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Derrick RancourtIf machines can think critically, where will university-educated students go?

As an educator who is passionate about student professional development, I’m concerned about how artificial intelligence (AI) threatens to steal many of the remaining jobs available for university-educated students.

I’ve written previously about job shortages in academia and medicine and how students must turn to non-academic sectors to fulfil their careers.

Whereas business used to reject highly-trained university graduates based on their specialization being a mile deep and an inch wide, training programs, such as biomedical engineering, have begun to teach students about the importance of versatility and career exploration.

In his book Primary Greatness, business guru Stephen R. Covey suggests that in the new economy, knowledge workers need to improve their skills in gathering, analyzing and synthesizing data. Based on this guidance, in my medical science and biomedical engineering courses, I’ve directed students away from technical jobs that are in short supply, pointing them towards careers in the space between medicine and business. Such opportunities include but aren’t limited to: intellectual property management, competitive intelligence, and market and financial analysis.

Armed with a depth of medical research experience, and a modicum of business awareness, I used to think that many students could be competitive for future careers that required their advanced critical-thinking skills. Critical thinking is an essential skill for various positions in the workforce, especially for decision-making roles. It’s a process of judgment that’s focused, organized, logical and meaningful. It’s the skill that helps to realize the depth of any problem, ask necessary questions and evaluate the probable solutions with logical reasoning to make informed decisions.

Recently, however, I’ve become concerned about the rise of machines. Not only have robots stolen many jobs, while autonomous vehicles threaten to disrupt the transportation sector, artificial intelligence threatens to steal many of the jobs that I’ve been pointing my students towards.

Algorithms associated with AI have begun to demonstrate their proficiency at analytics. The world is awash with data and analytics identifies patterns in data. Now, algorithms are doing more than just give meaning to data – they also create predictive models, which drive and support decision-making.

I used to think students could work alongside computers in business analyst positions, which pursue the knowledge synthesis component of analytics. But recent advances in applying AI to stock-market trading have given me pause.

Beside analyzing, interpreting and applying information, critical thinking involves learning from experience. AI requires data training sets to identify patterns and make recommendations. In finance, AI programmers simply developed a 10-year back-test to teach AI how to optimally invest. Armed this knowledge, stock trading companies feel comfortable enough with computers to make those executive functions.

Of course, computer trading isn’t new. But previously, those decisions were based on high-frequency trading, where computers make split-second decisions based on trading patterns executed by humans.

Now with computers executing decisions based on synthesis, do we need to fear that other careers requiring critical-thinking skills will soon be in jeopardy?

I’m starting to think the best potential careers for my students may be those that also require good interpersonal skills, including communication and emotional intelligence. It’s becoming more important for students to get out of university and learn the tacit skills necessary to function in the real world.

Recently, Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, coined the term “The Intellectual Yet Idiot” to describe those highly-educated students who don’t have the facilities to engage normal people and to function fully in the real world. With the threat of machines taking away their livelihoods, it’s high time that universities started to emphasize the development of tacit skills and experiential learning in non-academic workplaces.

Armed with tacit skills, students can consider careers such as sales, customer support, business development, medical liaison and clinical trials.

Hopefully, machines won’t be able to take those jobs away from students (although science fiction also predicts a future where robots develop rapport with humans).

Derrick Rancourt is a professor in the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, where he chairs the Graduate Science Education’s Professional Development Taskforce.

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