Universities as Knowledge Platforms in a Period of Disruption
(My talk at the conference on “The Role of the University in the Crisis of Forced Displacement: Ethics, Innovation, and Immersive Learning,” 26 September 2019, Boston University, Boston, USA.)
As we approach the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, it is becoming clear that humanity needs to urgently address enormous challenges that arise from an unprecedented confluence of critical conditions on a global scale. Climate change has created an ecological crisis, which threatens living conditions, food production and water availability, undermines the stability of vulnerable societies, instigates armed conflict, and pushes millions of people to seek refuge in more affluent and stable countries. These consequences are more severe in poor and overpopulated regions where a demographic explosion is fostered by gradually improving basic healthcare without however concomitant improvements in institutions, access to education and jobs, namely the key factors that are needed to improve living conditions and economic prospects. Consequences of climate change are further exacerbated by the rapid depletion of the earth’s natural resources, which pushes advanced economies to aggressively extract and exploit yet unexploited resources around the world, while pursuing the development of advanced technologies for sustainable energy production, efficient manufacturing and transportation of goods.
Developed countries, which are receiving an increasing influx of refugees and migrants, also face their share of extraordinary challenges. Demographic change has inverted the population pyramid and led to ageing societies wherein the welfare state strives to keep serving adequately the needs of its own citizens, let aside those of refugees and migrants, and where the impetus for societal and economic change is undermined by the shrinking of the younger strata of society.
Exponential advances in and convergence of information and communication technologies have brought the massive adoption of the Internet, the ongoing development of numerous applications and services, and the rapid digitalization of every aspect of human activity. This led to the emergence of digital titans — platforms embedded on the Internet that offer near-zero marginal cost of access, duplication and distribution of digital information, services and products. Digital platforms are a catalytic factor of 21st-century globalization, breaking geographic barriers and national borders, accelerating human communication and the spread of information, and contributing to an unprecedented speedup of technological and scientific discovery. In turn, rapid scientific progress and technological innovation in areas such as Information and Communication Technologies, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and 3D Printing, Nanotechnology and Materials, Genomics and Biology, are creating tremendous opportunities for new products, processes, services, and business models that address human needs and societal problems, and lead to economies of scale and improved productivity in traditional and new economic sectors.
However, scientific and technological advancements come with new threats and significant challenges. The pervasiveness of the Internet, combined with the ubiquity of smartphones and the emergence of networked digital sensors (leading to the “Internet-of-Things”), have transformed cyberspace into a “place” where we establish, conduct and communicate most of our professional, social, and cultural activities and interactions, and where we develop and express our personality and sense of self. All these activities are captured and stored in digital format and rendered amenable to computer processing by advanced algorithms that employ machine learning techniques and run on large-scale cloud computing platforms. Therefore, cyberspace has become the largest and most powerful apparatus for monitoring and shaping thought and behavior in human history. This particular capability is the core mechanism for monetizing Internet-mediated interactions through algorithmic advertising, and underlies the thriving Internet economy.
Besides the advantages brought by digitalization and big-data processing, the Internet exposes human activity to new and previously unanticipated attack surfaces. When algorithms are programmed to feed humans with experiences through smartphone applications, like online social media services, they ultimately seek to maximize human engagement and feed an underlying “attention economy.” Therefore, these algorithms act essentially as machines designed to harvest, monopolize and monetize human attention. This kind of information overloading affects human cognition and our capacity for concentration, self-reflection and deep thinking. Moreover, and in order to maximize the time humans spent interacting with digital platforms, algorithms self-optimize to accentuate messages that carry sensationalized, offensive or polarized connotations, which are shown statistically to attract more easily the recipients’ attention. More frequently than not, such messages resonate upon latent or even explicitly expressed sexist, tribal, racist, or conspiratorial ideas, and facilitate the spread of misinformation and disinformation bringing upon the phenomena of “fake-news” and “hate-speech.” The proliferation of such phenomena online has been so pervasive, that it is undermining the shared interpretation of facts and events that shapes public opinion and the shared sense of identity, norms, and trust that functional societies need to maintain, bringing us into what is recently termed as the “post-truth” era.
The massive spread of fake news and hateful messages, however, is only one of the security challenges that threaten cyberspace. With nearly all communication, control, production, and financial systems having become computerized and connected to the Internet, an alarming number of cybercrime and cyberterrorism attacks try to either disrupt their operation, with severe and possibly lethal consequences on a massive scale, or to usurp and expose valuable data. As humans increasingly develop and express their personality and social interactions through smartphone applications and associated Internet platforms, which monitor and capture these expressions in digital form and combine them with other data regarding the physical context of individuals, the resulting big-data sets enable the construction of a detailed and intimate picture of an individual’s psyche, her activities, interests, aspirations, behaviour and routines. The threat to personal data and to individual privacy is severe and unprecedented. Although many individuals take lightly the protection of their privacy online, social scientists, jurists, and technocrats increasingly recognize the importance of privacy as an essential part of what it means to be human. As Justice Louis Brandeis put it early on, in an 1890 article in the Harvard Law Review, “the principle which protects personal writings and all other personal productions […] against publication in any form, is in reality not the principle of private property but that of an inviolate personality.” Unfortunately, the usurpation of personal data and the attacks against cyberinfrastructures typically transcend national borders and sovereign jurisdictions, rendering protection, investigation and prosecution a nearly untenable exercise.
Widespread digitalization and the resulting availability of big data, combined with accelerating advances in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, raise yet another challenge for developed and developing societies: automation brings significant productivity gains but will also lead to a massive replacement of humans by robots and intelligent software in many tasks, both physical and cognitive. Consequently, and in contrast to previous industrial revolutions where new technology was associated with long-term job creation and wage growth, several studies predict that the 4th Industrial Revolution will have a large negative effect on jobs, creating significant social problems and exacerbating economic inequality within and between countries. Estimates predict that by 2030, employers will need 20–25% fewer employees, with 30–50% of work activities becoming technically capable of being automated. Automation-induced unemployment is expected to hit both white- and blue-collar workers. At a domestic level, this will exert further pressure to workers who will see their bargaining power, labor rights, wages and job security diminish. At the international front, the capability to manufacture in almost workerless factories at countries with high labor costs could slash the competitive advantage of countries with lower labor costs to attract foreign investment, create jobs, and pursue an export-led path to economic growth.
What role are universities expected to play, in view of the challenges described above? Traditionally, the role of the University has been both simple and profound, as articulated in the 19th century by von Humboldt and Newman: to create new knowledge through free thinking, scientific research and discovery, to pass knowledge to the next generation and to transform young students into moral personalities and responsible citizens, through education and mentorship. Furthermore, inspired by the successes of top American academic institutions in the post-WWII period, universities have assumed the role of supporting the translation of scientific results and inventions into tangible products or services, relevant to domestic or international markets, thus becoming a driving force behind innovation and economic development. One could argue that now, more than ever, this role remains relevant, important, and responds to pressing domestic and international needs. As Friedman and Mandelbaum pointed out, the “world increasingly will be divided between high imagination-enabling countries, which encourage and enable the imagination and extras of their people, and low imagination-enabling countries, which suppress or simply fail to develop their people’s creative capacities and abilities to spark new ideas, start up new industries and nurture their own ‘extra’.” The University’s mission seems to focus exactly on the key elements that need to be in place for a country to be “imagination-enabling.” Consequently, many nations around the world, are trying to adopt the model of the American research university, investing on universities as platforms for education, technology development, and innovation.
However, several core aspects of university operation have not changed drastically in the last couple of centuries: the demographics of student population, selection of students, educational programs’ structure and delivery, organization of people and disciplines, etc. So, despite the relevance of their mission, in this era of rapid scientific progress, technological disruption, globalization and planetary-scale challenges, a key question that arises is: can universities adequately fulfil their mission, in ways that are relevant to the particular needs and capabilities of 21st century’s societies? This question is relevant both for universities established in advanced economies, as well as for those in developing countries or areas in crisis.
If we look at universities as platforms for research and innovation, and catalysts for economic progress at a national and possibly international level, it is interesting to recall an insightful observation by Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator seed-capital-firm cofounder, Paul Graham. “If you think of technology as something that’s spreading like a sort of fractal stain, every moving point on the edge represents an interesting problem,” said Graham, adding that “one guaranteed way to turn your mind into the type to start up ideas […] is to get yourself to the leading edge of some technology. […] When you get there, ideas that seem uncannily prescient to other people will seem obvious to you.” Graham is right: providing students with educational experiences at the leading edge of technology is probably the best approach not only to prepare them for the future, but also to give them skills necessary for shaping that future. However, this requires significant and continuous investment in resources and know-how, which are not accessible readily outside established world-class centers of innovation.
Moreover, with the onslaught of digitalization and the emergence of a handful of Internet behemoths, which collect, own and process big data from nearly every aspect of human activity, a large part of meaningful research and innovation increasingly depend on the continuous availability of such data and can only happen behind the closely guarded gateways of these behemoths.
On the other hand, if we think of the effects of climate change, migration, ageing, inequality, etc. as a stack of fractal stains, which originate from the vulnerable areas of our world and the poorer strata of our societies, and permeate the lives of favored social groups and regions, every moving point on those fractals’ edges could represent an opportunity to experience global predicaments in their true dimension, outside the comfort of learning about problems from a distance or through the distorting view of social media. One could argue that this is necessary to truly understand the practical and moral dimensions of such problems, and, therefore, develop effective and ethical solutions through science and technology, and bring upon innovations that address pressing human needs. The benefits could be significant, both for those who will receive solutions to their problems in the long-term, but also for those who build valuable knowledge by gaining hands-on experiences on complex problems in the short-term. Nevertheless, implementing the necessary pre-conditions for these benefits to materialize requires creative design, bold experimentation and meticulous implementation. How can universities, with their current structure and resources, be transformed into platforms that provide solid educational experiences while seeking innovative solutions to global problems? In the following, I try to formulate a non-exhaustive list of pertinent questions.
As discussed above, the design, implementation and adoption of new technologies increasingly comes with profound implications that often raise unintended but serious ethical concerns or harmful consequences. How can we educate a new generation of scientists and engineers to identify early on potential harmful implications of their work and come up with solutions to mitigate them? Also, how can we prepare students to recognize moral dilemmas and ethical concerns, and be able to address them with empathy based on humanistic principles and universal values, as eloquently summarized in late Toni Morrison’s advice to her students? “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
Understanding and addressing the global crises at a global and local level requires the combination of different perspectives, scientific formulations, technologies and skills. However, the push towards increasing the “productivity” and immediate employability of young graduates is pushing higher education towards extreme specialization, and scientific fields towards over-fragmentation. On the other hand, the rapid pace of new knowledge production combined with the expected impact of automation on cognitive jobs, dictates that student training prioritizes foundational knowledge, critical thinking, creativity and global perspective, so that young graduates can work in multi-disciplinary and multicultural settings, critically absorb new knowledge, and adapt to the rapid change of scientific disciplines. Incorporating adequately these aspects in the training of university students is a challenge that needs to overcome a variety of cultural, methodological, practical, administrative and regulatory obstacles. How can we understand the true nature of these obstacles, identify ways to address them and develop meaningful multi-disciplinary experiences?
Modern research universities often assemble formidable resources and operate as integrated platforms of knowledge creation (through research), knowledge dissemination (through education) and innovation (through technology transfer and startups). Their “services” are typically offered to audiences with specific demographic characteristics that comply to particular selection standards. However, the ageing of western societies means that the traditional target groups for university education are shrinking, while migration, displacement and the disruption of jobs creates a pressing need to expand education to more diverse groups of people. Integration of different groups under the same platform can bring significant benefits but also raises important challenges having to do with selection, preparation, misalignment of values, realignment of norms, etc. Equally challenging is the collaboration of “academic platforms” across nations and continents, which requires the establishment of sustainable networks of collaboration and trust between universities from different regions. There are notable efforts undergoing around the world in these directions, but there is also ample space for expanding and deepening these efforts so that they have a wider impact, and for further analysis and dissemination of best practices. How can we identify and adopt best practices of relevance in a timely manner, and put them at work to cater for demographically and socially diverse groups of people, including refugees and displaced persons?
To pursue these questions in practice, institutions need to mobilize significant resources and undertake a bold experimentation that may go against deeply rooted administrative, regulatory and cultural routines. And, all that requires sustained funding which might not bring any tangible economic benefit or direct results in the short term. So, how can universities persuade policy makers and funders to provide the sustained funding necessary for them to address these problems through concrete actions?