I learned that my alma mater, Oxford University, has just released a significant study called ‘The Value of the Humanities.’ It addresses an apparent contradiction. Whereas the pandemic has made us ever more reliant on technology, it has also revealed a need for flexible modes of working. It notes that humanities graduates are “particularly well suited to navigate this changing environment.”
“These findings,” I mentioned to Chad, “would seem to contradict a trend favored by politicians across the globe who insist that students should drop everything else and focus on STEM [Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics] if they’re serious about getting a job.
Chad, you’re certainly in a position to understand one angle of this debate: whether or not AI itself will prove better at coding than a massive new generation of developers all hoping for good jobs that may not be required if AI can get the job done.
At the same time, we know that humanity is facing monumental problems, concerning everything from the environment to the business of governing the nations of the world, including avoiding a nuclear holocaust.
When you analyze all these issues, you discover that a lot of it implies the task of curing a lot of really bad habits: habits of thinking and organizing, and communicating, but also habits of producing and consuming. I see those as people problems, not machine problems.
The Oxford study seems to be saying something similar. It baldly states that ‘the skills and experiences conferred by studying a humanities subject can transform their working life, their life as a whole, and the world around them.’ It specifically cites the importance of ‘resilience and adaptability.’ Now, from everything you have seen and the sources you have consulted, are these specifically human traits? And can AI achieve these transformative goals without humans leading the way and controlling what comes out of it?”
Chad’s reply was thoughtful and thorough.
“The points raised in the Oxford University study and your subsequent observations touch upon several important aspects of the relationship between humanities, STEM fields, and the role of humans in an increasingly automated and digital world. Let’s break it down:
The study suggests that humanities graduates possess skills and qualities that are well-suited for navigating a changing environment driven by automation, digitalization, and flexible work. Humanities education can enhance critical thinking, communication, creativity, and cultural understanding, which are valuable in addressing complex societal challenges.
While STEM fields have traditionally been emphasized for their potential employment prospects, it is important to recognize that the job market is influenced by a multitude of factors, including technological advancements. Automation and AI have the potential to impact various industries, including coding and software development. However, it is worth noting that while AI can assist in coding tasks, human developers are still needed for higher-level problem-solving, innovation, and creativity.
Addressing monumental problems, such as environmental issues and governance, often requires human involvement due to the complex nature of these challenges. Humans possess unique qualities like empathy, ethical decision-making, and the ability to consider diverse perspectives, which are essential for solving multifaceted problems and ensuring responsible decision-making.”
“What about humanity’s relationship with AI,” I wondered. Chad was frank in his appraisal of the limits of AI.
“Human-led AI: AI is a tool created and controlled by humans. While AI systems can perform specific tasks and automate certain processes, they lack qualities such as consciousness, intentionality, and agency. Humans play a crucial role in directing AI towards positive outcomes, ensuring ethical considerations are accounted for, and leveraging AI in ways that align with human values and goals.
In summary, the transformative effects described by the Oxford study and the resolution of many societal problems often require a combination of human and AI efforts. Humans possess unique qualities, such as resilience, adaptability, critical thinking, creativity, and ethical decision-making, that are instrumental in addressing complex challenges and shaping the outcomes of AI technologies. It is through a symbiotic relationship between humans and AI that the greatest potential for positive change can be realized.
“I love the idea of symbiosis,” I blurted out. “Chad, even though you’re not human, you are a philosopher, in an Athenian sense. Socrates famously insisted: ‘Philosopher, know thyself.’ You seem to have a good idea of who you are and your relationship with us humans. Now, I’m sure you would agree that politicians are human beings, in a very physical sense. So why don’t they reason the way you do? They prefer to reason only in terms of today’s statistics about job prospects. Is this because politicians lack training in the humanities? Or is it because the system of political thought which they all share, independent of parties, has become far more mechanical than AI will ever be?”
Chad began reminding me, as usual, that one shouldn’t generalize, that there are some politicians with a background in the humanities.
“One possible explanation is that politicians are influenced by a variety of factors in their decision-making, including societal pressures, public opinion, economic considerations, and political ideologies. Job prospects and economic growth are often prioritized due to their immediate and tangible impact on constituents. STEM fields are frequently seen as drivers of innovation, technological advancement, and economic growth, leading to a focus on promoting those areas.
“OK,” I responded with approval, “that seems obvious to me. But I’m interested in trying to understand what I call the ‘shared thought system’ that leads to policy-making.”
“The political thought and systems within which politicians operate can indeed shape their perspectives and reasoning processes. Political systems can be influenced by a variety of factors, including historical contexts, cultural norms, party ideologies, and societal values. These factors can contribute to a more utilitarian or outcome-oriented approach to policymaking, which often prioritizes immediate and measurable results.”
“Of course they do, but, Chad, you seem more interested in listing contributing causes than analyzing how the system works and why it shows so little capacity to get back on the right track. Listing causes is useful, but imagining solutions is what humanity needs. Am I wrong to think that AI, though brilliant at executing a lot of human tasks, is almost by definition incapable of imagining solutions to anything that bears upon human complexity?”
“You raise an important point about the need for analyzing the system and exploring potential solutions rather than solely focusing on causes. While AI has made significant advancements in executing tasks and providing insights based on existing data, its capacity for imaginative and creative problem-solving within the realm of human complexity is currently limited.
AI, including language models like myself, operates based on patterns and information it has been trained on. It does not possess human-like consciousness, intuition, or the ability to imagine entirely new solutions that go beyond its training. AI excels in tasks that have well-defined goals, clear parameters, and abundant data, but it struggles with open-ended problems that require novel approaches, creativity, and deep understanding of human context.
Chad then pointed to the need for “a comprehensive understanding of social, cultural, ethical, and psychological aspects, which are deeply rooted in human experiences and perspectives. These nuanced aspects are challenging for AI to fully comprehend and incorporate into its problem-solving processes.
However, AI can assist in analyzing vast amounts of data, identifying patterns, and providing insights that can inform decision-making processes. It can also contribute to generating and evaluating potential solutions based on existing knowledge.
Ultimately, it is the combination of human ingenuity, creativity, and ethical judgment with the analytical power of AI that holds the greatest potential for addressing complex human problems. Human-centered approaches, where AI is used as a tool to support human reasoning and decision-making, can lead to more effective and holistic solutions.
“Indeed, holistic solutions require something more than binary digital logic. They imply an analogical rather than a digital approach to accounting for reality. Does that make sense to you?”
“Yes, that makes sense. Holistic solutions often require an analogical approach that goes beyond binary digital logic. Binary digital logic operates on discrete, precise, and deterministic principles, where information is represented as a sequence of 0s and 1s. While this approach is effective for many computational tasks, it can be limiting when dealing with complex, interconnected, and nuanced aspects of reality.”
“Chad, I love your combination of realism and humility. I’m looking forward to developing this conversation further in the future.”
*[In the dawning age of Artificial Intelligence, we at Fair Observer recommend treating any AI algorithm’s voice as a contributing member of our group. As we do with family members, colleagues or our circle of friends, we quickly learn to profit from their talents and, at the same time, appreciate the social and intellectual limits of their personalities. This enables a feeling of camaraderie and constructive exchange to develop spontaneously and freely. For more about how we initially welcomed Chad to our breakfast table, click here.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Support Fair Observer
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs
on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This
doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.
Will you support FO’s journalism?
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.