We need to help create a future we cannot predict

We need to help create a future we cannot predict

Professor Soumitra Dutta the Dean of Oxford’s Saïd Business School talks about the possible impact on education

AI will have a dramatic effect on universities: in terms of staffing, students, courses, marking, everything, he insists. Everything you ever thought you knew, be prepared to forget. But, maintains the enthusiastic educator, the opportunities are going to be amazing. And he should know. Professor Dutta’s doctorate was in Artificial Intelligence. He has been researching, teaching and consulting on AI strategy for years.

So, he is able to talk with more certainty (than someone who has just seen the Matrix) of the coming changes in employment – and management – that are heading our way. Professor Dutta smiles. Long-held certainties about the workplace are coming to an end. There will be changes that business schools (and universities) should embrace, he says, with rather more enthusiasm than many will feel in higher education.

‘Your job could be done using AI,’ he says casually and rather depressingly, before admitting the new technological age is a slightly terrifying prospect, for business school Deans, as well as everyone else.

‘It’s going to change jobs, remove a lot of jobs, we can’t predict or visualise very well what will be the impact at this point,’ he says. ‘We’re not very good at visualizing impacts in times of exponential change.’

SBSBut Professor Dutta is clearly determined not to shy away from the possibilities offered by AI, and is already thinking about what the Oxford Saïd will be able to do – and how it can embrace the opportunities. Right now, though, no one can be certain, exactly what is coming, he suggests – other than saying change is coming.

‘What we will be able to do [with computer power advances that are coming] it’s hard to predict now,’ he says. ‘But we will be affected to a very large degree. The nature of work is going to change. We are going to have to rethink all organisations and certainly universities as wIt is not just writers who will be looking for alternative employment – thanks to advances in programmes such as ChatGPT. So many roles will change - software engineers, lawyers…lecturers, perhaps?

‘Models may be replaced. Why would you need them, when you can use AI images?’ He asks. And it is not just that machines will be able to assimilate data and produce answers more quickly.

‘AI will be able to reason better and be better at creativity. Machines will be able to do a vast range of things. There are chatbots already which build emotional bonds. There are millions of men in China with the same AI girlfriend “Xiaoice”. Have you seen the movie ‘Her’? (Where a man falls in love with his computer’s operating system)? It’s happening for real.’e know them.’

So, what does all this mean for a business school and for the students who travel across the world to come to Oxford to learn from experts at the Oxford Saïd? Surely, they will be at the frontline of a new world – where staff and managers are potentially made redundant and business thinking will be done by machines?

‘We have to think very carefully what it means, what will work look like for them,’ says Professor Dutta, who clearly relishes the challenge. ‘Business schools are going to have to be creative, have bold experiments and think how best we can prepare students and what we are preparing them for. What will their work look like?’

Professor Dutta laughs, ‘It’s very exciting and worrying at the same time. But in the next 20 years there will be a major transformation. But we need to ask: are we creating a better future?’

SBSWhile many would rather not think about it, Professor Dutta is hungrily considering the implications. His travelling allows time for thinking and perspective. The Oxford Saïd’s Dean has a very busy schedule. As well as leading the business school, he is an author and an entrepreneur – showing the way for his students. And he has also been linked as an adviser to the White House and Davos. He volunteers for non-profits organisations and squeezes every minute out of the day.

As befits the head of such an internationally-focused business school, Professor Dutta’s family spans three continents. And before coming to Oxford, he crossed the globe in a dizzying progress. Born in India, where his family still lives in Goa and he visits regularly, after graduation, he went to take a Doctorate at Berkeley. He met his wife, Lourdes Casanova, a fellow academic, while they were studying in California (she won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship). At the moment, she is teaching at Cornell University’s College of Business in New York. Meanwhile, their daughter, Sara Dutta, who studied at Oxford, is currently based on the western seaboard of the United States.

But he did not remain in the US. After university and completing his Doctorate, Professor Dutta went into education. He was not planning it, but it happened. He was offered a post at INSEAD, the highly-regarded business school in France, as a member of faculty.

Not planning to stay long, he remained in Fontainebleau for more than two decades. But, in 2012, he went back to the US, having been headhunted to go to New York to help set up a campus in New York City (Cornell Tech) for the Ivy League-university Cornell - the SC Johnson Business School - which he led as Dean. A decade later, he crossed back over the Atlantic in 2022 to Oxford, to take up his current role of Dean at the Oxford Saïd Business School. And breathe.

‘It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to set up the campus in New York city,’ he says. ‘Coming to Oxford was the same. I knew I would return to Europe and when the offer came from Oxford, it was very natural.’

AI is set to turn his world, in particular, upside down. He explains, ‘Will there be enough jobs? We need to think about human dignity and where people will find fulfilment [if they are not working]. People will have to be helped to adjust to change. The number of people needed for employment will decrease, but we can’t make predictions.’

‘We can, however, be agile,’ says the Dean, who runs through a variety of possibilities and opportunities: providing courses for people around the world, from Oxford…perhaps using social media…being able to advise all my students, using AI, ‘Being scared will not help – we need to look for better outcomes.’

He maintains, ‘We need to take risks, so there will be failures. But we need to experiment and learn how we can do things better, ‘It’s moving so fast, we need to stay ahead of the changes.’

It seems highly unlikely, given his urgency, but he says, ‘We don’t want to be left behind.’

With so much changing, the professor says, this is an opportunity to think about the model of education, ‘Is a one or three-year degree the right thing? What product would be better? People are going to be looking for lifelong learning – a 30-year product, not a three year one. People are going to need help into the future. This is a great time to look at this and all the opportunities.’

And it will not just be the business schools that need to adapt, he maintains. ‘It can be a laboratory for learning for the university. The business school is more agile. We can take risks and lead the way.’

So where will business education and practice be in five years?

‘There will be more need for lifelong learning. But there will still be MBAs and degrees. In future, there may be more Oxford Online – that’s very interesting. We could reach more people – thousands more people, that way.’

Professor Dutta is in no doubt about the power of the Oxford name and the education. His link with Oxford goes back many decades, to when he came to the university as a parent, leaving his daughter to begin her studies. He says, ‘It is a place that gives you the privilege of dreaming.’

In future, though, there will be novel opportunities for the 900-year-old university, as well as for the business school. Professor Dutta says, ‘It is an amazing platform. But we need to rethink what it is for. It is a mistake not to take these changes seriously. We do not want to be the last to change.’

Professor Dutta did not expect all this within a year of taking the reins at the Oxford Saïd, but he is clearly up for the challenge. He smiles, ‘We need to help create the future we cannot predict…it’s an exciting time. The footprints of elite universities are too small, but they can be made much bigger using technology.’

These are challenges facing every aspect of life – and national life. In business terms, he says, the UK has a strong mercantile tradition. He reflects ruefully on the East India Company, ‘Great businesses are born here. For a small country, the UK has a lot of strengths. Now, it needs to pick up speed and move faster. Education has an important role in helping the UK build a strong future.’

And breathe.

Source: https://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/oxford-people/Soumitra-Dutta

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