On Robots: An Interview With Rick and Sam


Rick: Okay. Sam, how long do you think it’ll be before I can replace you with a robot?

Sam: Well, I don’t know. I’ll probably be dead before that comes, but I would certainly like to be replaced by a computer or a robot. There are lots of things that a computer does better than I do.

Rick: Oh, I don’t know. You’re pretty smart.

Sam: That’s true. But advancements in technology will eventually displace most of what I’m good at.

Rick: Our world has already changed so much. Think about all the things we rely on a robot to do for us now.

Sam: I can think of scores of them that we use on behalf of our clients now, and even deeper implications with the way our clients are educating students for the future; a future that we can’t really describe. We know that there will be less reliance on human intelligence.

Rick: I used to think that the robotic age meant Rosie from The Jetsons would be part of my routine life. I didn’t think about it being the Nest thermostat on my wall or an app on my phone that would serve a robotic function to help me live my life. It’s gradually moved into my life in a way where I’m very dependent on robots, and it has been pretty subtle. Now we have these instruments in our home to manage everything from turning on the lights, the heat, the music I listen to, to the sound of a killer whale… if I need to know what that sounds like…

Sam: Yeah, I think society has used a humanoid sentient robot with a face and a funny voice—even the way Siri sounds (and Siri lives in Atlanta, by the way)—to personify something that we’re a little bit afraid of, because we don’t know what it could do. Or if it could overtake us. I think what the culture has done in terms of a long future of robotics or AI or machine learning is tell us: “Oh, this could be bad.” I’m always amused to see how we leap to that notion, when for the most part, AI machine learning (VR, AR, IA), they are all helping us in really meaningful ways and making life easier. I know that it’s capturing my attention, but frankly, most of that is ambient. The near future is going to be really incredible; there are things we’re not going to have to think about because a machine learned it once and moved on, and it knows I want that.

Rick: Well it’s not without its wonderful future and a brightness and hope about how things can be, but it’s going to rock our world and change our world. It’s certainly going to change the way we prepare students for their future. It’s certainly going to mean different things for higher education. It’s not without its downsides. As excited as I am about the future and picturing what my life will be like when I don’t have to do half the things I do (and the potential of a 20-hour work week sounds pretty exciting), it’s going to turn the world upside down in terms of employment—who has a job and who doesn’t?

Even more, how are we going to equip students to fill the jobs that do exist? For me personally, I think about my education in a liberal arts setting; it strikes me, in some ways, as all the more valuable, but in other ways, displaces me from doing certain functions or performing certain tasks. I’d like to think those of us with liberal arts educations are the ones that will have jobs; and on the other side of it, I think, “Oh my gosh. It’s just going to be a world of technologists.”

Sam: Sure, I think so, but when you look at the trends already, there’s even a short life span on how long coding will be relevant because we’re going to be able to automate that in a fashion where base-level skill—or even advanced-level skill—won’t require the manual processes that are necessary now to code something. We’ll have a robot to make the code, right?

Rick: Right. Right.

Sam: And if you look at skill based in higher education, that’s always been finite. The first engineers working on a building or a locomotive or a steam engine, that skill has a ceiling, and when you look at those who learn liberally, I think the opportunities are much broader for them. I’m grateful for my liberal arts education; it helps me be comfortable with not knowing exactly what the future is going to be. I’m excited about that.

Rick: I just heard Keith Warren from Xerox talking to college presidents—liberal arts presidents for the most part—and his council was about the value of a liberal arts education for this unknown future. The statistic he stated was: 60% of the jobs that liberal arts graduates will assume don’t even exist now. There’s a huge unknown about how to shape an educational experience for things we know nothing of yet. It might not be of our own making if AI means a new world is created by robots doing the thinking for us.

Sam: Or we’re just living in a simulation and we shouldn’t worry about it.

Rick: Or that…

Sam: Which I’m pretty comfortable with. I feel liberated to make all kinds of bad decisions.

Rick: Well, you have all the time on your hands to sit around and talk about it and think about it.

Sam: It’s what I do all day. If you think about not knowing what jobs are going to be out there, I think that is parallel to thinking about what tools we used to use in recruiting high school students even 10 years ago; I don’t think we use 20% of those tools anymore.

Rick: Yes, you’re right. How do we help families understand that? As much as families are coming to the table saying, “Are you going to get my kid a job?” How can we legitimately say, “Sure. We’re going to get your kid a job,” when we don’t even know what job will be there.

Sam: And how do you do it in an honest way? I certainly think that’s why there’s wavering confidence in liberal arts programs. Whether some of that is merited or not, I don’t think it’s legitimate to talk about guaranteeing employment on anyone’s part, to be honest.

Rick: Maybe it’s better to focus on the strength of the transferable skills a liberal arts education offers, which can be applied in any circumstance. It might be hard for a parent to swallow; it’s hard for people to get their minds around. Maybe not anymore, all those middle-class manufacturing jobs have gone away.

Sam: I think there’s some relevance to what you are saying, but it’s going to continue to be the same uphill battle. But for me, higher education is evergreen in a lot of ways. It’s going to be able to withstand a lot of pressures, including things like computers and robots and automation, as well as ensuring we still have core “human-only” input in the future.

Rick: A while ago I read Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff, which is all about the tension between the world we are moving toward (is it Intelligence Augmentation or Artificial Intelligence?) and the role of humans in that world. The book tends to compartmentalize each side of the argument, but to me, it sure feels like we’re going in the direction of AI more than IA. How we develop and nurture humans for living in that future world is pretty critical.

Sam: Agreed. I think that’s interesting because I find IA more appealing. It helps me be alive. I want it to help my intelligence rather than replace it. I’d rather work a 40-hour work week at 200% of my intelligence, or 300% or 400%, because the tools that I might have—ambient or tangible—would be so vibrant and rich that I could produce at a higher rate. It’s less about replacing ourselves and more about increasing intelligence, and I find that highly appealing.

Rick: Well, I think that’s the task of higher education: equipping people to embrace that future, embrace the kind of energy it’s going to take to increase our own intelligence while we let robots do some work for us.


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Sam Waterson

Sam is President at RHB.