In the coming age of advanced artificial intelligence, will there be any point in having human lecturers and researchers?
That was the question posed by Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte chair in social epistemology at the University of Warwick, in a seminar at the University of Bath’s International Centre for Higher Education Management.
We are witnessing “a sort of regimentation of the human academics, so that they become more like the information technologies which end up replacing them”, he explained to Times Higher Education.
The peer review process, for example, “puts a certain kind of straitjacket on what you can convey in an academic article, the style of writing, the very modular way it has to be structured. That modularisation already lends itself to a kind of mechanisation, but in addition there’s the whole citation culture, which means that if you want to make any kind of claim, you have to build it on the back of other claims. It doesn’t take much imagination…The research culture has become a search engine culture.”
Within a generation, Professor Fuller predicted, “AI will be able to do some of the research work precisely because the bounds within which acceptable academic research is done are so narrow”.
Initially this might take the form of texts drafted by computer and revised by humans. But in the longer term, AI systems – unconstrained by intellectual fashions – might be able to “mine the metadata” across far more disciplines than a single researcher and come up with new insights.
In terms of teaching, Professor Fuller went on, the trend towards more “consumer-driven” higher education means that academics have to “take their instruction from students who want the material presented at the pace at which they can learn…The very idea that you have to have PowerPoints, that the lesson is already out there to be digested even before you’ve given it, makes it kind of superfluous for there to be a human being delivering it.”
If all this seems depressing, Professor Fuller said that he suspects “there will always be a role for human teachers”, particularly at the elite end of the sector – where students might be willing to pay a premium for “the live experience of the classroom” – and that we will still need “human researchers who are doing the truly creative work, the unpredictable stuff that you can’t do with just a clever search engine operating over a large amount of data. But you wouldn’t need to have many of them.”