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Professional Opinion

Do robots need college degrees?

How robots create bright futures for college graduates
University Business, February 2015
Robert E. Johnson is president of Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Robert E. Johnson is president of Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Much has been written in recent years about the threats robots pose to jobs in America.

Conventional wisdom states that machines will eventually overtake the jobs humans do today and then continue on to the future, infiltrating new jobs almost as quickly as they are created. Not only will they gain more ground in automated industries, but they will also acquire intelligence.

So what does this mean to those of us in higher education who are preparing the future workforce? As millions of robotic entities transform into an army of artificially intelligent bots capable of learning, what value does a college degree have?

I contend that despite the projected takeover of robots in all industries, college graduates face a bright future—as long as we heed the advice of visionary Arthur C. Clarke: “In the day-after-tomorrow society there will be no place for anyone as ignorant as the average mid-20th century college graduate. ... We have to set our sights much higher.”

Agile mindset

While machines can be programmed to learn and even to project some emotions, significant human aspects are not, and never will be, transferable. These include the components of an agile mindset—empathy, divergent thinking, an entrepreneurial outlook, and social and emotional intelligence.

There is an enormous difference between young people who earn a college degree in something—who are qualified to perform work that draws from a specific and measurable knowledge base—and those who, in earning their degrees, have developed the agile mindset so they can transform their knowledge base while adapting to an ever-changing, digitally mature workplace.

The agile mindset is critical to succeeding in a world in which robots will become more prevalent, capable of performing tasks that range from mundane (fast-food burger flippers) to complex (surgery). An agile mindset prepares graduates for an uncertain future by providing them with the skills needed to navigate complexity, ambiguity and change: critical thinking, empathetic understanding, intercultural collaboration, ethical judgment and integrity, creative problem-solving, and more.

The agile mindset separates humans from robots, no matter how fully developed the machine.

Despite the prevalence or level of dependency an organization may have upon its robotic workers, no business can succeed without human interaction and human leadership. This creates opportunities for talented graduates who have the knowledge and skills to function in the new paradigm of business, where robots and humans must not only co-exist, but also must be collaborative co-workers.

Robots may be able to process complicated information, but they cannot develop complex solutions or deliver on-the-fly responses to unexpected or new conditions. A robot can be sent into space, but it is the human experience that leads to scientific discovery.

A robot can write an article from raw data, but it cannot create a story with the flair of a journalist. A robot can prepare legal documents, but it cannot argue a case in court. A robot can perform music, but it cannot write a symphony.

A robot can perform surgical procedures, but it cannot respond to a medical emergency. A robot for the elderly or disabled can open doors, but it cannot provide comfort and reassurance. A robot can remind a patient to take medicine, but it cannot respond to a patient’s refusal to do so.

A robot can provide automated service, but it does not have interpersonal skills or the ability to develop creative solutions to resolve a customer problem.

The list goes on. There’s no question robots enhance productivity; they have done so since their advent and will continue to do so. But they’re merely a companion to human intelligence, creativity and innovation. What really matters are the jobs that lie outside a robot’s reach.

The new frontiers that lie ahead for college graduates who are equipped with the knowledge and skills developed through an agile mindset are exciting. Robots will open up a new world for them—a world in which creative thinking, curiosity, innovation and entrepreneurship can blossom for the ultimate benefit of society.

Robert E. Johnson is president of Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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