In late March, I chatted with a few Baruch faculty members after an annual cross-college research symposium. Over the course of our conversation, the topic turned to artificial intelligence (AI)—specifically ChatGPT—and whether it is any different from other high-tech breakthroughs we have experienced in our lifetime.
Two opposing views quickly emerged: first, AI is similar to other technological tools—such as smartphones and the internet—that altered how we do things and we will learn to adapt to it too; and second, AI is entirely different from anything we have seen before and will change every facet of our lives, replace a massive number of jobs, and create an element of uncertainty that could make the doomsday scenario of “robots taking over the world” a real possibility. Like other predictions of this kind, I believe it is important to give them due respect and consideration, because when we understand the risks of a technology, we can take steps to mitigate those risks.
On college campuses, another obvious concern is the potential for widespread cheating using the software, a problem that has received a great deal of national attention. Because numerous articles have already addressed—quite eloquently—how to ensure academic integrity in the face of ChatGPT and other tools, I won’t spend time discussing that topic here. I’d rather focus on a broader issue: If AI and machine learning are to become so advanced as to compete with highly trained professionals, such as accountants, lawyers, and doctors, it may be time for us to think how this “ups the game” for humans. As for our students, you need to embrace the kind of education that will best prepare you for a future where AI, machine learning, and other forms of “white collar automation” are reality.
A Little Perspective Helps
For millennia, humans existed as members of agrarian societies—until the last three centuries, when expeditious advancements in technology resulted in dramatic shifts in the way we think and live. The steam engine, initially invented in 1712 and then improved upon over several decades, helped usher in the Industrial Revolution. The internal combustion engine, first invented around 1860, was revolutionary for transportation and travel. Access to electricity, signified by the invention of the modern light bulb in 1880, then set the stage for life today.
Between the 1880s and 1920s, the combination of the telephone, wireless telegraph, and radio made it possible to broadly share news and information, connecting the world like never before. The popularization of television in the 1950s quickly transformed mass communication and merged it with entertainment, creating an even-larger shared cultural experience. More recently, the computer and internet further expanded communication and commerce and helped create a truly global economy and society.
History shows us that society has been continuously and profoundly impacted by technological advances. While affected unequally by the associated social changes and transitions, humans have always found ways to adapt to new realities. With each generational innovation, we adjusted our responsibilities—as well as our expectations and aspirations—by adopting new skills that worked with the technology, which moved mankind to a higher rung on the evolutionary ladder. Through this timeline, we can see that the human race has not only survived and prevailed, but—by most objective measures—thrived. I think of AI as the next step of that evolutionary process.
Understand the Technology
When I started my career as a professor more than three decades ago, I taught a series of graduate courses in artificial intelligence—partly because I was fascinated by the technology and its potential. While I am astonished by the rapid developments made in AI since then, most of the basic principles that created programs such as ChatGPT were known years ago.
The program is a large language model that can be trained to mimic the human brain in its capacity to collect data, detect patterns, learn, and evolve. ChatGPT was trained on massive amounts of data, millions of documents, and trillions of words—leveraging rapid advancements in computing power that allow mere concepts to become reality. What amazes people is ChatGPT’s ability to generate massive strings of computer code or even creative text formats—such as emails, letters, poems, scripts, and musical pieces—and to do so at a rate of 200 words per second.
Even more impressive is the rate of advancement. OpenAI, the company that created the product, said its latest version, GPT-4, recently passed a simulated law school bar exam with a score around the top 10 percent of test takers. OpenAI also reported GPT-4 performed strongly on the LSAT, GRE, SAT, and many AP exams. By contrast, less than a year ago, the prior version scored in the bottom 10 percent on those same exams.
With the development and rapid progress of AI, the fear of human replacement is very real—and not completely unfounded.
What Does This Mean for the Future of Work?
ChatGPT and similar programs have already been used for a variety of tasks in businesses—at accounting firms, it has automated data entry and saved companies millions; at law firms to research legal precedents; and at small businesses to generate marketing materials. As this technology continues to evolve, it is likely we will see even more innovative applications in the not-so-distant future that go beyond replacing routine duties.
In fact, the next major milestone for AI and machine learning is artificial general intelligence (AGI). According to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “AGI is a computer system that would have the ability to understand or learn any intellectual task that a human being can.” Some experts believe AGI is achievable in the near future, while others believe that it is still decades away. As the field of AGI is rapidly evolving, it is possible we will see significant progress in the years to come. Further, it is conceivable that a large amount of work currently done by human beings will be replaced by such mechanisms—at least ones that have well-defined tasks.
The Education That Truly Prepares You for the Future
An October 2020 report by the World Economic Forum projected that, while machines with AI will assume about 85 million jobs by 2025, nearly 100 million jobs will be created simultaneously thanks to the same technology. There is no doubt then that the best way for all professionals—especially you, our students—to prepare for and adapt to these forthcoming opportunities is to understand how your chosen path is likely to evolve and to develop the parts of yourselves that cannot be replaced by technology. This means cultivating creativity, empathy, and other qualities that make us uniquely human. It means finding new ways to connect and build meaningful relationships. It also means learning to think critically and to question assumptions, rather than simply following established conventions. While AI systems can appear to be “creative,” that is achieved largely by permutation (i.e., trying millions of combinations by brute force and picking the best one) and not by imagination. By “thinking outside the box,” human beings are able to come up with thoughtful and far-reaching solutions.
The education that prepares you for the future is one that requires you to move beyond traditional classrooms and learn “how to be human again.” It is more important than ever that you not only hone your technical skills but develop excellent social and emotional intelligence. I made the point earlier that exposure to art, music, and other cultures expands our experiential base and our ability to relate to others, to learn how to work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and build relationships based on trust, respect, and mutual understanding. These are the foundations of ethical decision making and problem solving.
The education that prepares students for the future is one that develops them into changemakers and leaders as the world makes giant leaps under our watchful eyes. It is an education that instills in us an ability to learn and a love for learning, for life—not only the latest professional skills or the highest level of digital savvy, but everything that is needed to explore, grow, and overcome. If you are lucky, you will also develop a sense of purpose and meaning in your life—finding fulfillment and satisfaction in whatever you pursue. And that is how we prepare for the future.