Sociology class assigns President Aoun’s book as required reading

Sociology class assigns President Aoun’s book as required reading
Robot-Proof is now being sold in the bookstore as a textbook following its adoption as a required text. / Photo by Albert Tamura

Updated on Jan. 28 at 6:16 p.m. to include Northeastern University spokesperson’s response.

By Anna Donnelly, news correspondent

Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun’s book “Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” is now on the list of required texts for Computers and Society, a sociology class.

“Robot-Proof,” published in 2017 by MIT Press, proposes a framework for educating students to be successful in a rapidly evolving workplace where humans must work alongside computers.

“I can see how it would be a conflict of interest because he’s the president of the university and he’s essentially endorsing his own book,” first-year undeclared student Sheridan Lasher said. “But, if the teacher believes that it’s the best material for the course, then the students should read it.”

Thomas Koenig, the professor who teaches Computers and Society, also wrote the class’s primary textbook, “Global Information Technologies: Ethics and the Law.”

This semester, Koenig decided to replace “The Industries of the Future” with Aoun’s book as the course’s second reading.  “The Industries of the Future” was written by Alec Ross, a former senior advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and current candidate for governor of Maryland.

“[“The Industries of the Future”] tended to have a top-down, here’s what government policy should be toward those things,” Koenig said. “[Aoun’s] talking about how Northeastern should prepare people, but less of an entire industrial policy coming from the top, more of what institutions should do and how Northeastern is carrying out that kind of mission… It will relate to the students very well and very clearly.”

Another advantage Koenig sees in using the book is the interdisciplinary nature of the solutions the book offers.

“Its central focus is on not siloing computer science people to narrow computer science, or sociology people to sociology,” Koenig said. “Both need to inform the other, and that’s part of the message of the class. Hopefully in the class they begin to talk to each other and see a more round, richer kind of way to deal with those things.”

Koenig is not the only professor who sees benefit in requiring his students to read “Robot-Proof.” It was included on Business Insider’s list of “The one book every student should read in 2018, according to Harvard professors” after it was recommended by Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and Harvard University professor E.J. Corey.

“I believe in the importance of students using their precious college years to develop their minds to think creatively and logically and to build a base of knowledge that will enable them to excel in their careers and to cooperate with others in a way which enhances their individual capabilities,” Corey said in a Jan. 23 email to The News.

Both “Robot-Proof” and “Global Information Technologies” can be purchased in the bookstore or online. On Aoun’s page of the Northeastern website, there is a “Robot-Proof” tab linked to the book’s website.

According to Renata Nyul, Vice President of Communications for Northeastern, in a Jan. 25 email to the News, all proceeds from the sale of “Robot-Proof” are being donated to charity.

Professor Koenig plans to teach the class about the internet and challenges accompanying it, and then to follow up with “Robot-Proof.” He wants students to reflect on their own experiences for discussion.

[Robot-Proof] is aimed at education and it says a great deal specifically about Northeastern’s vision and how Northeastern is run, which I think will relate to the students very well and very clearly,” Koenig said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly named the author of “The Industries of the Future”. His name is Alec Ross.

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