Are academics already on the way to being replaced by AI?

Human beings may struggle to maintain their place in tomorrow’s highly mechanised universities, claims sociologist

October 5, 2018
Robots at a blackboard
Source: Getty

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.”


Print headline: Are human academics already on the way out?

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Reader's comments (3)

In short, yes, Because this future is almost a forgone conclusion. Already we have Managerial Cult VC's acting -some hilariously even looking- like R2D2 tickbox target setting, league table & metric madness obsessed robots with work-hobbies that include closing down research centres and making the lives of all academic staff as miserable as they think they can get away with whilst paying themsleves extortionate salaries. They employ unpublished non-doctoral sociopathic anti-academic middle managers. These managerialism mongers and other binary-thinking individuals have risen to the top in managing what proper academics do. Why? Because they keep applying for the jobs that no decent academic wants. Eventually they get employed and then employ more like them. Then they adopt the made-up nonsense dogma of managerialism and impose it on everyone. Soon universities will all be run by robots.
In fairness human's haven't done a brilliant job with the education system as a whole so far - let's give the robot's a chance and see how they get on. I see a future that combines the best of The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and Blade Runner.
THE should be embarrassed for publishing silly claims about AI by a non-expert without talking with someone who works in AI. There are tasks that academics do that could be supported or done by machine. But not to that extent. #AIHype