The Fourth Industrial Revolution is seldom a palatable topic for students of liberal arts. We vaguely share the fear that rapid advances in technological frontiers, namely Artificial Intelligence, will eat into jobs that are currently claimed by humans. It does not help that we’re having the toughest job market in two decades. Weakly-grounded technophobic scenarios proposed by media sell on this sentiment of fear, and they’re winning. It is now widely held that AI-based softwares will ultimately render obsolete a wide range of non-STEM-based occupations, leaving liberal arts majors with even fewer options.
But a great deal of AI-induced anxiety is actually based on wild speculation. One of many popular misconceptions is that AI will immediately displace highly skilled white-collar workers regardless of the nature of their work. Another red herring, on the other end of the pole, is the argument that some of the most sophisticated cognitive faculties will continue to set us apart from our AI rivals.
These sweeping claims should be taken with a grain of salt. There is no magic formula to estimate the probability that a given job can be automated. Today’s AI experts base their projection of a job’s vulnerability on how clearly its goals and sub-goals can be defined and structured in workable order. This means that even a routine and non-cognitive work like cleaning up a messy room can be difficult to computerize because the source data is too unstructured.
Conversely, even the most seemingly complex jobs can be overtaken by the computer so long as it can specify the goals clearly enough to encode them into algorithms. And because gauging this ability of the computer is very complex in itself, there is yet to be an undisputed consensus on which fields of human capabilities are more likely to be automated than others.
A case in point is creativity, a dimension of intelligence that had until recently been considered exclusively human. We now know that AI may eventually outperform its creators in generating innovation, by simulating myriad trials-and-errors with incredibly little marginal cost. But the crux is that creativity, by nature, is only as good as it is appreciated. And this task of appreciation is ultimately on us. We are the ones to appraise, make sense of, and find meaning in a work of art, novelty, and innovation. This is where humans have a lasting edge over computers.
In long term, this is good news for young liberal arts majors. You may be short on computational thinking, but you thrive on qualities beyond the reach of the artificial mind: on weighing unquantifiable concepts; looking back on yourselves within you subjective understanding of the world; and using your empathy to explore the border areas where your respective worlds meet. If you think of AI as a network of astoundingly potent functions, it is up to you to decide what you want to build with them. By pooling the knowledge each of you have earned in your four-plus years of learning in the liberal arts, you may open up a gamut of previously inconceivable opportunities to collectively imagine a better future for all.
This is not to overlook your short-term competitiveness, which comes along with initiative on your part. There is a considerable amount of time before the spectacular technologies displayed in trade shows can work their way through various bottlenecks and regulations to finally reach to the market. You should take advantage of the interim to closely trace the technological trends related to your specific career interests, thereby foretelling how they will affect you along the arc of your career. Plus, you will have to identify areas of skillsets that will likely remain unattained by computers in near future and work on them, so that even after your jobs do get replaced, you still retain employability. If you’re in accounting, for instance, the CPA qualifications of numerical aptitude and the insight to find real-world implications from data will continue to be prized, long after powerful artificial accountants drive professionals out of market.
In sum, the key antidote for liberal arts majors in this uncertain time of history is simple. Keep developing the core skills that have assisted your way through college. In the short term, stay aware of shifts and progress in technology and sort out useful advice from tabloid gabble. While there is good reason to be prepared, you have even greater reason to be optimistic. With solid research and strategy, you can navigate the choppy waters of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, rife with uncertainty and disruption, but also hope.