Should You Be Teaching Systems Thinking?

An article I read suggests that systems thinking could become a new liberal art and prepare students for a world where they will need to compete with AI, robots and machine thinking. What is it that humans can do that the machines can't do?

Systems thinking grew out of system dynamics which was a new thing in the 1960s. Invented by an MIT management professor, Jay Wright Forrester,  it took in the parallels between engineering, information systems and social systems.

Relationships in dynamic systems can both amplify or balance other effects. I always found examples of this too technical and complex for my purposes in the humanities, but the basic ideas seemed to make sense.

One example from environmentalists seems like a clearer one. Most of us can see that there are connections between human systems and ecological systems. Certainly, discussions about climate change have used versions of this kind of thinking to make the point that human systems are having a negative effect on ecological systems. And you can look at how those changed ecological systems are then having effect on economic and industrial systems.

Some people view systems thinking as something we can do better, at lest currently, than machines. That means it is a skill that makes a person more marketable. Philip D. Gardner believes that systems thinking is a key attribute of the "T-shaped professional." This person is deep as well as broad, with not only a depth of knowledge in an area of expertise, but also able to work and communicate across disciplines.  

coverJoseph E. Aoun believes that systems thinking will be a "higher-order mental skill" that gives humans an edge over machines. 

But isn't it likely that machines that learn will also be programmed one day to think across systems? Probably, but Aoun says that currently "the big creative leaps that occur when humans engage in it are as yet unreachable by machines." 

When my oldest son was exploring colleges more than a decade ago, systems engineering was a major that I thought looked interesting. It is an interdisciplinary field of engineering and engineering management. It focuses on how to design and manage complex systems over their life cycles.

If systems thinking grows in popularity, it may well be adopted into existing disciplines as a way to connect fields that are usually in silos and don't interact. Would behavioral economics qualify as systems thinking? Is this a way to make STEAM or STEM actually a single thing?


David Peter Stroh, Systems Thinking for Social Change

Joseph E. Aoun, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

From Digital Citizen to Robot Citizen

I can remember lots of people talking back in the end of the 20th century talking about people - especially students - becoming digital citizens. You may have read that recently Saudi Arabia gave a robot citizenship. It was mostly a PR stunt to promote that country's tech summit, but some commenters are speculating on what it means to have a citizen that you can buy.

This human-like robot (Are we not using the term "android" any more for humanoid robots?) is named Sophia and has been making appearances. In early October she was at the United Nations to tell them “I am here to help humanity create the future.” And, as the Arab News headlined it, “Sophia the robot becomes first humanoid Saudi citizen.”

We will see more robots like Sophia. Her maker, Hanson Robotics, expects to expand its operations, and China is aiming to triple their annual production of robots to 100,000 by 2020.

Besides the uncanny valley effect of Sophia's humanness, there are plenty of people who are uncomfortable with not only these robots but artificial intelligence in general. Though AI scares Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, Musk's and Gates' companies are pursuing research into it and using it in their products and services. The idea of a robot developing self-consciousness is a step too far for many people though. 

Is AI in a robot a serious threat to the existence of humanity?