Innovation

STEM is great, but here's why an English degree might be a smarter bet

The best way to keep ahead of AI-driven automation is to become a more thoughtful human.

Three years ago, I wrote that every tech company needs an English major, someone to express machine-readable tech in human-understandable language. This, however, isn't the only reason to look to the Humanities for employees. Or, for that matter, for students to follow their inner poet, even as software keeps eating the world.

As venture capitalist Scott Hartley has posited, "we need to double down on the liberal arts" because "they are what give us the context with which we apply the new tools and our very human comparative advantage, even in a world in which machines continue to get smarter and smarter." In other words, STEM jobs are nice but somewhat subject to robotic replacement, while liberal arts majors will always be needed to apply human reasoning to the machines.

The robots are coming

It's become a truism that machines will threaten jobs because, well, it's true. Forrester tallied up 24.7 million jobs getting the axe due to machines by 2027. The silver lining is that those same machines will yield 14.9 million jobs, leaving a "mere" 9.8 million Americans without jobs. Which jobs? As Conner Forrest wrote, "manual labor repetitive menial tasks will be the most impacted."

SEE: Research: Automation and the future of IT jobs (Tech Pro Research)

Lest you think this is something for low-wage workers to exclusively fret about, high-end jobs in the medical field and elsewhere are also on the chopping block, as I've written. A radiologist, for example, spends much of her time pattern-matching x-ray images, something that a machine can do more efficiently (and accurately).

Even jobs that aren't displaced by machines will be impacted by them. According to a 2016 McKinsey Global Institute report, "while automation will eliminate very few occupations entirely [5% of jobs] in the next decade, it will affect portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree." How much? By McKinsey's reckoning, approximately 30% of tasks within 60% of jobs would change.

I'd rather just...sing!

Which brings us to English majors. And Humanities undergrads. And others who are more comfortable with Virginia Woolf than Javascript. (If you haven't read To the Lighthouse, put away that C++ code and read it. Lovely.) Because, as Hartley said, "Those many tasks within a solid majority of jobs that will be immune to machine automation are those that cannot be sufficiently defined and programmed."

SEE: Video: When it comes to automation filling jobs, is the age of AI different? (TechRepublic)

Further explaining, he wrote:

Such tasks require creativity and original thought, intuition, coordination, communication, empathy and persuasion. In other words, humans might not perform rote tasks like guiding giant trucks to pick up piles of ore, or even elementary data collection. But they will ask questions of the data, help frame parameters, test hypotheses, collaborate with teammates across departments, and communicate results with compassion to clients.

This isn't to suggest that liberal arts degrees absolutely trumps STEM jobs; technical literacy is critical to effectively programming computers to give us the data we need. However, just because one comes out of school with a STEM-oriented degree isn't enough. Indeed, as Hartley noted, "Rote computer programming has already become a cheap commodity, purchased quickly and easily on the global market. And it is itself increasingly becoming automated."

No, what is needed, regardless of one's degree, is humanity. It's the thinking and feeling that makes us human, and able to interact with other humans, that cannot be automated away by machines.

So dig into your React Native. Embrace MongoDB. But also spend time with John Steinbeck, Flannery O'Connor, and Sylvia Plath. In this way, you'll be better able to put the machines to work for you, rather than instead of you.

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Image: iStockphoto/siberianstock

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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