Higher Education in the age of Artificial Intelligence

Aoun, J. 2017. Higher education in the age of artificial intelligence. MIT Press.

Joseph E. Aoun has set out his vision for the University. It is an interesting one; a clear departure from the scores of humanities professors who dream of returning to the elite liberal arts education of the past. Perhaps these authors – e.g. Collini (2012), Maskell & Robinson (2002) – have their noses so deep in a good book they remain blissfully unconcerned about the approaching singularity. More likely they are all too aware of it, and that’s why they promote the humanities.

It should be stated first of all that Aoun’s argument relies on a maintenance of separation between artificial and human intelligence, rather than a ‘symbiotic’ line of development as idealised in the neural lace proposed by Elon Musk (an innovation that would, of course, require knowing how the brain actually works – a bothersome prerequisite).

Aoun is the president of Northeastern, a private university in the US that follows the model he is promoting. His book is therefore less a vision, more a retrospective justification for his current mode of operation. His central argument is that in a world of artificial intelligence, when computers are able to programme themselves, we need to focus our efforts on teaching the skills that robots will never be able to do, such as ‘systems thinking’. Aoun has a word for these skills that are required at the nexus between human and artificial intelligence: ‘humanics’. Aoun’s humanics are distinct from the humanities. He concedes the liberal arts will always have relevance, but the examples he gives are distinctly utilitarian; e.g. the ‘brilliant computer scientist’ needing to thrive in a human context in order to ‘succeed’ (p107).

Skills, of course, are instrumental things; means rather than ends. Aoun never presents his ends or values as up for debate; his justification assumes economic growth is an imperative, and links human fulfillment with productivity.

If Aoun believes the university has a role other than preparing students for paid employment, he doesn’t let on. He is all about collaborating with industry partners, not only in the provision of co-operative work placements, but in taking a lead from industry in the design and content of curricula. There is no acknowledgement from Aoun that the aim of a business is to create profit, or recognition that allowing profit-making enterprises to dictate the activities of the university fundamentally changes the very idea of the institution.

It is likely that Aoun is right in that this is how to run a university as a successful business in the lead up to – and perhaps beyond – the singularity. His alignment with the aims and goals of business is crystal clear. When speaking of ‘economic progress’ he is impressed by Swiss industry & education collaborations, which keep ‘costs to employers…much lower than the benefits they receive from apprentices and educational institutions.’ (p145). Aoun feels it is right and proper to allow profit-making private businesses to cream further value and profit from institutions of learning. Admittedly, Aoun’s university is also a profit-making private business, but if he wishes to make a claim about the future of higher education more generally, he should address this tension.

Aoun’s final paragraph stresses that ‘education is not a panacea for humanity’s troubles’ (p149). If we are to conceptualise education as he does, then of course it is not. He suggests, rather weakly, that ‘perhaps…society’s weight will shift’(?), making things more equitable and sustainable (p149). Having nailed his pro-business, pro-growth colours firmly to the mast throughout the book, this is clearly lip-service. I won’t say it is insincere as he does not even pretend that this is a hope he personally holds. Earlier, on p142, Aoun explicitly diminishes the notion of knowledge and learning in ‘the service of a broader good’ as secondary to ‘today’s economic and societal imperatives’. Having openly acknowledged that technological progress is ‘extremely likely’ to intensify inequality, he does not then offer any suggestion for how this might be avoided (the phrases ‘not for profit’ and ‘social enterprise’ are conspicuous in their absence). Aoun should, perhaps, have stuck to his principles and avoided mentioning equality or sustainability at all. Their presence on the page emits an oppressed whimper that only highlights the dystopia.

Aoun’s use of female pronouns is refreshing, as is his consistent use of female examples (students, researchers, industry spokespeople). Interestingly, I actually began to resent this as I neared the end of the book. Because I disagreed so strongly with his economic worldview, I felt like he was using these women to further his own agenda, that this was patriarchy masquerading as feminism; a veneer of social justice to disguise the neoliberal message underneath.

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