BusinessDay: The age of AI - thinkers needed

People who have skills mobility, perceptiveness, complex problem-solving, co-ordination and language abilities are in demand.

By Johan Steyn, 30 March 2022

Published by Business Day:

“Hey Google, play me some children’s music.” My son is growing up in a different galaxy from me. I try hard to manage his “screen time” but most days I find him with both our iPads, Netflix on the left and a game on the right, while navigating the television, kettle and lights with voice commands.

“Dad! The internet is down!” Oh, the worst punishment imaginable! I want him to build puzzles and play in the garden, and he does, but I also want him to stay ahead of the technological curve. Irrelevance is what Yuval Noah Harari warns us about in his best-selling book Sapiens. If we do not stay abreast with technology — at least from a labour perspective — we risk becoming irrelevant.

Nicholas Carr, in his 2008 Atlantic article asked “Is Google making us stupid?” In his 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Carr argued that the medium that provides us instantly with all the information ever produced may be making us dumb. We are losing the ability to think.

There are already many things that computer algorithms can do better than humans. They can see and interpret what they see (computer vision), they can understand language and subtle nuances of speech (natural language understanding), they can learn and recognise patterns (machine learning) and they can execute tasks more accurately and faster than us (intelligent process automation).

There is nowadays a focus on teaching schoolchildren about coding and robotics, and this is needed (though it seems that most teachers are poorly prepared for these subjects). Coding, like mathematics, is essential for future skills. In a world where computers can do most things we do and are smarter than us, all this is good news for people who can code, but it is bad news for people who cannot think.

What we need in preparing our children for the technological future that awaits them is to let the robots do what they do best while we “take the robot out of the person” and set people free to do what we do best: critical thinking, problem-solving, human relationships, empathy, intuition and friendship.

We need people who have skills mobility, perceptiveness, complex problem-solving, coordination and language abilities. Adaptability, cultural awareness, and cross-gender and ethnicity understanding ability are critical.

The two most important skills in an era of artificially intelligent computers is that of ethicists and philosophers. The responsible use of technology, the elimination of biases in algorithms, ethical automated decisioning systems and the regulation of autonomous killer weapons needs a philosophical appreciation of the value of human life.

It is my argument that before we train people in coding and digital skills, they need at least some foundation in the humanities. Oh, that most important but critically underappreciated field in academia!

Do not laugh me out of the room ... my proposal is that in preparing people for the future of smart technologies, and long before computer science or coding is taught, students need a foundation in classical Latin and/or Greek, philosophy, ethics, religion and art.

After all, Descartes did not say “I code, therefore I am.”

• Steyn is chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals SA.