Written by Ashley Murphy

AI, or artificial intelligence, is the area of computer science concerned with the creation of intelligent machines that function like human beings. It's often described as the fourth industrial revolution, and many experts believe it will revolutionize almost every aspect of the modern human experience, including the way we work, travel, socialize, and learn.

And while all the big tech companies are pouring enormous resources into developing AI, a significant amount of innovation will stem from academia. The UK government recently announced an investment of £1 billion, much of which will go toward providing research grants for top universities. The USA already has a thriving academic community working with AI and emerging economies like China are following suit. This means universities will become a hotbed of AI innovation and are most likely to be the earliest adopters of new and exciting technologies.

With all that in mind, here are just a few of the ways in which AI will transform university life.

Adapt or die - why every university needs AI

The rise of online learning means fewer students are attending physical campuses. And with less footfall, many US colleges have seen a downturn in revenue, meaning they are adapting their business models as students opt for more flexible and cost-effective types of earning. However, AI and automation present other challenges -- and opportunities -- for colleges and universities...

Staffordshire University has already introduced such technology. Beacon is an AI-powered chatbot and educational tool. It's the first of its kind in a UK university and is on hand 24/7 to answer student inquiries. Beacon can remind students about class times, assignments dates, and even perform simple administrative tasks like applying for an exemption from council tax.  Students can communicate with Beacon via text or chat and the more interactions it has, the smarter it gets. Beacon might not be exciting as some of the more fantastical predictions about AI, but early adopters like Staffordshire University will have a significant advantage when AI becomes more integrated into university life.

These digital assistants will be able to provide a personalized, holistic service to students. AI bots will offer academic advice, including the best ways to revise and even the best ways to learn. They could also provide the kind of in-depth feedback on assignments which simply isn't possible for a lecturer with 500 students.

Today's students are paying more for their education than ever before. As a result, they tend to have higher expectations on the kind of ‘service’ they should receive. AI may well be the best way to ensure students get value for their money. These technologies are set to transform the nature of higher education, and the institutions that do not embrace AI may find themselves on the wrong end of that old Darwinian maxim -- adapt or die.

AI will transform traditional teaching methods

Yuki, the world’s first robot teacher, is already delivering lectures to university students at the Philipps University of Marburg in Germany. For the time being, Yuki acts as a teaching assistant. ‘He’ can administer tests, provide useful learning resources, and even gets a sense of how well students are performing.

But as AI and robotics continue to improve, Yuki will be able to take responsibility for increasingly complex tasks, including providing higher levels of individualized learning, delivering more sophisticated lectures, and identifying areas of improvement within degree programs and syllabi. Yuki and his robotic colleagues are likely to complete these tasks in a much more efficient way than their human counterparts. This means there will be less need for actual humans to do the more mundane aspects of academic work. For some scholars, this would be a welcome change. Less time administering means more time researching, writing, experimenting, and discovering.  

Then again, if AI develops in the way some experts suggest, it won't be too long before it's capable of ‘thinking’ for itself. These  AI-powered robots will be, and in many respects already are, capable of performing extremely complicated calculations within seconds, and their levels of abstract reasoning looks set to only improve. In other words, these super-smart machines may well make human researchers completely redundant. These profoundly intelligent machines will not only be able to answer any question us mere mortals can pose, but they'll also be capable of coming with answers to questions that we could never even conceive. It might sound like something out of a low-budget sci-fi movie, but it is possible we could one day see universities staffed entirely by AIs!

AI studies will become an increasingly popular choice for students

A study by the McKinsey Global Institute finds that by 2030 up to 800 million workers around the world will have been replaced by automation. Machine operators and unskilled service staff are likely to be impacted first, and it is predicted AI will go on to replace skilled jobs in finance, HR, and healthcare. In fact, it is believed that up to a third of workers in developed nations like Germany and the US will need retraining.

However, the good news is that many experts believe AI can create (and improve) at least as many jobs as it replaces, including numerous opportunities in new and exciting industries like data science, machine learning, and emotion engineering. Alex Adamopoulos, founder and chief executive officer of consultancy company Emergn, considers in Forbes the question of what kind of threat AI poses to human jobs. He writes, “The short answer is: it doesn’t really. Both Felix [Dr. Felix Hovsepian, Adamopoulos’ friend and AI expert] and I are big believers in the idea of AI augmentation - using artificial intelligence not to replace people, but to enhance our ability to do the jobs we have already. AI and automation will also open the door for scores of new job opportunities, many of which we can’t even imagine yet. Think of all the jobs the internet has created in just the past 20 years. Were any of these jobs even conceivable to people 100 years ago?”

It's also very likely that AI will create many more jobs that we haven't yet imagined. This optimistic outlook means that the next generations of students will require increasing access to AI studies and many universities are already providing such courses.

This September, Chinese universities are set to welcome their first crop of undergraduates majoring in AI. 35 universities have established a four-year undergraduate course focusing on artificial intelligence and the shift toward AI and automation is part of China's plan to become a major global player in AI by 2030. Courses integrate AI studies with a host of other relevant disciplines, including mathematics, statistics, physics, and sociology.

These future graduates will not be short of career opportunities. Back in 2017, the School of Computer and Information Technology at Beijing Jiaotong University set-up an AI research institute for postgraduates, and many receive job offers from big tech companies well before they complete their studies. According to the vice-dean of the institute, Lin Youfang, students can expect to be offered salaries over well 300,000 yuan ($44,700) per year.

Digital universities

Many universities are developing specific digital strategies in reaction to the shift towards new technology like smart devices, social media, virtual reality, and cloud computing. Combined with the sophisticated nature of emerging AI, these technologies may play an instrumental role in redefining the student experience and the very structure of brick- and- mortar universities.

On idea already being mooted is the digital campus. This concept doesn't do away with physical universities but instead envisions a blending of the digital and physical world to create an immersive, interactive, and highly responsive student experience. For example, AI can be used to power virtual and augmented realities to create digital worlds or scenarios for students to explore. As the students interact with these digital realities, AI can assess how the student's actions affect the virtual environments and respond accordingly. Students can then run hundreds of simulations with entirely different outcomes. This means that a tropical forest ecology student can ‘visit’ a Malaysian rainforest over and over again, performing numerous versions of the same experiment over the course of just a few days. Alternatively, medical students will be able to perform virtual surgeries, and clinical psychology students can run psychotherapy sessions with an AI pre-programmed to replicate symptoms of a specific mental health issue.

And imagine the benefits of having a completely digitalized library with hyperlinks to other valuable and relevant resources. And imagine if there was a piece of technology that didn't just know what you were reading, but why you were reading that specific book. For example, before ‘opening’  a digital copy of Karl Marx's Das Kapital, students could tell the AI to highlight passages and references most relevant to a specific essay question, such as how does Karl Marx link his theory of alienation to particular modes of economic production? You will still need to write the actual essay, but a well-programmed AI will be able to save you hours in research time.

These are just a handful of the ways in which AI may transform the universities, but it is important to note that the future of AI is widely unpredictable. Some experts believe AI will become integrated into society, operating in more of a supporting role in our everyday lives. Others predict a complete revolution which will require us to reassess our very nature. We can say for sure that AI will change the way we live forever... we’re just not sure how!

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