My Reaction to Joseph Aoun’s Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Dr. Joseph Aoun, the president of Northeastern University and a higher ed futurist, was recently published in the Chronicle of Higher Education for this article, Robot-Proof: How Colleges Can Keep People Relevant in the Workplace. He also just came out with a new book, check out the trailer for it. It’s called “Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence”.

Quotes from Aoun and my reactions:

Dr. Aoun stated: “Because for all of their dazzling power, machines are incapable of plucking inspiration from the subconscious, forming a new theory of physics after seeing an apple fall to the ground, or seizing a window of opportunity to start a business. Those sorts of cognitive abilities are impervious to automation. They are, indeed, robot-proof.”  Joseph_Aoun
 adam.jpg My response: Robots simply follow a set of instructions that computers can understand. Contrary to popular belief, robots are not yet sentient. In fact, a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison stated that “Sentient machines may never exist, according to a variation on a leading mathematical model of how our brains create consciousness.”  Regardless, computers are much more efficient than humans in performing certain calculations, for example the product of 1,312 and 55,000.  Type that into any calculator and it’ll pop right up as 72160000.  Most humans wouldn’t be able to read that number without the commas, let alone solve that problem in their head!

Takeaway: Regardless of how slow firing neurons, we are the ones who build the calculators.

“Given a world in which machines will perform much of what we view as knowledge work, colleges will have to reduce their emphasis on knowledge transfer, and pivot to building students’ capacity for coming up with original ideas.”  Joseph_Aoun
 adam My thoughts: The human brain is capable of creativity, but it can only hold about 7 pieces of information for less than 30 seconds. If you want to extend your short term memory beyond the 30 seconds it takes to forget something new, you will need to consistently re-expose yourself to the information. What’s the point of remembering facts if you can look up the answers on Google? Knowledge is about understanding the answers that can’t be found on Wikipedia.

In order to remain competitive in the age of the autonomous robot workforce, people must continually learn creative skills that cannot be replicated by machines. Machines are extremely efficient. But humans can innovate big ideas that can change the world:

  • Walmart is thinking of letting ‘runners’ enter into people’s homes and stock their fridge with food – even if the customer isn’t home.  Walmart has partnered with a video surveillance company to verify the delivery driver acts properly while in the customer’s home. Learn more.
  • Elon Musk is like the real life Tony Stark. He founded PayPal, Teslsa Motors, and SpaceX. He’s now pioneering new moonshot ideas like SolarCity and building a livable city on Mars.
  • Companies such as Examity, ProctorU, and Respondus Monitor offer students the option to take online exams using virtual proctoring software.  This is a convenient alternative to requiring students to drive on to a physical testing center on campus.

Takeaway: Convenience and creativity are truly driving the economy these days. Meanwhile, those who don’t adapt, fade into memory. We miss you Blockbuster.

“College should prepare students for meaningful occupations. If workers are fast becoming irrelevant, then how and why should we educate them?”  Joseph_Aoun
 adam My reaction: The answer to this question scares me. IS THERE going to be a demand for workers? The glory days of high pay, low skill jobs are gone.  30 years ago if you didn’t go to college, no big deal. You went and worked at car manufacturing plant or a steel mill and you had a great full time job to earn a decent living. These days, it’s not so simple…

  • Think about all the farming and manufacturing jobs that have been displaced. What happens when Taxi and Uber drivers are replaced by self-driving cars?
  • Are there always going to be a need for cashiers at retail stores? It’s been reported that U.S. retail stores have been closing at a faster rate in 2017 than at any time since the recession in 2008. With more stores closing, it seems the world is moving towards the shipping model.

Counterarguments left in the article’s comments:

  • “Until someone can convince me that creativity will one day be as in-demand, economically, as labor has been up to this point, I cannot see the automated future as anything but a life sentence for my own children.”
  • “The author is being idealistic. The reality is that there will be a new economy the haves and the have nots. The more jobs that are taken the more poverty is going to increase. The rich don’t really give a hoot and if robots are cheaper than hiring people well guess what no more jobs.”

Agreed! The disparity and unequal distribution of wealth may soon reach critical mass. How can a growing population support a new and untested economic model. Unemployment in 2017 is nearly 5%. It’s scary to think about what happens if that number doubles or quadruples.

Technology and machines have destroyed and created jobs over time.
About 100 years ago, most people were farmers. Now less than 1% of US workers are in farming jobs.  There’s been a lot of change in the demand for certain types of workers.  Currently, more than half of jobs worked in the US are white collar jobs.


My final thoughts:


Steve Jobs was quoted saying, “What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”  Meaning the computational tools we build make us perform certain tasks better than any person could do without the technology.  Humans and technology, when used properly, have the potential to change the world in countless positive ways.

Questions to ponder:

  • As computers get smarter and more ubiquitous, how do you think the modern workforce will change?
  • What jobs will not be automated?
  • Should governments consider modifying laws to regulate the usage of robotics to ensure human workers are not displaced?
  • How can we better prepare students to compete with robotics and AI for high paying jobs?

How Robots are Transforming the World

Robots aren’t just characters in science fiction movies anymore. Robots are being used in many different industries for many different uses. Some of the more exciting uses of robots are in the fields of military, medical, and human care. This article focuses on how robots are being used to transform the world.

Transportation Robots

Google’s new autonomous cars that drive themselves in traffic to a specific destination would be a great way to facilitate the mobility of elderly people. My grandmother, for instance, has to call a Dart bus whenever she wants to visit somewhere by herself since she cannot drive herself. When these robot cars are ready for mass production, it will surely grant elderly people more freedom and independence…it will also give the rest of the driving population one less thing to stress out about since they won’t be tailgating drivers who always go 10 miles under the speed limit.

Helpful Robots in Human Care

First, a couple of examples of what could eventually become robot babysitters:


Hanson Robotics is creating robots with realistic facial impressions

The Geminoid DK mimics the movements of its operator. It extremely realistic looking and it actually performs the act of breathing

They’re a bit freaky in my opinion. The robot’s lips sync up to words. Once they develop these robots to walk and “see” via a video camera, you’ve got a robot babysitter that looks like a kid’s parent. Further, once the robot has the functionality to perform basic childcare functions, the robot would not only look like a kid’s parent – it could actually be a child’s parent. Honestly, I don’t think that’s a great idea for a developing child. It just seems to me that it will give a child an unrealistic view of the world. Children should not develop basic trust from a robot.

Plus, if this robot automates the majority of the trivial processes involved in raising a child, what’s to become of the role of a parent? TV is notorious for raising children these days, but think what life would be like if a robot fed, cleaned, and rocked a baby to sleep at night? Parents everywhere would just sit around and play Farmville all night while tweeting about how easy it is to raise a child. The real question is are these robots truly helping us or just making people everywhere lazier?

Finally, virtual pets are coming down the pike. It’s true: robots that look and act like pets. They even interact with their owners. We’ve all heard that having a pet is good for an elderly person’s mental health. However, this is a suitable alternative for owners that have special needs and are not able to own a real pet.

Further, people usually outlive their pets, so this is a great way to gain the benefits, such as companionship and other therapeutic services, but not deal with the realities of death. The question isn’t really can humans truly bond with AI robots, but should they? What if a child had this type of robot as a pet? It would probably be harder to understand life and death when the child’s best friend is an immortal furry metal robot…

There’s definitely value in automating truly trivial tasks such as vacuuming or cleaning a pool. The iRobot Roomba 560 Robotic Vacuum Cleaner is a great way elderly people can clean their house and play with their cats! Finally, cats can clean up their own hairballs. The iRobot Verro Pool Cleaning Robot would be especially useful for an elderly person because strenuous activity could be a health risk. However, that dependency on robots could certainly be detrimental to human health and wellbeing in the long run due to inactivity.

Military & Firefighting Robots

A lot of advances have been made in regards to military robots. These Exoskeleton Robotic Suits (AKA the suit that turns you into a real Iron Man) are a really great example: Read more about the XOS 2 robotics suit.

There’s surly a line between “right” and “wrong” we should consider. For instance, Robokiyu is robot created by the Tokyo Fire Department; its original purpose was to help rescue people asphyxiated by smoke inhalation inside burning buildings. Obviously, this task can be dangerous for fire fighters, so this robot is very helpful. However, when officials realized how versatile this robot could be, they started using it for other duties…such as moving corpses and “dormant” (AKA drunk) people. I think this robot proves it that robots should not be involved in certain processes, despite how helpful they may seem. Shouldn’t the sanctity of death be treated with a little more dignity and respect? Likewise, could you imagine passing out drunk and waking up inside a robot’s belly?

Read more at:

Ethics – where do we draw the line?

If a malfunction occurred, should the corporation that created and sold the robot should be held responsible? Shouldn’t the corporation have tested the robot to always work properly? Obviously, if the consumer didn’t follow the instructions and caused the problem, it would probably void the warranty and any ensuring law suits. I feel that there really needs to exhaustive testing. With software, you can just fix bugs as they occur with relatively minimal repercussions. However, robots have physical power which could potentially injure or kill someone.

Who do you think should be held responsible if there is a problem with one of these robots? The engineers, programmers, corporation, consumer? 

Do you know of any other interesting robots? What are some of the ethical and safety considerations that robots create? Do you have any predictions about how robots will change society? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.