Universities, AI and the shake-up of things to come

Institutions planning for the future would be wise to talk to one of their artificial intelligence researchers

July 28, 2016
Group of blue robots facing camera
Source: iStock

If you are working on campus this summer, you may well be cursing the noise and commotion caused by the construction of another new lecture theatre, on the old humanities faculty car park.

These are obvious projects for UK universities to pursue in an environment of fierce competition over uncapped student numbers. Equally, there are serious potential pitfalls. One is the drain on reserves such projects entail – especially given the government’s expressed intention not to prop up institutions that lose out in the battle to attract bums to plush new seats.

Then there is the flipped classroom: the idea that students will increasingly access recorded lectures online, with face-to-face academic contact being reserved for seminars and tutorials. John Hennessy, president of Stanford University, pointed out in last week’s Times Higher Education that this technique appears to offer the same educational outcomes for 15 per cent less outlay. So wise universities will ensure that their new lecture theatres can be easily converted into spaces for small-group discussion.

But what if even those turn out to be surplus to requirements? Massive open online courses may not have swept the rug out from under traditional higher education in quite the way some of their more giddy proponents predicted back in 2012, but what if the fruits of university research into robotics and artificial intelligence end up destroying the employment market? Who will incur debts of £50,000 to enjoy the perks of campus life then?

Of course, predictions that robots will take all our jobs have been made for decades. And while many manufacturing roles have indeed been mechanised, many more service jobs have been created. The fact that the latter tend to be more cerebral has reassured many observers that such “graduate” jobs are immune to automation.

But, as our cover feature this week highlights, complacency would be foolish. Time and again, computers have achieved what was previously deemed impossible, and there seem to be any number of white-collar jobs well suited to their expanding skill sets. And even if cognitive and other artificial enhancements boost humans’ natural abilities, what company wouldn’t rather employ a tireless, unpaid, uncomplaining machine?

The fact that universities are not closely scanning this particular horizon was borne out by a feature published by THE at the end of last year about what universities might look like in 2030. Only one of the seven contributions from senior sector figures even mentioned artificial intelligence – and that was written by a computer scientist (“Future perfect?”, Features, 24 December 2015).

It is, of course, immensely difficult to state confidently what a silicon takeover of the workplace would actually entail. Would young people flock to university in ever greater numbers in a desperate scramble for the few jobs that offered an escape from grinding poverty? Or would governments pay all their citizens a basic income, rendering university attractive only to those relative few bent on a life of work or scholarship?

But if anyone has the expertise to at least make a stab at answering such questions, it is surely universities. Either way, don’t say you weren’t warned when your summer of 2030 is ruined by the automated thud of wrecking balls, flattening that derelict lecture theatre to make space for the androids to park their rocket ships.


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