It’s official - up to 800 million global workers will be replaced by robots and AI by 2030. A rethink of education is needed to keep humans employed, but should universities be concerned about the robotic takeover?
It seems that everywhere you look these days there are articles about AI. It’s certainly the matter of the moment, but how can we best prepare our learners for the new careers that are being ushered in by these technologies? Moreover, how do universities need to change, and should we be concerned?
Dame Wendy Hall’s 2017 review of artificial intelligence concluded that “industry should sponsor a major programme of students to pursue masters’ courses in AI, with an initial cohort of 300 students”.
Further recommendations include creating an additional 200 PhD places dedicated to AI at leading universities, and the recently published Industrial Strategy white paper earmarks £30m funding to test the use of AI and innovative education technology in online courses.
What will future courses look like?
This short, $2,400 course is roughly equivalent to a masters’ degree and aims to take learners through key aspects of using AI to process images and sensor data from a self-driving car. This is one of the most challenging applications for AI, because real-world road conditions can be so unpredictable.
The nanodegree demonstrates how different AI courses could be to traditional graduate or postgraduate courses.
The course is largely self-paced learning from online material and is only several months long. Perhaps most significantly, there are no academic institutions involved in this course – learners get assigned industry mentors from the likes of Mercedes, BMW and Uber.
A wake up call
The real wake-up call for our universities is that, almost overnight, Udacity had over 30,000 people from all over the world wanting to take this course.
Could traditional degrees learn from the nanodegree’s flexibility and fast pace? It seems that’s what students want.
At Jisc, 22,000 students have told us recently that they want staff to be better with digital, not use more of it, and that they strongly value the convenience of online systems.
How could institutions replace people with AI?
Robotics and AI are also set to have a transformational effect on the business of being a higher education institution, too.
San Francisco startup Knightscope has been in the news recently after one of its robots was apparently being used by a customer to discourage homeless people from sheltering near their premises. Will we see our universities and colleges replacing their security guards and manual labour roles with robots?
This might seem farfetched, but Knightscope has priced its robots very competitively. At just $7 an hour, they’re far cheaper than hiring a security guard and the robots work all day and night with just the occasional break for charging. Could machines eventually sweep dorms, serve pints in the SU, or even do the day-to-day organisational admin?
We’ve already seen some signs of institutions using AI in a targeted way to help students, such as when Ashok Goel, a Professor at Georgia Institute of Technology introduced his new assistant Jill Watson, who would field questions from students to reduce his workload.
Yes, you’ve guessed it, Jill was actually an AI ‘bot’ using the award-winning Watson software from IBM.
Using AI to assist learning
Closer to home, at Jisc we have worked with around 100 institutions to develop a national learning analytics service that uses AI to:
- Improve retention
- Enhance the student experience
- Make the organisation itself more productive
The service uses the data from institutional IT systems like the library catalogue and virtual learning environment, which would historically have been discarded, but can actually give us some very useful indicators of student engagement over time and correlation with learning outcomes.
Universities are a bit like ocean liners – they tend to struggle with sudden course changes.
In my job as a Futurist I often work with senior leadership teams that are devising or implementing a digital strategy, and it’s clear that institutional agility is becoming an increasingly important topic. This may involve new ways of working such as fully online delivery and blended learning, but just keeping track of key technologies can be quite a challenge as they keep evolving at a very fast pace.
So yes, the robot revolution is coming, and things won’t ever be the same again.
The jobs sector will change, and so then, must universities. If institutions keep up, our students will be prepared for the robotic future ahead. Technology doesn’t wait for anyone, so we may as well jump on board. It’s going to be a wild ride!