focuses his analysis on higher education, but the book is relevant for other non-academic entities committed to preparing people—especially young people—for a future they don’t have to fear.

Today, robots and other smart machines perform tasks once thought to be the sole domain of human minds and bodies: from assembling products on a line, to driving cars, to performing intricate surgeries. No job is necessarily robot-proof. “Labor experts are increasingly and justifiably worried,” Aoun writes, “that computers are becoming so adept at human capabilities that soon there will be no need for human input at all” (page x). Whether automation will create more net jobs than it eliminates is unclear, but a recent McKinsey Global Institute report estimates that by 2030, 14 percent of the global workforce—between 75 and 375 million human workers—will be required to change “occupational categories” as a consequence of automation.

Aoun acknowledges this reality, emphasizing that how we prepare is critical. “If the work of tomorrow demands more from us, we must demand more from our education," he writes (page 47). Aoun argues for a new model of learning, which he calls “humanics” because it emphasizes the development of skills and capacities that are uniquely human. Below are four key takeaways: 

  • Human literacy skills are needed for the future. When it comes to absorbing hard facts and knowledge, robots are far more adept than even the smartest humans—we simply can’t compete. But, Aoun argues, with respect to skills like creative problem solving, conflict resolution, communication, and the ability to work on a team—skills that will become increasingly valuable in the workplaces of the future—humans have the upper hand. These skills should be a fundamental part of a young person’s education; however, they are often neglected at all levels of education. Aoun refers to this set of indispensable competencies as “human literacy” skills. Hard skills like mathematics, language, and science are also important, but, he says, “The view that mastery of facts and knowledge is what makes a person ‘smart’ or ‘prepared’ is a lopsided view of human intelligence—and never more so than in the present moment” (page 51). 
  • Experiential learning will help hone our competitive human edge. A young person’s education should involve theoretical learning—the kind that takes place in a traditional classroom, for example—but equally important is experiential learning, where the learner applies acquired knowledge to novel, real-world situations. This sophisticated cognitive operation is called far transfer, and machines are not adept at it; however, as Aoun points out, many humans struggle with it, too. He argues that integrating experiential learning into traditional education models will allow students to learn on a much deeper level, exercise critical and divergent thinking skills, strengthen creativity, and develop mental adaptability. “When human learners are immersed in the incalculable variety of experience, they escape the strictures of predetermined input—which computers can’t do” (page 80).   
  • Lifelong learning is required to keep up with advancing technology. Developing our human literacy skills and cognitive capacities through experiential learning fosters a growth mindset, which is needed if one is to become a lifelong learner, something Aoun regards as perhaps the most important step to robot-proofing. “[A]s machines advance,” he writes, “all people will need to retool, refresh, and advance their knowledge and skill sets on an ongoing basis” (page 113). In our 21st century world, education can no longer be restricted to a traditional classroom, and it cannot be regarded as ending with the completion of a degree program. Aoun argues that institutions of higher education must create different learning opportunities for the diverse needs of individual lifelong learners—for example, a career-targeted credential program for young people for whom a formal 4-year education isn’t the right option, or even possible. The ability—and opportunity—of human workers to learn for life “may well be the difference between their professional evolution and their economic extinction” (page 120).
  • Robot-proofing people for success will require multi-sector partnerships. If higher education is to remodel its approach to meet the needs of the 21st century lifelong learner, they won’t be able to do so alone. To best equip a young person for success in a given field, Aoun explains, universities will need to work collaboratively with employers to understand the specific demands of the job and the lay of the labor landscape. “Today,” he writes, “the relationship between higher education and employers is all too often a loose coupling” (page 143). He suggests that these partnerships may involve other actors, too, such as governments; while he does not specifically include non-profit organizations like IYF, one imagines that such partnerships could also be fruitful—in better understanding, for example, aspirations, needs, and unique challenges faced by the youth populations we serve.

Much has been written recently about the future of work. In Robot-Proof, Joseph E. Aoun clearly synthesizes many different aspects of this timely conversation, while adding unique and important insights about the intersecting roles of technology, education, and employment.

Ultimately, the outlook Aoun presents is positive because it reminds us that, while it won’t be easy, the future is still in human hands to shape.

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