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One Thing AI Robots Won’t Displace; Our Fulbright Scholar

Nina Angeles

"What makes us human is our ability to connect with others and engage with the world to solve problems that matter."

April 2, 2016 SEI at Northeastern

By Professor Dennis Shaughnessy

We’re about to wrap up a new course I’m teaching on the impact that the next generation of technologies will have on society, especially on the displacement of workers.  Some refer to the rapid growth of new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), advanced robotics and CRISPR/CAs9-based genetic therapies as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

It seems like every day there’s a new story of a breakthrough in artificial intelligence and robotics.  Many experts are predicting that improvements in AI capability combined with new generation of robots, bots and drones will likely accelerate the displacement of human work.  While robotics has for some time displaced manufacturing jobs, the next wave is likely to be displacement of knowledge work.

At the Global Summit in Davos this year, the discussion wasn’t so much about whether knowledge workers will be displaced in large numbers by AI and robotics, but how many millions of people will be impacted and how soon.  Discussions of people who may never work because of their outdated skill set or lack of relevant education lead some to consider the eventual need for a decoupling of income from work.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of this discussion of “robots replacing people” is what role higher education can play in preparing young people for a new and different workplace of the future in which everyone will have to add more value than an advanced machine can add.  This discussion often focused on the importance of young people being taught to be entrepreneurial leaders who can engage in those elements of work that require creativity and innovation.

In discussions with our students during class, we’ve come to the conclusion that this idea of emphasizing creativity, entrepreneurship and leadership in an undergraduate education is good advice for higher education’s leaders.  Learning to code and understanding key elements of STEM is important but not a standalone answer.  And while radical change in curriculum may not be needed, at least in the next five years, there is a clear and urgent need to provide students with classroom and real-world opportunities to develop their creativity, passion and leadership capability as part of the lifelong skill set.

I also think there is a need to help students develop a stronger sense of empathy and compassion, with a global inclusive view and a commitment to service.

That’s because I don’t see AI or robots becoming or replacing social entrepreneurs or leaders of socially responsible businesses anytime soon.  As much as AI has advanced in recent years, it remains clear that even a “thinking” machine that can reason will not be passionate, compassionate and engaged with the world.  Robots are unlikely to develop new business models for alleviating poverty among the poorest, or implement strategies to elevate the dignity profile of marginalized or excluded people and communities, or scale a B corporation’s efforts to provide healthy food to children in America’s poorest school districts.  What makes us human is our ability to connect with others and engage with the world to solve problems that matter.

Of course, advanced technology can and does serve social impact work without displacing anyone.  For example, small drones are being deployed to deliver much needed vaccines to remote and often inaccessible areas of Rwanda.  An entrepreneur with the help of the Gates Foundation has built a “droneport” and developed plans for meeting the last mile challenge with the latest technology.  A wonderful example of technology serving humans serving others.

So, acknowledging my built-in bias, I’d suggest that one way to avoid being displaced by a robot or an intelligent machine is to commit to a professional profile that not only includes building your creative and leadership capabilities but also nurturing passion and compassion for others.  While I suspect machines will be “thinking” more deeply in the coming years and decades, I don’t believe they will be “caring”.  Caring, not reasoning, is what truly distinguishes us from them.

A Fulbright Scholar

And speaking of caring, SEI’s Nina Angeles has been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for next year to engage in research on the role of social enterprise among Palestinian refugees in Jordan.  Nina is a 2015 NU graduate who has made enormous contributions to SEI over the past year.  We know that she will do great work as a Fulbright, and make a huge difference in the lives of others over the course of her professional career after SEI.

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