In the summer of 2023, an artwork generated by an artificial intelligence (A.I.) program won first prize at the Colorado State Fair. The artist used A.I. software that allows a person to give the program his written thoughts and see them turned into imagery. Artist Jason Allen received over 900 versions of what he sought before the A.I. program provided the one he entered as “his” work of art.
Théâtre D’opéra Spatial depicts three women standing on a stage in rich, dark-colored flowing gowns. We see them facing out to a blurred scene that might be a seated crowd, but could be people at small round tables. Beyond the crowd is a large decorative oval hole in the back wall of the vast theatre. It opens to a scene that might, in its overly bright vagueness, be a valley with a mountain range on the left.
As he studied the winning artwork, a growing sense it was missing something essential to connecting to the viewer settled into New York Times columnist David Brooks’ thoughts.
“It’s missing a humanistic core. It’s missing an individual’s passion, pain, longings, and a life of deeply felt personal experiences,” Brooks writes. “It does not spring from a person’s imagination, bursts of insight, anxiety, and joy that underlie any profound work of human creativity.”
Given some basic information, an A.I. program could write 20 versions of this column in seconds. Its product would be a compilation, synthesis, of every piece of information its program has in its unimaginably vast memory banks. But while it can churn out draft after draft for publication, it won’t pause for a microsecond debating what words to use to best communicate with the reader.
A.I. won’t be thinking about the column it wrote an hour ago. It won’t be revised when, in a moment of reflection, a new insight refines what was written earlier.
As we were thinking about this column, the memory of how Earnest Hemingway wrote the final words of “A Farewell to Arms” 39 times. Why so many revisions? The first 38 tries didn’t feel right. They didn’t express his intended meaning informed by his life’s experiences.
“This is what many of us notice about art or prose generated by A.I. It’s often bland and vague,” Brooks writes.
A.I. is at the dawn of how it will revolutionize the workplace. There probably has never been so much uncertainty in what direction to take to learn the skills and accumulate the knowledge that will meet the needs of employers or allow you to start your own business.
Brooks makes this succinct observation about the benefits and pitfalls of A.I.:
“A.I. will probably give us fantastic tools that will help us outsource a lot of our current mental work. At the same time, A.I. will force us humans to double down on those talents and skills that only humans possess. The most important thing about A.I. may be that it shows us what it can’t do, so it reveals who we are and what we have to offer.”
As students plan their careers after high school, whether they seek continued education for careers in business or a profession, or if they pursue a life in the trades, they will have to ask: What skills do I need in a world where A.I. and A.I. combined with robotic skills could make my job obsolete?
The most likely jobs to be taken over by A.I. are ones related to computer programming and engineering, graphic arts and advertising design, technical writing, legal assistant, market research, financial analysis, accounting, and diagnostic fields in medicine such as radiology. In an extremely tight labor market, especially at rural manufacturing plants, A.I can be used to automate assembly lines.
Brooks says the next question young people will have to ask is: “Which classes will give me the skills that machines will not replicate, making me more distinctly human? You probably want to avoid any class that teaches you to think in an impersonal, linear, generalized kind of way — the kind of thinking A.I. will crush you at.”
Pace University President Marvin Krislov met with business leaders recently while on a recruitment trip to India. As in the United States, they struggle to find qualified employees. They are getting applications, but there is a problem. “They still find themselves rejecting the majority of their applicants, not because they can’t do the basic work but because they lack the interpersonal skills necessary for career success,” he writes in an article for Forbes magazine.
“We consistently hear from employers that the difference between an adequate employee and great one lies not in technical skills — employers always believe they can teach those — but in the so-called ‘soft skills’ that a classical liberal arts education helps hone,” he writes.
Just when it seems we need to expand the education of young people in the humanities – history, literature, the arts, and philosophy – they are being gutted at institutions of higher learning. “During the past decade, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third. Humanities enrolment in the United States has declined overall by seventeen percent,” freelance journalist David Herman writes.
History and literature give a person a sense of perspective. We see the way things were and are given insight into how they could be again. We learn of the failings, prejudices, and injustices and are motivated to see them righted and avoided.
We have little doubt that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) courses will continue to dominate education for now. Education is expensive. A good-paying job is the goal for a return on that investment of money and time.
However, critical thinking will increase in value in an increasingly complex world. It will gain importance as the need to sift fact from lie becomes increasingly challenging as A.I. programs assist foreign actors and domestic propagandists with their efforts to mislead and misinform.