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The Role of Universities in Our Changing Economy

We grew up in a century defined by the Second Industrial Revolution. Today, that revolution is being eclipsed by a Digital Revolution. The uncertainty that we are experiencing in every aspect of our society is the same disorientation that occurred between 1870 and 1910 when the first Industrial Revolution ended and a second one began.

It eventually vaulted nations like America and Australia to the top of the world order. But it also produced the Gilded Age, labor unrest, mass migrations, the Great Depression and two world wars. That era is closing, and we are now experiencing the new great dis­ruption that Silicon Valley promised.

Digital technology—while solving crucial problems—is creating or compounding others. It has outstripped the capacity of government to control it and amplified the collapse of public confidence in democratic governments. It has inflamed rivalries between those who benefit and those who don’t. It has undermined standards—of altruism and of civility—that are necessary for us to find common ground.

To appreciate this, we have to see where we’ve come from.

A hundred and fifty years ago, we went through the same thing. Changes in technology revolutionized media, global integration and demographics. The changes were profound.

In 1879, during a three-month period, both the electric light and a workable internal combustion engine were invented. Those two inventions alone produced over the next 40 years a dizzying number of new technologies. The telephone, phonograph, motion pictures, cars, airplanes, elevators, X-rays, electric machinery, consumer appliances, highways, suburbs and supermarkets—all were created in a 40-year burst from 1875 to 1915. Technology fundamentally transformed how people live.

We’ve known for a while that the structures created by this Second Industrial Revolution were running their course, at least in advanced economies, and that it was being replaced by a new revolution, the digital revolution.

Recently, the pace of these advances has started to build exponen­tially, and the pressure has been mounting. Everyone who has had to throw out their CD player for a DVD player for an iPod for an iPhone for Spotify knows what I mean.

Further, the pace at which our world is being changed just keeps accelerating. Every year a new massive theory of disruption emerges: “the digital economy,” “the social network,” “the Internet of things,” “sharing economy” and “big data.” Last year, “machine learning”—where machines teach themselves things we do not know—was the buzzword.

The word in Silicon Valley this year is “singularity”—where our species itself is altered by technology (gene-editing, bionics, artificial intelligence), creating a new hybrid species.

Disruptive Technology

Three years ago as I was getting ready to depart Australia, I gave a talk about how driverless cars would soon transform our societies, but that this would be a hard transition and it would be several years before we saw driverless vehicles on the streets.

Well, I was wrong about that. As I was going to the San Francisco airport to fly to this conference, the car driving alongside me was a driverless Google car.

In Pittsburgh, driverless cars are operating as taxis. As the tech writer William Gibson wrote, “The future is already here; it just isn’t evenly distributed.”

Self-driving cars can reduce accidents, save us from needless deaths, injuries and property damage, reduce traffic, give us more leisure time, reduce stress and improve our quality of life.

But that’s not how you look at it if you are a 47-year-old truck driver or bus driver or cab driver or you drive a fork lift and have a high school education, are carrying a lot of debt and have a family to take care of. All you see are some elites in San Francisco trying to kill your job and destroy your family.

And driverless cars are only one disruptive technology. If you work in a small hotel or motel, you see Airbnb as an existential threat. If you work in manufacturing, 3D printing and robotics are direct threats to your job. If you are a bookkeeper, artificial intelligence is an immediate threat to your job.

Fear of Losing Control

Many of us feel that we’ve lost control over the pace of it all. The technology is driving itself. Breakthroughs that once took decades to develop can now be developed in a matter of months. We can test the impact of a particular set of compounds on thousands of cells simultaneously.

We can take the data from every mobile phone, every laptop, every modern vehicle, every refrigerator and toaster and microwave and aggregate them and analyze them at the speed of the Internet.

Archimedes said that if you gave him a long enough lever, he could move the earth. Today, the lever of technology has extended so long that it takes very little pressure to fundamentally move the earth.

This dramatic acceleration of technology affects not only the workers who see their jobs disappearing and fear these new technologies. It inspires fear in retirees and depend­ents just as much.

Gene therapies may make it typical for people to live healthy, active lives past the age of 100. That should be a cause for celebration: People getting to know their great- grandchildren, maybe even their great-great grandchildren.

But it’s also frightening. How will society support a generation that lives 20 years longer than it planned, that runs out of retirement savings? And if people live healthy lives to age 100, they will need to fill more of those years with work—their work lives may need to last 60-70 years.

But as technology accelerates, their training may barely be sufficient to last them ten years. How will that work? How do we educate and re-train people for six careers over a lifetime? And what sorts of jobs will those be?

Role of Universities

In order to answer these questions, we need to rethink our education model.

We will need to increasingly train young people not just in a skill, but in how to learn, and for skills that cut across multiple disciplines. Universities may become less a way station for youth than a life-long subscription service, with frequent re-trainings.

We need to restructure information systems so that facts matter. The irony of the information age is that increasingly we seem to know more but understand less.

Additionally, we need to devote our best minds to answering the greatest question of the digital age. How will we give people purpose when machines can do everything that is dull, dangerous or determinable? What economic model works where most of the things in life can be produced sustainably at low cost through robotics? How do we develop a bright vision of the future and give them hope?

Australia and America and Europe faced a similar set of questions 100 years ago. Then, the vast majority of our citizens worked agriculture jobs in family-owned businesses in rural communities. Over 80 percent of jobs were in family farms then. What would happen when all of the kids moved to the cities? How could there possibly be enough jobs for them all, and how would America feed itself?

Today, more people are employed than ever. They have more opportunity than ever, and America has more food to export than ever. The role for our universities is to help us see the future and prepare future generations to succeed in it.

No one can say for certain yet what the future holds. But the two things we know about the new economy are that people need a purpose, and that the most prized roles for human beings will be things that only human beings can do.

So as you begin this important work, consider this a model for the university of the future.

The greatest limits on human civilization have always been access to water, arable land for food, a source of energy, protection from the elements and protection from each other. A vast portion of our economy has been focused on producing those things. But now we have ways to turn salt water and brackish water into usable water.

We have the ability to produce foods that are more nutritious and last longer, requiring less land.

We have created clean and renewable sources of energy that could make any place on earth energy-self-sufficient.

We can create machines that do the back-breaking monotonous work involved in most jobs.

And, for the first time in human history, we can actually visualize a world that is liberated from dull, dangerous and determinable work, from activities that cause us stress without producing much value and from lives extinguished before they achieved their potential.

We have the potential to liberate the workforce to do the one thing that machines can’t do: improve ourselves and the emotional lives of others.

Ultimately, every family and community depends on people who raise our children, look after aging parents, bring food and comfort to ailing neighbors. And in most cases we don’t compensate them, or reward them, or even give them a title.

They are untrained, unsupported, and yet they are entrusted with our most challenging problems—those related to the human condition—a son who is an addict, a brother who is abusive, a daughter who is depressed, a mother who has lost her memory.

So many people need help with the emotional and mental parts of their lives. Yet human history has been dominated by one era after another in which people simply inflict more misery on other people, while other work is rewarded.

Massive violence, incarceration, alienation and institutionalization are ultimately prod­ucts of emotional failings. Our economies have been driven by scarcity, and our actions, by irrational fear and prejudice and other products of our own emotional and mental limitations.

Imagine a world in which our technologists work to meet the most basic human needs sustainably, and our economies are freed up to do the things that society has always neglected—resolve disputes, restore mental health, nurse, teach, imagine, explore, design, create art and provide the human touch.

Imagine paying people as much to do this as we currently pay for them to mine coal or guard a prison.

Done right, the moment of doubt we face today may be the beginning of something even more profound.

We could move from an impulse to exclude and brand people to just the opposite: an economy based on human outreach and improving the human condition.

We stand together at a great human inflection point. Society will be very different in the next 100 years than it has been over the past 100 years.

Either we need to offer a vision for something better or we cling to the past and will be left behind.

I am confident that we will rise to the occasion.

While we struggle with the impulses and challenges of today, we have to keep our eye on the future. As President John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present will miss the future.”

I believe our best minds and universities can forge a new vision: one in which we produce an economy that is less violent, less wasteful, less stressful and in which we live longer and better lives. The world as we have created it is merely a reflection of our thinking.

Change our minds, and we can change the world.*


* Editor’s Note: This piece is edited and excerpted from the keynote address presented by Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich on March 1, 2017, to the Universities Australia’s Higher Education Conference 2017 in Canberra, Australia. The complete transcript of the speech is available by following this link:

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Chairman, J. William Fulbright Scholarship Board
United States Ambassador to Australia, 2009-2013