President's Book Club:Can Creativity Save Us From the Robots?

Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Joseph E. AounPresident Isiaah Crawford is a big reader. He and I decided to start a book club so he can share his thoughts on relevant topics with Arches readers. For our first chat, we discussed Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, which considers how colleges and universities can prepare students for their professional lives when professions are being taken over by machines. To “robot-proof” students’ futures, the author, Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun, proposes a new discipline, humanics, which includes data literacy, technological literacy, and human literacy.

SC: Before reading the book, was robot-proofing higher education something you’d thought a lot about?
IC: Over the last number of years, it has become a focal point of consideration. President Aoun was the keynote speaker at a conference that I attended, and I was just mesmerized by what he had to say. He was actually arguing that institutions such as his—larger, research-oriented, flagship state colleges and universities—need to become more liberal-artsy in their focus.

SC: That was my takeaway. The concept of “human literacy,” which encompasses the humanities, communication, and design, is resonant with a liberal arts education. Are we already doing this well?
IC: That’s our sweet spot. We’re looking to educate the whole person, so we’re focused on the academic, intellectual, and social development of our students, and providing them with opportunities to apply what they’re learning in real-world situations to foster their adaptability and cognitive flexibility.

SC: Where do you see opportunities to better prepare our students for advances in AI?
We need to be more intentional about making sure our students have the technological and digital literacy to go along with their human literacy, so that’s where our focus has been in terms of curricular and co-curricular exploration.

SC: Aoun argues that human literacy is essential for making ethical choices. I’ve been wondering if humans are really guiding us to a more equal and just society, or if robots would do a better job at it.
We will go down the drain if we don’t continue to focus on making sure our young people have a good ethical and moral compass. That’s part of the humanistic approach of the liberal arts—looking at the inner life as well as one’s position in the world and the inherent value that we ascribe to others. Whenever I interact with our students, I feel hopeful about the future.

SC: What made me hopeful was reading about creativity and entrepreneurship as the key to robot-proofing our students’ futures, because Loggers are already so adept at this. Can creative thinking save us from the robots?
I think the more we can foster the entrepreneurial and creative spirit of our students, the better. Those individuals who can create their own paths are going to be the most successful. They’re going to be the visionary leaders who create the jobs of the future.

SC: Speaking of success, what does that mean to you?
I think what we want for our students is that they’re happy, they feel fulfilled, and they’re making a contribution to the world. Often, people don’t stick to one professional field throughout their lives. When that’s disrupted, they’re kind of at a loss. For our graduates, when disruption occurs, they can pivot; they can re-create themselves and go do the next thing. They’re lifelong learners, and they’re not afraid of the future. They’re ready for whatever comes their way.