It is no surprise that in recent times, people and process have been augmented, and in many places completely replaced, by robots or automation that previously required human intervention to achieve. The initial roles replaced by mechanization were those of factory workers or laborers where repetitive tasks or sets of tasks needed to be performed. Something that is often quite binary in nature is easily replaced with computerization. It is no surprise that we see machines replacing assembly line workers and, in some cases, even working alongside their human makers in a world where said machines are able to outperform humans and often can work for long periods of time without becoming tired or requiring a break. Some have wondered if the day will come when such automation will completely replace humans and we will all be left in a world that resembles something from the Terminator movie where we need to bow before our new autonomous masters.
What author Joseph E. Aoun outlines in his book “Robot-Proof” evolves around the rapid changes in our society where we moved from being an agricultural society to a data-driven one instead. The audiobook edition is quite well narrated by John Glouchevitch. Today, nearly everything is answered by a Google search or by downloading an app. Yet, the higher education system has remained, at its core, where its initial roots of teaching philosophy, science and theology. Sure, there are now more subjects and majors, and we have seen some rapid growth in the online education space, yet the way in which most campuses train students has remained the same for centuries. Mr. Aoun proposes that the educational system (mainly higher education) needs to not only revamp the way it teaches, but they must inform its students on how to best select majors or jobs that could be considered to be more robot proof. As with nearly every other industry, education must also progress and transfer knowledge that will make their alumni more robot proof.
There needs to be a paradigm shift from simply teaching rote-based subjects such as your typical reading, writing, and arithmetic; which are all very important subjects and the author would not say are replaced by his subjects. The new focus should be on technology, data, and humans. Each of these have their own importance, and each plays a considerable role in a way of educating an individual to be robot proof. These three cores supplement the more standard three learning subjects which should already be strong coming into a university unless a part of your continuing education. The author refers to these three competencies as “humanics”. Literacy in data is important to know how to manage and handle large data sets (big data) in this day and age of ever-increasing information. Understanding how machines or technology functions will be important as more and more of them we will come in contact with. Lastly, the human literacy is around communication and interaction with others. In a world of social media we are less-and-less finding ourselves face-to-face with others without a computer acting as our interface.
The author provides a few areas on how the above three relate and how educational institutions can work to better make their students robot proof. The author lays out an example of a book or story. Computers are very good at scanning the contents of a book for things like grammar, spelling and such. It is very difficult for a system to grasp the concept or reason a given set of words or sentences when pieced together can provoke emotion in humans. It is easy for a computer or automated system to scan a piece of literature and provide data about it, yet there are not systems today that are capable of writing a story from scratch and be acceptable by human readers. It may produce something that is grammatically correct and something that even follows the rule of how a story is to be written, yet they always fail at telling a tale as a human can. Computers are weak at providing context or rational thinking, but very good at analyzing and processing vast amounts of information and spitting out the details. One needs to think of these differences as divergent thinking, the author’s name for them.
Computers will continue to replace and augment areas where more simple binary roles are required, but it will impact more than simply factory workers. Currently, we see a trend where more and more industries like legal, medical, and real estate are rapidly being automated via technology. Think of how many travel agencies you still see compared to 10 or 20 years ago. Title searches, diagnosis of X-Rays, and property locations are today leveraging computers to take the more mundane tasks and pass up the cognitive focused processes to their human counterparts. We see the impact of changes like these across every industry and it will continue to grow as computers and machine learning gets better. There are however many jobs or careers which are more robot proof such as trades (plumbers, electricians, etc.) and more creative topics such as the arts (music, theatre, art). The author is not saying that one must go into one of these professions to be safe, not at all. Instead, he is saying that the roles which will be most protected from being replaced by automation are jobs that require cognitive thinking and/or a level of creativity.
The last section of the book focuses on how universities can better assist and train up students to have more creative and cognitive skills in whatever their career path may be. Leveraging things like cooperatives and other means of getting hands on training rather than simply relying on book material, etc. Most of the books on a given subject are antiquated by the time they are published for classroom use, and nothing is better than hands-on experience for any career. Again, he is not saying that classroom education is unnecessary, but many educational institutions do not see the importance of more modern ways of training and learning but instead are continuing to teach as if they were back in the old farming days. I think it is very important for listeners to hear all the points the author lays out before simply diving into the ways of fixing an institution. Some of them include: online classes, multi-campus integration, co-ops, and much more.
The audiobook’s narration by John Glouchevitch was flawless from both an audio quality and telling. Even though the book may seem like academic focused, the narrator made it feel informative, engaging, and even a bit entertaining in spots. The audio levels and volume remained consistent and the narrator’s voice was clean and easily understood. This is the first audiobook I have heard from this narrator, but I look forward to hearing more in the future.
In summary, times have changed dramatically from the days of being an agrarian society to one thrust into the digital age. Even with computers and automation replacing a large number of skills previously performed by humans, there are many things which computers are not good at. Creativity and context are the key elements of becoming robot proof and higher education needs to embrace the changes required for not only this generation but the next. The author makes solid points and provides good recommendations on how institutions can better serve their students and make their future careers safer from being replaced by automation. Even if you are not someone involved in higher education, I would recommend this book as many of its concepts could be applied to nearly any industry.