Reflections on Robot Proof

I recently finished reading the book Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, written by Dr. Joseph Aoun, the President of Northeastern University.  My interest had been sparked by a panel on which Dr. Aoun participated concerning the future of work and how it will be affected by developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI).

I’ve written previously about applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in a post called “Contact Centers Get Smarter,” but Aoun’s book encouraged me to take a deeper dive into the topic. The intent of this post is to share my thoughts on what I’ve learned and consider some implications.  For context, I am a member of the part-time faculty at Northeastern after working many years within the high tech industry in disciplines which included Product Management, Information Technology, Engineering Management, Operations and Consulting.  I also have two children who been studying at universities in recent years, one in Liberal Arts and one in Engineering. So, I have a personal stake in the matters which Dr. Aoun discusses in his book.

Robot Proof  contends that as AI matures, it will have a dramatic effect on the careers of human workers. Many employment roles which have a variety of repetitive steps will begin to be either replaced or supplemented by algorithms. Thus, a key point in Robot Proof is that human workers should hone cognitive capacities where human skills and adaptability will offer an advantage. Examples of such cognitive capacities include critical thinking, systems thinking, entrepreneurship and cultural agility.  Another overarching theme is the importance of lifelong learning for people in the workforce at all levels.  As technologies change rapidly, workers will need to develop enhanced skills and new areas of domain expertise. Aoun also feels that the skills taught in leading liberal arts programs, such as communications, critical thinking and creativity, can also be valuable as part of one’s “robot proof” toolkit.

Robot Proof offers a lot of depth and thought on the matters of what kind of skills and literacies will be useful over the course of one’s career. For example, I’ve found that systems thinking and strong written communications skills have been very useful within my own career in enabling me to shift between different roles depending upon my needs and those of employers or clients.  Being able to make  connections across diverse disciplines and then apply them is an example of a skill that Aoun calls far transfer. Aoun also talks about the value of being  able to shift perspective and change one’s mindset to expand the range of potential solutions. So this book offers encouragement for people who have diverse interests and like to bring a generalist’s perspective into their work or creative endeavors.

Dr. Aoun also contends the university system in the United States needs to evolve from its current focus on teaching undergraduates and engaging in research, and take on the challenge of partnering with industry, government and other institutions to offer programs of lifelong learning. This would be a substantial transformation, but I believe these ideas should be in the mix in the ongoing discussion on how to make higher education both effective and more affordable.

To summarize, I think Dr. Aoun’s book offers a set of useful approaches for anybody who wonders about the future of work in an era where robots and other forms of artificial intelligence will play a greater role. The ideas here are highly relevant for current students and members of today’s workforce who want to stay competitive in their fields.  The book also poses ample challenges for the education and business communities. The value of building a “Robot Proof” toolkit of skills resonates for me as a teacher, parent and consultant. Welcome to the workplace of the near future.

What do you think?  Is your current set of skills and career path sufficiently robot proof?  To continue the conversation , please feel free to comment here or contact me on LinkedIn.

 

About James Rafferty
James Rafferty has been active in the worlds of telecommunications, standards and university teaching in a variety of roles. He's been a thought leader in areas such as Voice over IP and Internet fax through his consulting, product management, marketing, writing and standards activities, and he is currently teaching business at Northeastern University. He loves to write and talk about new connections, applications and business models as communications, related technologies and business concepts evolve.

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