Higher education in the age of AI

May 30, 2019
Claire Beatty, int'l editorial director, MIT TR Insights.

Like those in nearly all sectors and industries, higher education leaders have been watching the rise of emerging technology and giving careful consideration as to how it will impact their environment in the years ahead. “In a sense, we’ve been telling our students for the past decade or so that AI is coming,” says Prof. Loredana Padurean, Associate Dean at the Asia School of Business, a collaboration between MIT Sloan School of Management and Malaysia’s Bank Negara. “But now that AI is here, our industry is not really prepared to deal with it. Many of our students have a higher level of expertise than most schools are ready for.”

In October 2018, MIT announced a new school—the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, which will address the global opportunities and challenges presented by the ubiquity of computing—across industries and academic disciplines—and by the rise of artificial intelligence. In Malaysia, the Asia School of Business is focusing on building the skills and tools that future leaders will need to navigate in times of volatility and disruption, as well as the moral leadership to answer the ethical questions that lie ahead.

“We’ve created a new concept of defining skills as smart skills and sharp skills, formerly known as soft skills and hard skills,” says Padurean, to recognize that bundling important and highly-sophisticated skills such as managing complex environments, leading people through change, and building diverse teams, into a bucket of ‘soft skills’ does not really do them justice. Another issue is re-setting expectations that hard skills, once learned, will not carry you for life. “The concept of hard is static, versus sharp or sharpening which is dynamic and ongoing,” she says. Continual learning will be vital, because technical skill requirements are changing so fast.

AI and the rise of intelligent machines will challenge our skills—both human and technical—as we grapple with big philosophical questions. Future leaders will need the intelligence, vision, and responsibility to address these big questions: “We need to ask ourselves today, in 2019, what is the agenda for humanity; what do we need to work on?” she says.

For Loredana, looking at how and why technology was initially developed is essential for preventing it becoming something that exacerbates disparity. “To make life better,” she says, was the purpose of early technologies, “but what do we really mean by better, and for whom?” A leading concern is automating jobs, and creating “replaceable human categories”. The school’s students see these issues first-hand during action-learning projects with Malaysian and SE-Asian businesses, where they engage in consulting projects throughout the entire MBA curriculum.

Using technology to improve financial performance is part of the disruption lifecycle, which every industry needs in order to stay competitive. “But once you reach a high level of development, the questions that you have should not be purely about economic sustainability, they should be about social sustainability.”

AI has the potential to improve lives dramatically, she says, by removing people from toxic, risky, or demeaning environments, and by improving healthcare and social systems. And part of the key to ensuring that AI develops in the right way is to make it more accessible and approachable. “I believe we need to build awareness, information, and education from multiple perspectives, not just intimidate people with complex algorithms, but educate people to ask questions such as ‘what does AI mean to me?’ and ‘how can I become better informed and make better decisions?’”