(‘A Lesson from IIT‘ is a weekly column by an IIT faculty member on learning, science and technology on campus and beyond. The column will appear every Friday)
Intelligent Machines are revealing glimpses of a future envisaged long ago in science fiction as they steadily morph from human-assist systems to systems-as-human. The currently indispensable face obsolescence. The question in the minds of students entering college is this: How to be future-ready?
Now, one not only needs to be competent in a major area but also learn new topics quickly and deeply and be able to work at the edges of disciplines, while evolving constantly. Capability is judged not only by grades, but also by skills demonstrated in complex situations. Worth will also be measured vis-a-vis Cognitive Artificial Intelligence. Critical and original thinking, quality communication, IQ-EQ balance, and ethics will continue to be important strengths for swimming through these rapidly evolving times.
Shift in curriculum
Change is already in the air. Students and institutions are evolving, the former much faster, to assimilate advancements and prepare for the times ahead. Good colleges enable students to follow flexible pathways where learning happens through four channels – core academics, external experiences, student-driven activities and hostel life. Students are no longer strictly bound to the department where they enrolled in first year and can find their passion in due course. There are options for dual degrees, minors, specialisations across disciplines in their home institutions as well as certifications from worldwide venues. External experiences like internships in industry, academia, research institutions and start-ups add value to a candidate’s capability repertoire.
Student driven activities form some of the most exciting things they take up nowadays. These include several dozens of focussed groups like Aerial Robotics, Green Technologies to name a few, covering a broad range of areas. Students form multi-department teams from first year to final year and participate in various roles from trainee to developer to mentor during their college tenure. They compete for prestigious awards in national and international arenas. Often such outcomes surpass their core academic performance. I can vouch for the energy, enthusiasm and commitment of the students, who find these activities among their most enriching learning experiences. Many participate in sports, cultural, literary, fine arts related areas where they are able to flower their talent and hone their communication and networking abilities. Some take up important social causes, mostly related to education of the underprivileged. Personality development happens in the hostels, where they find avenues to imbibe life skills like independent living, participatory self-governance, democratic processes, financial management and leadership.
Pieces of what is needed to prepare for entering the world are available in quality institutions. It is up to the student to avail these for attaining proficiency in handling an increasingly dynamic future. Inappropriate choices and lack of effort can be more disastrous than it was earlier.
Here are some suggestions on how to fruitfully utilise these formative years.
1. Move across disciplines
A combination of core and transdisciplinary professional competence is the need of the hour. To be prepared for the future, one needs to learn new things quickly and thoroughly, constantly sharpening one’s cutting edge. This attitude needs to be ingrained at this stage.
It is also necessary to demonstrate personal excellence in a few relevant areas. Completing tasks well is really important. Average performance and shallow knowledge are a recipe for disaster. This happens due to low effort or spreading yourself too thin by randomly meandering through easy-looking avenues.
2. Learn to add value to machine intelligence
Automation is not only relieving us of mundane work but slowly and steadily encroaching upon tasks meant for so-called intelligent humans and doing them better. One must effectively grasp and utilise it rather than fear and shy away. Many students are building amazingly smart systems using open source platforms and off-the-shelf components with ambitions to take on giants. New vistas are opening up on understanding the nature of intelligence, both human and machine. Therefore, learning to add value to machine intelligence for solving complex problems better is the mantra here. For this, one needs to understand how it works, what are its current limitations and pitfalls, develop deeper insights and innovate. Blind usage of Artificial Intelligence could be dangerous. The tiger that can devour you has to be skilfully ridden and student life is the time to grasp such competency.
3. Learn to collaborate
The next proficiency to develop is to be able to work both alone as well as in a group, to creatively ideate, lead and collaborate towards success. Often, people who work alone find it difficult working in a team and vice versa. Now both aptitudes are required. One needs to spend short periods on solving many things quickly, as well as devote long hours on one thing in a single-minded fashion to take it to perfection. This requires a special bonding of steadiness with speed, constant ideation with dogged persistence. Such an entrepreneurial spirit of sprinting a long-distance race steadily, sometimes in a team, sometimes alone will be needed at every stage of a career, whether at the peak of success or in the trenches of failure.
4. Remain human
Technology has an interesting way of transforming human beings into automatons without the victim being aware. With extensive usage, people begin to think and behave the way machines work. Therefore, a critical aspect to nurture is to remain human.
Human beings are often unaware of the potential and power of the heart, head and inner spirit. This needs constant cultivation in a fast-paced programmed world. Nourishing the left and right halves of the brain are essential for intellectual-emotional balance and for replenishing the mind’s fertility. It is vital to nourish a soulful side through sports, arts, culture, philosophy and humanitarian work, not just as part of a curriculum, but as a passion where one can be blissfully immersed, forgetting everything else for some time.
Making sure that one remains human is a critical trait that needs serious attention throughout. It is a foundation without which wrong choices may be made in life. The future of society is not as much dependent on whether machines will become human-like but more on whether humans will become machines.
(The writer is former director of IIT Kharagpur and currently a professor at the department of Computer Science and Engineering)