Once large law firms had armies of first-year law graduates, combing documents for relevant information; now machines largely do it. New artificial intelligence diagnosed lung cancer 50 percent more accurately than radiology experts last year. And the U.S. Postal Service plans to deploy autonomous trucks by 2025.
These are signs of big change, precipitated by a wave of new artificial intelligence resulting from a perfect storm of investments and development these past five years. And coming developments will increasingly enable machines to do more mental and physical tasks faster, better and cheaper than humans.
The implications are profound. “Artificial intelligence is the new electricity,” says A.I. scientist Andrew Ng. Just as electrification transformed the world, so will artificial intelligence. It portends greater productivity and economic growth and will help manage increasing complexities. It also has the potential to keep the United States “on the cutting edge of innovation,” according to a 2016 report by the Executive Office of the President.
This is a high-stakes race. China seeks dominance of the global artificial intelligence industry and is planning a $150 billion A.I. sector. For America, second place is unaffordable. This is our “Sputnik Moment.” But we must get it right. “If the U.S. fails to improve at educating children and retraining adults with the skills needed in an increasingly AI-driven economy, the country risks leaving millions of Americans behind and losing its position as the global economic leader” the presidential report concludes.
Predictions are dire: “About 47 percent of total U.S. employment is at risk,” according to an often cited 2013 Oxford University report: The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?
But what do you teach humans when machines are increasingly outperforming them?
One answer: “We need to be good at doing what smart machines can’t do better than us. ... That means being good at critical and innovative thinking,” wrote Ed Hess of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.
Critical thinking involves research — and artificial intelligence can help, but human curiosity drives it. “The capacity to remain capriciously curious about anything, including random things, and pursue one’s interest with passion may remain exclusively human,” write data experts Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Ben Taylor in Harvard Business Review.
“You absolutely need humans as the genesis of ideas,” chimes in Stephen Pratt, CEO of Noodle.ai, an enterprise artificial intelligence company.
Ideas come from looking skeptically at something and asking, “why is it that way?” Ideas also focus critical thinking and lead to creativity — the big, leaps-of-faith kind like inductive reasoning. In the early 1980s, Steve Jobs saw Xerox's research on graphic computer interfaces and inferred that a more user-friendly computer was possible.
“Breakthrough creativity is fundamentally organic, not algorithmic,” says tech entrepreneur Nick Seneca Jankel. “No computer, no matter how powerful, will ever be able to purposefully innovate.”
And thus far, no computer has been particularly effective at writing. Sure, artificial intelligence writes — newspaper articles, poetry, reports — but its results are basically words in a template, with no thought, nuance or style. Critical thinking manifested in good writing is uniquely human.
Yet critical thinking and effective writing aren’t yet higher education staples. “There are a lot of students who enter college as lousy writers — and who graduate without seeming to make much, if any, improvement,” according to the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, which reported this spring that “many colleges fail to improve critical-thinking skills.”
Now more than ever, schools need to help students hone these uniquely human skills. Without them, we all risk replacement by robot.
Thomas C. Linn is the author of “Think and Write for Your Life — or Be Replaced By a Robot,” a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and an and adjunct professor at the Naval War College.