Book Review- Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

by Chris Grabau, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

The rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning brings the promise of increased productivity, efficiency, safety and access to a wealth of new information; however, these technologies also raise difficult questions about the nature of work.  What jobs, skills and labor will be needed when most work has been automated?  Furthermore, how do we better prepare college students to enter into a heavily automated work environment?

Joseph Aoun, renowned scholar in linguistics and president of Northeastern University, explores the impact of AI and higher education in his book, Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.  In order to prepare college graduates for an automated workplace, Aoun proposes a new educational framework centered on humanics – inter- and intrapersonal-based skills in creative thinking, empathy, teamwork, and judgment.  While these skills are familiar outcomes for liberal arts education, when paired with the coming AI workplace, they take a context that is more vital than aspirational. Aoun states [humanics], “enables learners to understand the highly technological world around them that simultaneously allows them to transcend it by nurturing the mental and intellectual qualities that are unique to humans – namely, their capacity for creativity and mental flexibility” (Aoun, 2017, p. 53).

In order for higher education to help students develop these skills, Aoun describes a learning paradigm that prioritizes three literacies: technical literacy, or the understanding of how technology works; data literacy (big data, media, analytics) which is the ability to understand how information is generated; and finally, human literacy which is the human capacity to engage with others, and “tap into our human capacity for grace and beauty” (Aoun, 2017, p. 59).

While there are many ways educators can help build technical, data, and human literacy, Aoun suggests one of the best ways to prepare for the AI workplace is for educators to create experiential learning experiences that connect learning with the outside word.  Not only does experiential learning help students build the relevant skills in a rapidly changing workplace, but they offer a way for students to build lifelong learning skills through the connection of others.  “If students are to be lifelong learners, they must engage with a diversity of perspectives, including ones that challenge their presuppositions.  Only though the full and respectful including of people of different backgrounds, identities, and creeds can we learn, cooperate, and create to our full potential” (60).

While the rise of artificial intelligence offers a complex set of questions, thinking about how higher education can/should respond is a worthy pursuit.  While some of the aspects of Aoun’s book may seem to nod to some familiar work within higher education, the book underscores how the process and context of learning are profound components to the educational experience found in higher education.  As we head towards a new semester, consider how students are experiencing learning as much as the content that will be taught in their class.

If you want to discuss experiential learning, ways to incorporate inter/intra personal skills into your course or to address how to facilitate deeper learning contexts in your teaching, you can always request a confidential consultation with someone from the Reinert Center.




Aoun, J. E. (2017). Robot-proof: higher education in the age of artificial intelligence. MIT Press.