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President Aoun underscores higher ed’s obligation to help students become ‘robot-proof’

President Joseph E. Aoun speaks with Kara Miller, host of WGBH radio's Innovation Hub, on Monday afternoon in East Village. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

As machines get smarter and robots and artificial intelligence reshape and disrupt the industries and jobs of tomorrow, what is the role of higher education in this complex, evolving landscape?

For Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun, the answer is simple: “Higher education needs to change in order to make people robot-proof. That’s our mission, and that’s our obligation.”

Aoun delivered this call to action Monday afternoon at a standing-room only event in East Village, where he sat down with Kara Miller, host of WGBH radio’s Innovation Hub, for an in-depth discussion on the topic.

“Higher education needs to change in order to make people robot-proof. That’s our mission, and that’s our obligation.”

Joseph E. Aoun Northeastern President

Aoun explores the subject in his new book, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Robots and AI, Aoun argues, will change and eliminate myriad jobs, but they will also create new ones. In his book, Aoun proposes a way to educate the next generation of college students to invent, to create, and to discover—to fill needs in society that even the most sophisticated artificial intelligence agent cannot. This involves mastering new literacies: technological literacy, data literacy, and human literacy. He lays out a framework for a new discipline—humanics—that builds on our innate human strengths and prepares students to compete in a labor market in which smart machines work alongside human professionals.

The people who succeed, he says, will be those who can leverage these skills and go beyond their core competencies to work well with other people, think ethically and entrepreneurially, and be both culturally agile and strong leaders—traits in which humans will always have an advantage over robots.

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Robots and AI, Aoun said, are disrupting a wide range of industries and jobs—particularly those that are based on processes that can be captured by automation. He pointed to estimates that close to 50 percent of U.S. jobs we know today will have disappeared in 20 years. Miller noted that automation is most often associated with blue-collar jobs, but that white-collar jobs are just as susceptible to disruption.

Aoun said his inspiration for the book stems from Northeastern’s global leadership in experiential education—particularly its signature co-op program—that involves integrating the classroom experience with the real-world experience. What’s more, Northeastern is integrating experiential learning throughout its programs and curriculum, including doctoral education.

President Joseph E. Aoun signs a copy of his book, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, for a student. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

As part of the goal of becoming “robot-proof,” Miller asked Aoun whether there are courses—regardless of the discipline—that students should be taking that they don’t take nearly enough. He answered that students must broaden their horizons and take courses that aren’t in their domains. Complement your strengths by learning about new fields, new disciplines, and the world, he said. Experiential learning, he added, is also a critical aspect of—and avenue for—expanding their knowledge base.

Being ‘robot-proof’ is a lifelong endeavor

Aoun fielded several questions from audience members and others watching on live on Facebook. One student asked how to “measure” one’s level of being robot-proof. Aoun said it’s a constant, lifelong endeavor. “You’re not robot-proof once and for all,” he said. “That’s lifelong learning.”

A handful of others asked what becoming robot-proof means for students studying the arts. One freshman, a computer science major, noted that he’s read about artificial intelligence producing works of art and music. Aoun responded that robots would never replace us entirely, underscoring humans’ vital and unique role in solving society’s grandest challenges.

“When you have poverty, when you have a flood, when you have a crisis, when you see people jumping to help others, a machine isn’t going to worry about the rest of the world or your neighborhood,” he said. “A machine is not going to create a new theory that will change the way we look at the world.”

“A machine isn’t going to push for things to become unacceptable” in our society, he said, pointing to examples such as dictatorships, bigotry, and racism.