Automation isn’t a simple struggle between people and technology, with the two sides competing for jobs. The more we rely on robots, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning, the clearer it’s become just how much we need social scientists and humanities experts–not the reverse.
These four skills in particular are all unique to us humans, and will arguably rise in value in the coming years, as more and more companies realize they need the best of both worlds to unleash the potential from both humans and machines.
AI and machine learning are extremely useful for solving straightforward, predictable problems and finding patterns no human would ever be able to spot in big data pools. But they’re less helpful in sussing out issues where it’s not a given what the problem actually consists of.
Say a patient gradually stops taking her medication, and an algorithm picks up on that fall-off early on. That’s great, but you still need a human being to ask why and contextualize the reasons–with a full understanding of what it means to live with chronic illness. For instance, is the patient simply forgetting to take her medication, or actively choosing not to? Is there an alternative remedy that suits the patient’s priorities and lifestyle?
AI and machine-learning aggregate data about past actions and reactions and follow protocols from there in order to predict likely events in the future. But even the most sophisticated technologies can’t yet transcend the parameters set for them. They can’t quite envision how an expressionistic painting might generate creative ideas for a city planner, or how a poem can sum up Chinese tea culture in a way that aids a foreign CEO in understanding the country’s tea-drinking market.
Curiosity–the care to observe and scrutinize every part of a world in pursuit of understanding–is what sets humans apart. Robots can’t be programmed yet to think creatively about what’s possible if it doesn’t seem likely in the first place.
3. Critical Thinking
Over recent years we’ve seen societies become more polarized. Individuals appear increasingly liable to retreating into so-called “information bubbles” generated in part by algorithms and bots. As a result, healthy skepticism has become a crucial skill. As AI continues to transform our lives, we’ll need people well-versed in the humanities to question what algorithms appear to tell us.
Social scientists are trained to notice when patterns of history repeat themselves. Critical thinkers are good at challenging preconceptions and gut instincts, even when they appear to be well-founded in the data. In a world filled with more and more evangelists–more opinions and fewer facts–businesses need social scientists more than ever.
4. Ethical Judgment
The average algorithm can’t distinguish good from bad–it just performs the functions it’s programmed to. Liberal arts majors know that there’s an upside and downside to almost everything in life, and the best of them will also have the ethical fiber to take that in to consideration before recommending any new business ventures, no matter what the most sophisticated AI might suggest.
Established industries have learned to incorporate ethical concerns into their business models and profit from them (the car industry implemented airbags decades ago and is now improving electrical technology to protect the environment), and the tech industry is now seeing disastrous consequences that arise when they rely on algorithms alone. YouTube, for example, is experimenting with new ways of using teams of human moderators alongside algorithms to help determine which content is fit for children and what ads are appropriate for businesses.
The world isn’t bifurcated into robots doing one kind of work and humans doing a totally different kind of work. It’s quite the contrary. Humanities experts can help unleash all of AI and machine learning’s positive potential–and curb its less desirable qualities.
Christian Madsbjerg is the author of Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm, and cofounder of strategy consulting firm ReD Associates.