For students, is there more to life than the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics? After all, the world today is already hyper-technological. Millennials are basically digitally native; Gen Z definitely is. AI is not just becoming part of reality, it is defining it. Let’s make no bones about it – the fourth industrial revolution is upon us.
In this urgent vision of the world, young people could be forgiven for thinking that the liberal arts and humanities are basically defunct. With robots starting to lead the way, racing ahead of humanity, surely there’s no place in the skills pipeline for such impractical fields. Maybe down the line, yes, when we’ve got (the internet of) things under control, but not now. Right now we have to get a handle on tech. And surely the only way to beat it is, as ever, to join it?
That said, I’m fully behind the thrust of this article, which cites a new book by George Anders that is all about the importance of the human factor as the world becomes ever-more reliant on all things technological.
Technology and Big Data are essentially cold and inhuman. Those nightmarish sci-fi visions in film and literature where “the machines” take over are, I think, expressions of discomfort about this coldness.
For the world to keep on working in a way that is not going to cause us soul-death, all this technology and data needs human filters, human buffers and human glue. We need people with those “liberal arts” qualities – empathy, insight, creativity, leaps of the imagination – to take what’s happening and make it work at a human level. We must value them as a reminder of all those things in life that lie beyond tech. We don’t just need to be able to talk tech – we need to keep on talking, full stop.
We should bear this in mind: tech is supposed to help us, to help society function better. There are even articles being written about an artificial intelligence-led future where none of us would need to work at all. (Whether that’s a good thing is another question.)
But that’s a long way in the future, however quickly the fourth industrial revolution is progressing. As tech gets more sophisticated and more integral to our lives, it might start looking as if it is self-propelling, as if we can take a back seat. As AI begins to pre-empt what we want it to do, we might be tempted to let it. This would be a big, big mistake. Tech’s appearance of intelligence is – for now – just that. It still needs us to steer it.
If we all start sitting back and letting tech do its thing, talking only in tech’s language, we’ll lose each other – and we might start losing control of tech. I doubt that would lead to the fabled rise of the machines, but it might give rise to two lesser evils: we don’t use it to the maximum and we lose a little bit of our humanity.
Yes, there are real challenges ahead around STEM in education and employment – one of the major ones is better aligning educational establishments with the new needs of industry.
But to handle all these challenges, we need to calm down a little. How do we slow down to the speed of humans rather than the breakneck light-speed of tech? By continuing to care about the humanities, even as the robots – which don’t yet care about anything – continue to wrest more and more control of our lives.