Book Review of Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
by Joseph E. Aoun; Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017
Book review by Chris Mayer
Advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data will radically change the nature of work. Predictions on the impact of these advances range from the elimination of many types of jobs to the automation of a significant number of tasks. What is certain is that employees will need different types of skills to adapt to these changes, and higher education must play a central role in responding to this need.
It is with this future in mind that Joseph Aoun has written Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Aoun, President of Northeastern University, proposes a new model of higher education that he believes will enable college graduates to succeed in a workforce where “any predictable work – including many jobs considered ‘knowledge economy jobs’ – are now within the purview of machines.”[efn_note]Joseph E. Aoun, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence[/efn_note] Because of the importance of preparing students for success after graduation, Robot-Proof should be on the reading list of higher education leaders.
In the introduction, Aoun identifies two questions that provide a framework for the book:
1) How should we be preparing people for this fast-changing world?
2) How should education be used to help people in the professional and economic spheres?[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, xv.[/efn_note]
Aoun addresses these questions by providing context for and describing the challenges facing those entering and already in the workforce, identifying what skills employers desire, and proposing how colleges and universities can change to better prepare students for workforce success. A theme that runs throughout the book is that while machines will soon perform most predictable work, they will not be able to replicate the uniquely human skill of creativity. Therefore, higher education needs to prioritize the development of students into creators.[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, xvi.[/efn_note]
The task of chapter one is to discuss the relationship people have with technology and explain why the fourth industrial revolution is different from other industrial revolutions. From the Luddite resistance to technology, to post-war America’s concerns about the impact of technology on labor, Aoun demonstrates how technological advances often create fear.[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 5, 6.[/efn_note] He also maps the trajectory of technological advancements with the history and shifting purpose of higher education in the United States, showing that one of higher education’s roles has become to help students acquire the knowledge and skills needed to secure and advance in meaningful careers.[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 11.[/efn_note] Given this role and the change being brought by technology, colleges and universities must adapt if they are to effectively prepare their students for the future.
Aoun offers the employer perspective in chapter two. He begins by demonstrating how technology has enabled the automation of tasks in occupations such as banking[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 29.[/efn_note] and law[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 31.[/efn_note]. Readers then encounter examples of the types of skills employers are seeking in their employees, which include leadership, teamwork, the ability to write and solve problems[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 27.[/efn_note], innovation, curiosity,[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 38.[/efn_note] and critical and systems thinking.[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 42.[/efn_note] These types of uniquely human skills are discussed throughout the book.
In chapter three Aoun introduces humanics and its three literacies, a framework he thinks should inform developmental goals for students given employers’ needs and technological advances. Humanics is defined as a “new model of learning that enables learners to understand the highly technical world around them and that simultaneously allows them to transcend it by nurturing the mental and intellectual qualities that are unique to humans.”[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 53.[/efn_note]
Technological literacy is “knowledge of mathematics, coding and basic engineering principles.”[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 55.[/efn_note] Data literacy prepares students to “understand and utilize Big Data through analysis.”[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 57.[/efn_note] Finally, human literacy, the one that Aoun thinks is the most important, prepares students “to communicate, engage with others, and tap into our human capacity for grace and beauty.”[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 59.[/efn_note]
Aoun focuses on pedagogy in chapter four. Experiential learning, not lectures, is the best method of enabling student achievement of the goals presented in chapter three, which concurs with research on how people learn. Aoun thinks an essential aspect of experiential learning is that it “integrates classroom and real-world experiences” through activities such as “internships, co-ops, work-study hubs, global experiences, and original research opportunities,”[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 81.[/efn_note] which are all activities that the Association for American Colleges and Universities consider high-impact practices because of their significant impact on student learning.[efn_note]“High-Impact Practices,” Association of American Colleges and Universities, https://www.aacu.org/resources/high-impact-practices (as of April 12, 2019).[/efn_note]
Aoun mentions various studies that demonstrate why experiential learning is effective and proposes that an important benefit of this type of learning is far transfer, which is the ability to apply skills and knowledge learned in one context to a dissimilar context.[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 85.[/efn_note] Aoun proposes that “far transfer is our [human] competitive advantage over machines” and allows us to exercise creative thinking, entrepreneurialism, and cultural agility.[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 87.[/efn_note]
The last chapter of the book makes the case that students need to become lifelong learners, and that colleges and universities will need to adjust to accommodate older students and work with employers and the learners themselves to design curricula. Included throughout the chapter are examples of lifelong learning opportunities, such as a program to help liberal arts graduates become computer scientists,[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 123.[/efn_note] boot camps that are separate from and part of traditional institutions,[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 129.[/efn_note] and learning opportunities for alumni.[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 133.[/efn_note]
Aoun ends the book by urging higher education and employers to work together by collaborating on program development to ensure that programs are effectively preparing students for the workforce. Aoun also returns to the idea of preparing students to be creators as he predicts that “the roles human beings fill will be largely concerned with creativity.”[efn_note]Aoun, Robot Proof, 148.[/efn_note]
Robot-Proof is an important book for higher education leaders as it can help them learn and think about the fast pace of change in the workplace and what this means for how they develop students. It can help academic institutions think about the public’s concern that institutions and their leaders are disconnected from work, and that this leads to graduates who are unprepared for the workforce. Robot-Proof would be especially useful for a campus leader reading group or for those about to embark on curricular change.
This article is from our May 1, 2019 issue. Read the full newsletter here!
About the author:
Chris Mayer is Associate Dean for Strategy and Initiatives and an Associate Professor at the United States Military Academy (West Point). He teaches courses in the areas of moral philosophy, the ethics of war, political philosophy, and the philosophy of religion, and his research focuses on ethical theory, the ethics of war, and higher education. He serves as an evaluator and workshop leader for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and was a Teagle Assessment Scholar with the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College from 2011-2018. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Virginia, an M.A. in philosophy from Virginia Tech, and a B.S from the United States Military Academy.