Preparing students for the AI age

By Professor Keng Leng Siau
Professor Keng Leng Siau
Head and Chair Professor
Department of Information Systems

An earlier version of this article was published as “Education in the age of AI How will technology shape learning?” in The Global Analyst, March 2018.

Artificial Intelligence is threatening to replace massive numbers of jobs worldwide. A McKinsey Global Institute Report from 2017 estimates that by 2030, automation may displace between 400 million and 800 million individuals. These people will need to switch job categories and learn new skills. That is up to one-fifth of the global workforce!

The chief AI threat is to jobs with structured routines. An MIT report from 2020 finds that for every robot added per 1,000 workers in the US, wages decline by 0.42%, and the employment-topopulation ratio goes down by 0.2 percentage points. As of 2020, about 400,000 jobs have been lost. Companies such as DHL and Pizza Hut are already experimenting with driverless trucks. In the past, technological advancement has consistently generated more new jobs than it destroys. Many are wondering if it will be the same this time.

Jobs such as telemarketers, retail salespersons, insurance underwriters, claims representatives, loan officers, credit analysts, bank tellers, truck drivers, fastfood cooks, and financial analysts are most likely going to be hit the worst. But jobs involving unstructured tasks will be harder to replace, for example, jobs related to merger of companies or professions such as psychiatrists and psychologists, where each case is unique.

Higher education is a legacy setup

How will higher education be impacted? Above all, students will need to learn skills that augment and complement AI. Competing directly with AI will be futile. Machines can compute faster, operate 24/7, and continuously improve (theoretically, in perpetuity). Although higher education has been evolving and updating curricula constantly, from many perspectives it is still archaic. The teaching materials, the way of evaluating students' performances, and the boundary for theoretical knowledge and experiential learning are a legacy setup. These may need to change in the AI age.

Creativity is critical

Undoubtedly, a strong background in traditional hard skills such as writing, mathematics, and science still has its place in the academic and professional worlds. However, the new focus will be on soft skills such as creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, interpersonal skills, leadership, empathy, and adaptability. These are becoming more critical as, for the moment, they are beyond the purview of most AI systems. It is, thus, important for higher education to help students develop these skills, which will require a complete analysis and revamp of existing curricula. Right now, soft skills are not generally the emphasis of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines and are more closely aligned with the focus of liberal arts and humanities degrees.

Another obvious impact of AI on higher education is likely to be enrollment. In many western countries, government funding for higher education is declining, and in the US, student loan interest rates are going up. Some are predicting that up to 50% of colleges in the US will collapse by 2030. In the future, liberal arts and humanities majors such as philosophy, psychology, sociology, and language literature may become popular as they are more “AI-proof.” In short, the status quo in higher education is not an option. Higher education institutions must transform how and what they teach.

“Humanics” - the USP for humans?

A new academic discipline called human literacy or “humanics” has been proposed by Joseph Aoun to complement technological literacy and data literacy disciplines. Humanics builds on human strengths such as creativity, entrepreneurship, ethical thinking, and cultural agility to give humans a competitive edge over current AI. Technological literacy will enable students to appreciate and embrace technologies, and understand how AI works. Data literacy, such as data analytics, should be an important skill students should learn in school. Companies will be looking for students with expertise in data analytics since this skill requires independent thinking, various data interpretation techniques, and analytical thinking. AI can do the computations but cannot easily interpret or understand the results.

Job for life: out Lifelong learning: in

With the expected replacement of many jobs by AI and the creation of new job categories, retraining and skills development will be needed to prepare displaced workers for new careers. A job for life is a thing of the past. Lifelong learning is the reality. To continue to succeed in the workplace, workers will need to constantly acquire new skills and knowledge. Higher education institutions must provide lifelong learning opportunities to their students and alumni to reeducate and retool. Workers may prefer employers over colleges for additional education, and this will provide new opportunities for higher education institutions to partner with companies and organisations to provide retraining. Courses can be taken in modules that may be aggregated and count towards a certificate or degree. Online and distance courses can address the needs for retraining and skill enhancement for working professionals, and provide a less disruptive approach compared to on-campus education.

Surfing the age of AI

The AI age is going to be unsettling, transformative, and revolutionary. We will need to leverage and strengthen the traits that distinguish us from robots. One can either adapt and excel in the AI age or risk becoming redundant. Higher education has a critical role to play. As educators, we must rise to the challenge to prepare students for the AI revolution and enable them to successfully surf the AI age.