Humans versus algorithms: why the future needs more arts and humanities

Humans versus algorithms: why the future needs more arts and humanities

In the debate over the future of work, there are many who view the arts and humanities as relics of the past, an exotic species on the verge of extinction.

(María José Carmona)

They’ve spent their entire lives fighting against the stigma of uselessness. Now, on the verge of the coming robotics revolution, they appear to be more out of place than ever before. These are the students who stain their hands with clay, who review Latin declinations and who study the chronicles of Herodotus – and who continue to entertain the audacious notion of making a living doing so.

In the debate over the future of work, there are many who view the arts and humanities as relics of the past, an exotic species on the verge of extinction. In Japan, for example, the government has recommended that its universities discontinue these areas of study in order to focus on “more practical ones.”

“The humanities and the arts are being cut away…in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers as useless frills…they are rapidly losing their place in curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children,”warned American philosopher Martha Nussbaum in 2016. The particular focus of her concern is the United States, which has seen a ten per cent drop in the number of humanities degrees awarded.

“The humanities have endured several crises since the 1960s,” explains Jordi Ibáñez Fanés, author of El reverso de la historia: apuntes sobre las humanidades en tiempos de crisis (The Reverse of History: Notes on the Humanities in Times of Crisis). “But the nature of the criticism has changed. They are now accused of being superfluous and unproductive.” The economic crisis has only helped to reinforce this image.

In the case of Europe, the arts and humanities continue to be the fourth most popular area of study (12.3 per cent of students opt for degrees in these areas) behind social sciences, engineering and medicine. Even so, departments at some universities are beginning to eliminate degrees in subjects such as classical philology and geography because they are not “profitable.”

“We are having increasing difficulty securing funding,” admits Juan Antonio Perles, Dean of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Malaga. “Governments are more interested in engineering for its potential yield.” He is one of 420 professors and heads of universities who signed a manifesto defending the humanities – a desperate plea to be spared by the forces of progress.

The Achilles’ heel of humanities continues to be its public image: the broadly held stereotype that hundreds of branches of McDonalds are staffed by philosophy and history graduates. And, in part, there is some truth to this.

Among the thousands of students currently studying the arts and humanities (more than two-thirds of whom are women), the majority will almost certainly not find work for close to a year, 20 per cent will not find work at all, and those that do will earn less – about €1,215 compared to the €1,900 earned by an engineer.

“We’ve been unfairly punished for not knowing how to place value on what we know how to do. But this fourth industrial revolution is going to benefit us,” says Perles. And an increasing number of voices in Silicon Valley agree.

Crisis or revolution?

By 2030, 800 million jobs will be filled by robots. The trend is irreversible. That’s why the Davos Forum sent a clear message to the global working class: if we don’t want to be replaced by machines, we have to get back to what makes us human. This includes cooperative learning, creativity, critical thinking and empathy – precisely the skills associated with an education in the arts and humanities.

This explains why in 2012, Google announced the hiring of 4,000 philosophers, and why 34 per cent of 100 FTSE companies’ CEOs studied the arts, humanities and social sciences. Even the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has recognised that “all of the challenges that engineering has to solve, from climate change to disease and poverty, are linked to human realities,” which is why they recommend that their students include courses in literature, history, art or music in their studies.

Currently there are historians and anthropologists developing video games, philologists specialising in big data, designers creating 3D prosthetics and philosophers working hand-in-hand with artificial intelligence. Humanities and technology are not mutually exclusive – quite the contrary.

“Machines are a means, not an end. That’s why they have to be integrated,” explains Juan Macías, director of the San Telmo School of Fine Arts, which began training craftspeople 150 years ago and today educates future fashion designers, interior designers and graphic artists. “We have to take advantage of the crisis. It’s an excellent opportunity for renewal.”

We know that Europe will need at least one million graduates in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines by 2020. Some propose adding an A for Arts to the acronym, making it STEAM.

“There’s one school of thought that says you only need technical training and another that says you need to incorporate creativity. I’m on the side of the A,” says Professor Paola Guimerans.

She studied fine arts and currently teaches e-textile design. E-textiles include interactive paintings, bags with lights, and coats that regulate temperature. Her students learn both how to programme and how to use a thread and thimble. This is what a STEAM education is all about.

According to Guimerans, this type of education will be indispensable, including as a way of addressing the gender gap between the sciences and the arts. “When you integrate art into technical and scientific fields, you appeal to a much broader public and it becomes much more attractive for women.”

Ending the division between the sciences and the humanities

In a rapidly approaching future, every child will have to learn how to programme as if it were just another language, as well as acquire humanistic and social skills. For future generations, the division between the sciences and the humanities must end.

“The fact is that it’s nothing new. In classical antiquity there were no separations between artists and scientists,” says Guimerans. And many teachers are already trying to integrate this approach into their classes. One such teacher is Professor José Manuel González. His lessons combine geometry, mathematics and programming with art. He used the electronics platform Arduino to design a digital kaleidoscope, which his students use to learn about electronics, as well as colours and even sounds. Pure STEAM.

“Creative talents have to be nurtured from the very beginning. And not just within the artistic field,” explains González. He also recognises that, thanks to persistent stereotypes, the gulf between the sciences and the humanities remains too large.

“The humanities continue to be undervalued. There are castes within the faculty. Artistic subjects like mine are considered to be third class.”

This is above all true in an educational system increasingly dominated by the logic of business, in which schools are required to be “productive” and students “competitive” in order to adapt as quickly as possible to the expectations of the labour market.

“Young people today are living in a world made of screens, not papers. And this is totally new with respect to the other crises that the humanities have faced,” says Ibáñez. “People read less, don’t read as well, and gather information without developing criteria. We are experiencing a revolution akin to the printing press but it’s happening much faster.”

And the consequences of this speed without reflection or empathy are well known: the rise of populism, post-truth, manipulation and hatred.

Humanities against populism

“If history is eliminated as an academic discipline, the past will be rewritten,” says Juan Marchena, Professor of American History at Pablo de Olavide University in Seville. As he warns, this crisis of the humanities will inevitably lead to a crisis of humanity.

“The crisis that the humanities are facing is tied to the growth of populism, nationalism, falsehoods and lies. Thought is disappearing from public opinion,” explains Marchena.

Gonzalo Cruz Andreotti, Professor of History at the University of Málaga, agrees. “We are becoming a society that is more competitive in economic terms, but less reflective. A society that allows for someone like Donald Trump to be president.”

According to Nussbaum, this “scorn for the arts and humanities puts the quality of all our lives, and the health of our democracies, at risk.”

In other words, whether useful or not, an education in the humanities continues to be of value. Especially as algorithms take control and start deciding, for example, whom to fire in a company or to whom to grant a loan.

“Algorithms can give rise to new forms of discrimination and reproduce inequality,” says Marian Martín of Éticas Consulting. “That’s why we must take a humanistic approach to technology in order to prevent it from having a negative impact on the most vulnerable groups.”

Literature, cinema and the arts have dealt with these themes before. “You are my creator,” said the monster to Doctor Frankenstein, “but I am your master.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.