Artificial intelligence opens the door to a resurgence in the humanities

The good news about AI’s ascent is that the humanity might be shocked back into universities

I wouldn’t want to be a prophet.

Prophesy’s a tough profession. If not attacked, beaten or burned, the prophet’s ignored, shunned and hated. All for having something important to say.

So don’t treat what I have to say about how universities will respond to artificial intelligence, or AI, as prophesy.

At issue is how AI will change society.

Most prognosticators agree robotics, machine learning and AI will continue to transform industry, retail and transportation.

Whether AI will absorb work in fields like translation, surgery, law, accounting and finance remains the work of prophesy.

Are we prepared for a future where lawyers can’t find a job?

Naturally, universities have begun to ask how they should respond to these potentially vast social upheavals.

My prediction is that universities will rediscover their purpose.

In its proper form, the university sits outside the flow of contemporary life so it can contemplate life.

I wouldn’t be the first person to make the point that the university is a walled fortress designed to keep out today and tomorrow so we may study yesterday.

But in the rush for tuition dollars (a not unreasonable worry given how universities are funded), universities have had to take up career training as a mission.

What’s lost, repeated ad nauseam by disciples of the liberals arts and ignored ad infinitum by nearly everybody, is a dimension of education that enriches everybody.

At most universities in Canada, students never have to read literature, history and philosophy, let alone religion, music or art. The only students who encounter those most humane topics are the weirdos who enrol in those programs. And those students are, to listen to their parents, dooming themselves to perpetual unemployment and unhappiness.

There may be some merit in that last point. In so many humanities courses, unhappiness is the meal. Under the direction of angry, resentful professors, students eat the saltines of today’s philosophical nihilism spread thick with a bitter tapenade of cultural self-doubt. They learn The Great Books aren’t so great and wisdom literature isn’t so wise.

The good news about AI’s ascent is that the humanity might be shocked back into the humanities.

Literature studies might return, en masse, to teaching great books, wisdom, literature and the high art of literary culture without complaining about who wrote those books and how their authors looked.

History departments might be treated seriously and not treated like Cinderella, who toils thanklessly while her ugly sisters laugh at her. History can tell us about our place in the human story, if we care to ask.

And philosophers might show undergraduates how people smarter than us reasoned out how to live well.

Until AI forces the humanities to change, students can save themselves.

Start by unplugging from social media. Delete the program Facebook put in your head.

Next, develop deep reading skills. Treat it like marathon running. The first time out will leave you winded. But stick with it, and you’ll run long and far, and read for hours without stop – and you’ll like it.

And then read the great works of culture. Treat it as conversation. These books have something to tell you. How do you reply in words and action?

If the prophets are right, AI will change our jobs.

That’s reason to worry.

But remember that we’re still going to die. We’re still going to hurt. We’ll still love, lose love, and meet confusion in every dark corner and mystery in the light.

How do we handle that?

That’s a question universities need to take up.

Before the robots do.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.

artificial intelligence, ai, humanities

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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