AI is the future but universities must retain the values of the past

Asian universities in particular are embracing a technological future, but they should bear in mind the words of two wise Americans, says Alice Gast

February 1, 2018
Dale Edwin Murray illustration (1 February 2018)
Source: Dale Edwin Murray

The commitment of Asian nations to higher education and to research and development bodes well for their future, and positions them to take advantage of the technological revolution that is sweeping the world. 

At the heart of this revolution is artificial intelligence and machine learning. The defeat of the world’s Go champion by DeepMind’s AlphaGo last year demonstrated that machines are becoming increasingly effective at overcoming complexity. The practical applications of this are both far-reaching and exciting. At the same time, it raises questions about what universities need to do to take full advantage of the possibilities before them.

This is a watershed moment, and for lessons in how universities can best approach it, we should look back in time, to another watershed moment for research and higher education. More than 70 years ago, Vannevar Bush, an American engineer, academic, administrator, civil servant and Massachusetts Institute of Technology entrepreneur, submitted a report to the US president, Franklin Roosevelt. He called it Science, The Endless Frontier: a wonderful title that captures the essence of the pursuit of knowledge. Starting points are known, end points are not.

Bush was asked by Roosevelt to recommend what the US should do to share scientific knowledge, fight disease, advance research by public and private organisations and develop future generations of scientists and engineers. The idea was to capture the advances in scientific knowledge made during the Second World War and ensure that this progress would continue in peacetime.

Bush’s insights are of lasting importance, not just in the US but across the global higher education community. He said that science is a proper concern of government. He advocated for the importance of fundamental research. He urged the removal of financial barriers to education. He stressed the importance of international collaboration. And he emphasised the necessity of competent and inspired teaching of science. 

Fifty years later, another MIT figure, Chuck Vest, took on Bush’s mantle. During his 14 years as president of the institute, he was a forceful and untiring advocate for the importance of fundamental research and the need for government support of it.

Each year of his presidency, Vest wrote a letter to the MIT community in which he shared his thoughts on the issues of the day. These were later published as a book entitled Pursuing the Endless Frontier: Essays on MIT and the Role of Research Universities. His letter for 2000-2001 was titled: “Disturbing the Educational Universe: Universities in the Digital Age – Dinosaurs or Prometheans?” It dealt with the role of information technology in university education. He wrote: “Does the future of education, learning, and training belong to a new machine-based digital environment, or will the best learning remain a deeply human endeavor conducted person-to-person in a residential campus setting? I believe the answer is “Yes” – to both.” 

In his letters, Vest talked about the relationship between humans and machines. He wrote: “Machines cannot replace the magic that occurs when bright, creative young people live and learn together in the company of highly dedicated faculty.” He also stressed that in the digital age the emphasis of universities “should be on one thing – the enhancement of learning”.

But of all the wise things that he said, perhaps this is the most relevant point today: “Universities are our primary vehicle for educating talented men and women and for producing new knowledge, insight and techniques. In order to serve well, universities must balance continuity and change – continuity of their deeper values and guiding principles, and commitment to intellectual excellence and the life of the mind, are essential.”

Asian nations are among world leaders in their support of R&D. According to a 2016 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) on R&D spending, three of the top five countries for spending in absolute terms are in Asia. Of the six countries worldwide that invest at least 3 per cent of their gross domestic product in research, two are in Asia. And China’s average annual growth rate of more than 18 per cent in R&D spending far exceeds that of the rest of the world’s middle-income countries.

Clearly, Asian countries understand, as did Bush and Vest, that government support of research is crucial. But what else is needed? How should universities approach the exciting new world of AlphaGo? What should be top of mind?

I believe that core values are the answer. And I think that some of the core values that Bush and Vest advocated have withstood the test of time. One is that students are the most important and long-lasting output of higher education. The responsibility of universities is not just to make discoveries and impart knowledge to others: they must teach students to share knowledge. It is a university’s responsibility to provide students with the intellectual ability and confidence to adapt to changing times.

Another enduring value is that research and teaching are intertwined. New discoveries have, and should continue to be, shared in the lecture halls and laboratories. Advances in AI have the potential to bring professors and students closer by paving a two-way street between what is shared and what is questioned. Analysis by machines complements judgement by humans.

Third, collaboration is more important than ever. The explosion in data in areas such as the human microbiome, healthcare, financial markets and cosmology, is both exciting and daunting. AI is a tool to extract knowledge from these superhuman scales of information. Such opportunities bring together academics from broadly disparate disciplines in new ways, to discover new things.

The investment of Asian nations in research is essential for them to capture the opportunities of the technological revolution. But it is the commitment of universities to the core values of higher education that will ultimately determine the depth and distribution of the benefits produced during these exciting times.

Alice Gast is the president of Imperial College London. She will be giving a keynote address at THE’s Asia Universities Summit next week in Shenzen, China.

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