Universities of the Future: Education, Jobs, and Drugs


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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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.