A World of Change: A World of Opportunities

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Written by Lino Guzzella

“If we want everything to stay as it is, everything must change.” This famous statement from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel “il Gattopardo”—a story that unfolds in mid-nineteenth-century Sicily—still bears some truth today. The ongoing “digital revolution” forces us, both as a society, as well as individuals, to welcome permanent change if we want to secure our welfare and prosperity. Technology impacts our daily life and the world of labor more than ever before—autonomous systems take over some aspects of our lives, artificial intelligence provides us with cognitive assistants, and co-operative robots interact with industry workers. Everything and everyone is connected in such a way that data gathering on a massive scale is ubiquitous.

Not everyone reacts with optimism to these developments. The scope, and particularly the speed, at which change occurs fosters feelings of fear and insecurity among a growing number of people. Several studies and books about the impact of advancing technology on society, predict a substantial loss of jobs in the decades to come. Will automation eliminate more than half of the existing jobs over the next 20 years as some scholars suggest? How many white collar jobs are also at stake if advanced algorithms and artificial intelligence encroach upon economic sectors and professions? Will we eventually end up in a post-employment society?

We may argue with the economist Josef Schumpeter that economic progress is inevitably linked to creative destruction. Fortunately, all industrial revolutions have, thus far, created more new jobs than destroyed old ones and all major technological shifts have brought us economic wealth. This question remains: Is what emerges on the horizon just a continuation of the past? Or, is tomorrow’s digitized world a sui generis phenomenon that defies comparison with former industrial revolutions?

No one really knows the socio-economic magnitude of the digital revolution or how it will impact society in 20 – 30 years, but we all surely agree that our traditional perception of privacy, social interaction, and labor need to be revised in order to fit into the digitally-connected society we are morphing into. It is important to note, at this stage, that we are not helpless creatures at the mercy of a change orchestrated by a Deus Ex Machina. We are subjects and agents of this change.

This is where the higher education system comes into play. I am deeply convinced that, if we do it right, education is and will remain the key to how we handle the future. We must review our curricula, question our teaching methods in the light of easily accessible and vast information sources, and grow demand for creativity and ingenuity. Data, in its digital form, becomes an abundant commodity available everywhere, all of the time, and at a near-zero transaction cost. Thus, the digital revolution is not just something that affects others, but it defies a university’s core mission and forces us to rethink the most noble of our tasks – how to educate people and prepare them in the best way that we can for their professional careers.

What skill sets are needed to remain indispensable as human beings in the age of automation? Which competencies should we equip our students with to be able to take advantage of future robots with cognitive algorithms? I am convinced that we need to encourage critical and creative thinking among our students. We need to teach them how to think and how to act in an entrepreneurial way and how to foster intercultural communication skills. It is well understood that there should be no compromise in the mastery of mathematics and natural sciences in a technical education; however, we must, as educators, emphasize the promotion of human qualities and foster the growth of these qualities in our young people. At ETH Zurich we launched a Critical Thinking Initiative to reform and develop our curricula in this direction. I am convinced that the combination of a rock-solid methodical competence along with critical and creative thinking is the best possible preparation for our graduates to benefit from the changes to come.

The content of education is one thing. The question: “How we can ensure cognition and understanding?” is no less challenging to answer in the digital age. The rise of online platforms in recent years has sparked a lot of enthusiasm in some parts of the world and, of course, we have been joyfully experimenting with gamification, MOOC’s, flipped classrooms, and other forms of shared content distribution and knowledge transfer. As a long-time and passionate educator it is my firm belief that beyond all of the technological means and communication tools available there really is no substitute for the learning experience achieved when human beings engage each other. An ideal model would not replace humans, but rather, enhance their ingenuity with technology.

I agree with Erik Brynjolsfsson and Andrew McAfee* that “technology creates possibilities and potential, but ultimately, the future we get will depend on the choices we make.” We need to engage in a dialog with various stakeholders and beyond national boundaries. I am therefore very pleased that ETH Zurich co-hosts the Global Talent Summit with the Diplomatic Courier in January 2017. This summit brings together inspirational leaders from industry policy and academia to address one of the most pressing issues of society: how we can prepare future generations for a world full of opportunities to better the human condition.

About the author: Professor Dr. Lino Guzzella is President of ETH Zurich. Professor Guzzella is a fellow of IFAC and a fellow of IEEE and a member of the Swiss academy of engineering sciences (SATW). 


*E. Brynjolfsson, A. McAfee in “The Second Machine Age”, p 256, W.W. Norton & Company.