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Universities of the Future: Education, Jobs, and Drugs

March 14, 2012, 6:20 AM


Nick Bostrom, a philosopher with a scientific background, serves on the faculty of the Future of Humanity Institute at the James Martin School at Oxford University. He has written on artificial intelligence, transhumanism, cognitive enhancement, and cataclysmic scenarios for the distant future. Given the current economic malaise, Nick is also very thoughtful of the role of the university, its relationship to the labor market, and the impact of cognitive enhancers on the student body.

You have spoke about a need to cultivate a big picture understanding of the world as a source of competitive advantage. This was intended as an antidote to the STEM fetishising that is a part of contemporary political discourse. Do you have any recommendations on how universities could cultivate this, or is this a case of temperament?

Nick: Universities could facilitate sampling courses from different areas, allowing students to combine many smaller pieces of study into adegree. There would have to be some restrictions, but the more flexibility that could be built into the system, the better. I think it wouldalso be desirable if the exam system could be set up in such a way that students who fail or do poorly in an exam could re-sit it withouta penalty. With such a failsafe, exams could be made harder and students could still feel more emboldened to experiment with differenttopics. I should also say that many STEM subjects provide excellent tools for thinking of big picture questions; for example, computerscience and economics.

Do you have any views on what online video learning offers students of this generation? The AI class by Stanford was an extremelyinteresting experiment, even opening up a Stanford education to some students in Afghanistan.

Nick: For many topics, it would be quite feasible for a motivated student to learn on their own, with or without formal enrolment in on-campus oronline courses. One could just pick up a textbook or two and start reading and doing the exercises. Much about getting an education,however, is not about learning the subject but about getting accredited. If online courses gain in prestige, they might start being betterable to substitute as accreditation providers. A third function of the university is to provide a social experience. It’s harder to see how theonline course could fully substitute for this in the near future. You've spoken a lot about cognitive enhancers.

Do you have any views about whether students should use these? If so which ones doyou feel are promising?

Nick: Alleged cognitive enhancers range from caffeine to nicotine chewing gum to pharmaceuticals like Modafinil or Ritalin. Some individualsmight benefit from one or another of these, but I’m sceptical that there is any one thing on the market today that would benefit almosteverybody. Getting enough sleep and some exercise, on the other hand, seem universally beneficial.

Nick’s comments highlight the potential for online learning tool and other mechanisms to erode the centrality of our formal university system. However, these are often most taken advantage of by those who already have attained a certain degree of education and knowledge. At the same time, issues such as accreditation and social environment are very difficult to replace or substitute. Those advocating a radical shift towards a market-based model of education will need to consider these factors as they innovate and seek to serve the broader public education market.

You can learn more about Professor Nick Bostrom on his homepage.

Peader Coyle is a Researcher with the Hybrid Reality Institute, a research and advisory group that focuses on human-technology co-evolution, geotechnology and innovation.


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