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Opinion Higher education for the AI age: Let’s think about it before the machines do it for us

Northeastern University’s campus in Boston. (Courtesy of Northeastern)

Amid the wall-to-wall coverage of the U.S. presidential race, it was easy to miss the Obama administration’s release this month of a slim, 48-page report titled “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence.” Yet the subject of the report — and the changes it foreshadows — may prove to be as consequential for our society, and our education system, as even the most high-stakes national election.

The term “artificial intelligence” means different things to different people, but broadly speaking, it refers to computers and advanced machines that can think, reason and communicate like humans, respond to novel or nuanced situations as a person might, and most critically, learn from experiences as a human would. According to a recent survey, 80 percent of AI researchers believe that computers and advanced machines will eventually achieve levels of artificial intelligence that rival human intelligence. Moreover, half believe that this will happen by the year 2040 — just one generation from now.

As the White House report rightly observes, the implications of an AI-suffused world are enormous — especially for the people who work at jobs that soon will be outsourced to artificially-intelligent machines. Although the report predicts that AI ultimately will expand the U.S. economy, it also notes that “Because AI has the potential to eliminate or drive down wages of some jobs … AI-driven automation will increase the wage gap between less-educated and more-educated workers, potentially increasing economic inequality.”

Accordingly, the ability of people to access higher education continuously throughout their working lives will become increasingly important as the AI revolution takes hold. To be sure, college has always helped safeguard people from economic dislocations caused by technological change. But this time is different. First, the quality of AI is improving rapidly. On a widely-used image recognition test, for instance, the best AI result went from a 26 percent error rate in 2011 to a 3.5 percent error rate in 2015 — even better than the 5 percent human error rate.

Moreover, as the administration’s report documents, AI has already found new applications in so-called “knowledge economy” fields, such as medical diagnosis, education and scientific research. Consequently, as artificially intelligent systems come to be used in more white-collar, professional domains, even people who are highly educated by today’s standards may find their livelihoods continuously at risk by an ever-expanding cybernetic workforce.

As a result, it’s time to stop thinking of higher education as an experience that people take part in once during their young lives — or even several times as they advance up the professional ladder — and begin thinking of it as a platform for lifelong learning. Colleges and universities need to be doing more to move beyond the array of two-year, four-year, and graduate degrees that most offer, and toward a more customizable system that enables learners to access the learning they need when they need it. This will be critical as more people seek to return to higher education repeatedly during their careers, compelled by the imperative to stay ahead of relentless technological change.

Likewise, leaders and policymakers should be anticipating the need for people to become lifelong learners in light of the AI age and work to make federal financial aid more flexible as a result. For example, the Obama administration recently launched a pilot program that lets learners use federal financial aid to pay for academic “boot camps” and other innovative, short-form programs of the very type more people will demand as they seek lifelong learning opportunities in order to stay ahead of AI-driven workforce changes. This should be expanded and made permanent. Congress should also review whether other strictures on federal financial aid—such as the current six-year limit on students’ ability to receive Pell Grants, and similar limits on students’ ability to access federal student loans—make sense in a forthcoming era in which more people will return to higher education many times throughout their lives.

No one knows for sure what the artificial intelligence age will look like, but we do know this: It’s coming, and things are going to change. Whether that change will be a boon or a bane depends largely on individuals’ ability to develop their own intelligence throughout their lifetimes. That, in turn, depends on their ability to access efficient, effective higher education opportunities.

So let’s start thinking now about how to make it happen — before the machines start thinking for us.

Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.

Here is the White House report:

White House report