“The evolution of technology is, like the evolution of literature, heavily path-dependent. Culture plays a far more important role in the acceptance, adoption, and spread of technology than many of us are willing to acknowledge.”
Ken Liu, science-fiction and fantasy writer
Humanities degrees are needed in technology. They give context to the world we operate in day to day. Critical thinking skills, deeper understanding of the world around us, philosophy, ethics, communication, and creativity offer different approaches to problems posed by technology. Studying liberal arts and humanities are largely ‘unstructured’ subjects, there is typically no right and wrong. Whereas science and mathematics based subjects are ‘structured’ with right and wrong answers to problems.
The liberal arts and humanities are often quaffed at, rather unfairly. Often to the dismay of some parents, a late teen embarks on an Arts Degree to the cries of ‘What will you do with that?’, ‘oh, so you’ll be a teacher then?’, ‘that’s a ‘mickey-mouse’ degree’, ‘do a proper degree’, and so on and so forth. But that really isn’t the case. There are so many applications of humanities subjects to the wider world, including within tech - and you can bet that it’s only going to continue to grow.
There is a huge push for people to get into studying STEM subjects, with HESA (the Higher Education Statistics Agency) reporting that STEM students in undergrad and post grad roles have increased in the UK over the past five years. Computer Science has seen over 12% increase and Engineering over 4%. This is great, and is bridging the much reported ‘skills gap’, but with humanities degrees in fluctuation, are we focusing on educational recruitment in the wrong areas? And do we need to introduce a more blended approach to education and offer combined degrees in STEM and the arts?
Joseph Aoun definitely thinks so. His book Robot-Proof puts forth the argument for a new academic discipline ‘humanics’ - a mixture of humanities and STEM, saying that this will benefit graduates greatly by learning to understand robotics, big data, technology, and also human literacy and communications.
But will tech giants really buy it? And is there really room for humanities grads within the real world of AI and technology? Eric Berridge addresses this in his 2017 TedTalk, ‘Why tech needs the humanities’ explaining why his company has hired people with humanities degrees, explaining that programming skills aren’t as difficult to learn and adapt to as they once were. He says, “Modern systems can be manipulated without writing code. They're like LEGO: easy to put together, easy to learn, even easy to program, given the vast amounts of information that are available for learning. Yes, our workforce needs specialized skill, but that skill requires a far less rigorous and formalized education than it did in the past.”
Artificial Intelligence development is reliant on engineering and science, but in order to create a product that is going to be a first touch point with customers, art and creativity, and understanding of communications - is just as important. You need that ‘human touch’ to instill the AI with a semblance of personality, the companies brand values and message, in order to truly give an authentic experience to customers. Language and communication will be cornerstones of AI in the future. If we look back to pre-literate life, they communicated through songs and art. As we approach a future where AI will integrate more within our society, we need to continue to ensure that communication is a driving factor in technological development. And it lies within a humanities-based approached to successfully do this.
AI is only getting more ‘intelligent’, and with that comes great responsibility for the development of morality and ethics within these machines. To do this, we don’t just need an influx of STEM degrees alone, but those in the arts and humanities too. Being aware of the impact AI will have on the world, the complex issues surrounding the integration of this within human society such as ethical decision making is really important to master.
The room for this in AI can be seen already. Data Science instructor and author, Doug Rose has outlined in a great LinkedIn article, that the general focus on AI right now is all about capability, stating that “AI is currently seen as an engineering problem”, and he is right. He draws upon Tay as a perfect example of this. Tay is Microsoft’s notorious AI chatbot that within less than a day of being live on Twitter turned ‘Nazi’ after picking up trends on Twitter using Machine Learning. Of course, this doesn’t mean the engineering team are a bunch of racists or fascists, but it does mean that input from other areas is missing. Rose explains, “Any cultural anthropologist would've been able to predict the first wave of response from her Twitter followers. A specialist in rhetoric would've been able to categorize words that are hateful or had a strong connection to larger ideas. A philosopher would've been able to give her some framework for ethics and her larger responsibilities to society. Yet these seats were empty.” We need this input to make better AI, and help AI make better decisions.
Now, I’m not saying that AI isn’t reliant on engineering, but it’s clear that developing AI, and mastering it, lays within an array of skill sets. Not just STEM professionals, but we need input from great minds in art, music, literature, philosophy, and others under the arts and humanities umbrella. AI isn’t just a technological achievement, but a highly creative one too.