Exploring the role AI and technology will have on education and employment

By Dr. Ward Ulmer, Interim President of Walden University

The Artificial Intelligence Debate: Friend or Foe

One of my first pop-culture glimpses into a robotic future was The Jetsons. Hanna-Barbera made the cartoon in 1962 about a family living in 2062. Picture George Jetson sitting in front of a large computer console at Spacely Space Sprockets, Inc. Although he works maybe 2 hours a day, 3 days a week, he still performs what he calls “manual labor.” In 2062, that means pushing a single button to turn R.U.D.I., the Referential Universal Digital Indexer, on and off. In one episode he says, “You’ve still got to have it up here [pointing to his head] to know how to start these things, stop them, and start them again.”

In its simplest form, that is where we are in 2018 as futurists, economists, technologists, and education leaders debate the future of the workforce. Artificial intelligence (AI) has been around since 1950, but whether or not the movie “Minority Report” comes to fruition in our lifetime remains to be seen. We’re definitely on our way as we see self-driving cars and hoverboards roam the streets. Amazon’s Alexa seemingly knows what we want before we ask for it, and IBM’s Watson became a Jeopardy! champion. IBM has also created Watson for Oncology, which offers guidance for treating 12 types of cancer, as well as a robot dubbed Project Debater that not only challenged Israel’s 2016 national debate champion but may have actually won on substance.

There’s no denying that AI will play a significant role in our future. Now, we’re faced with the question of how best to prepare people for it.

There are diverging schools of thought. Some say the automation will be sooner than we realize, creating a huge gap in the workforce leaving millions unprepared. Others predict it will come at a slower pace, creating opportunity for colleges and universities to prepare students and professionals for the imminent employment of the future.

I met Dr. Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University and author of Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, at an event cohosted by Inside Higher Education and Gallup. He believes AI will not take over; rather, it will help students learn and prepare them for a future workforce with robots and other technology.

At Walden, our chatbot, Charlotte, uses a form of AI called natural language processing (NLP) to help thousands of students every month get assistance and answers to common questions. Students ask questions in their own words, and the NLP engine interprets their questions and helps identify the best answers—things like helping a student log in to their classroom or get a copy of their transcript. Charlotte has evolved from being able to handle a handful of questions to being able to handle 40+ types of requests, with many more in the works. Many industries are successfully adopting this technology because customer demand is making instant self-service a “need to have,” not a “nice to have.” The future is quickly becoming the present.

I believe it’s important for educational institutions to continue training and preparing our students for today and looking toward tomorrow. While nurses are already experiencing advanced technology and AI in the lab, professionals in other fields like social work are just starting to identify and research ways AI can help clinicians.

Keeping an eye on workforce demands through partnerships with organizations will help inform how colleges and universities evolve and how fast they need to do so. It will be important to make whatever that education looks like accessible and flexible. There will always be a human element. Even George Jetson’s flying car had him at the controls.

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