Student Opinion: Humans Are Not Obsolete

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(Source: WIRED)

By Jacob Derin

The artificial intelligence behind Alpha Zero has just solved a biology problem so complex it has eluded scientists for half a century. Artificial intelligence research has progressed at an increasingly rapid pace in recent years, leading to both hope and concerns. As computers get better at doing our jobs for us, it makes sense to worry that we might become obsolete, but I think this fear is misplaced. 

Humans aren’t going out of style any time soon.

To be sure, automation and better technology can and has put many people out of work. But it’s worth reflecting on the types of jobs that are becoming outdated. There is a certain profile for jobs ripe for automation. Repetitive and manual labor jobs are the easiest to automate because these are the kinds of things computers and robotics were designed to do. 

But there are also jobs that computers are not very good at. One of them is the job I’m doing right now: writing. Even excellent natural language computer programs don’t really understand what they’re writing. No matter how good computers are likely to get, this isn’t going to change any time soon. 

This applies to other kinds of cognitively complex jobs that require creativity. Law, medicine and computer programming itself aren’t going to be automated until there’s some revolution in computer science.

Computers don’t have what’s called “general intelligence.” On the one hand, computers are much better than us at doing rote tasks and complex calculations. But, they’re not very good at applying knowledge across a broad range of situations and figuring out how to approach problems. 

Computers need detailed and precise instructions if they’re going to do anything. People can make do with more vague instructions. We can be told to “go pick up some milk” without having every step of the process explained to us in painstaking detail. Computers lack this ability.

There will be losers in the game of automation, and I think this highlights the need for a fundamental shift in how we think about education. The jobs of the future are the ones that require creative and loose, flexible thinking. 

Higher education is going to be critical in that world. The United States education system is not what it used to be, and this is no time to neglect it. 

Instead of seeing an increasingly automated world as a threat, we should see it as an opportunity. Even as the old jobs begin to disappear, this demand for creative, innovative thinking will take off. The wealth that the creation of Facebook, Amazon and Twitter has generated for our society proves the enormous potential that’s available. 

If the success of the Alpha AIs has taught us anything, it’s that we can do incredible things if we harness this potential.

But, we need to make this investment now, because things are changing so rapidly. We need to retrain people who have lost their jobs to automation, invest in improving our education system and give people a chance to take advantage of it without the crushing financial burden of student debt. The federal government can and should be subsidizing higher education as much as possible.

Student loan debt has surpassed $1.5 trillion. 

We need to be incentivizing people to take advantage of this critical resource, not punishing them for it. Otherwise we, as a nation, risk being left behind. This is an incredible opportunity, but one that we have to seize now or pay the penalty very soon.

Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.


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34 thoughts on “Student Opinion: Humans Are Not Obsolete”

  1. Ron Oertel

    But there are also jobs that computers are not very good at. One of them is the job I’m doing right now: writing.

    Of which, there didn’t seem to be very many jobs – even BEFORE technology started rendering newspapers, magazines, etc., obsolete.

    Law, medicine and computer programming itself aren’t going to be automated until there’s some revolution in computer science,

    Law and medicine are also two areas which are being aided by technology (e.g., “virtual” doctor visits, legal assistance online, etc.).

    I would think that we’ll also need fewer teachers/instructors, due to technology. (Except for the “baby-sitting services” that comprise part of that – at least until there’s robotic nannys.)

     

  2. Ron Oertel

    People can make do with more vague instructions. We can be told to “go pick up some milk” without having every step of the process explained to us in painstaking detail. Computers lack this ability.

    Computers only need to be told “once” – in painstaking detail.  After that, technology will “pick up some milk” in a more efficient-manner, as well.  😉

    The wealth that the creation of Facebook, Amazon and Twitter has generated for our society proves the enormous potential that’s available.

    For a relative few, at least. Let’s hope that they continue philanthropic efforts.

  3. Ron Oertel

    ” . . . is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.”

    In my opinion (and in support of my other comments), this is (usually) not a good choice regarding a career.  Hope it’s different for the author of this article.

    Personally, I think that universities have historically failed students, by even offering these type of degrees without a “warning label/disclaimer”.  😉

    Maybe if education was so heavily subsidized in the first place, there’d be less of this. I never bought-into the argument that college was really anything other than a way to (hopefully) make oneself more employable.

    I’m hoping that they don’t offer degrees in ethnic or “women’s studies”, as well – for the same reason. 😉

    1. David Greenwald

      I’ll step in here.  You’re wrong.  You know why I know you’re wrong?  Because you have no idea what they are going to do with their degree.  A lot of our pre-law students are writing majors.  Why?  It’s a very important skill to have to become a lawyer – being able to write well and being able to tell a story to the jury.  It’s one of the things the lawyers who help mentor the students talk about all the time.  My brother in law majored in Philosophy as an undergrad at UCD, and then went to Loyola Law and is a public defender in LA.  Philosophy is also really good training for lawyers.

      1. Ron Oertel

        There’s also been a glut of attorneys (for decades, now). According to the government occupational outlook publication.

        I don’t think we know all of the ways that demand will ultimately be impacted by technology, either.

        But sure, that skill does correspond with being an attorney (or politician, or blog writer).

        I’m guessing that more people are inherently good at writing, than they are at advanced math (for example). The people who are good at the latter have a much better chance of getting good jobs (engineering, computer science – STEM, basically).

        Then, there’s the cost of law school, and whether or not that will actually pay off.

        1. Ron Oertel

          Employment of lawyers is projected to grow 4 percent from 2019 to 2029, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Competition for jobs over the next 10 years is expected to be strong because more students graduate from law school each year than there are jobs available.

          https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/lawyers.htm

          This has been the case for as long as I remember.  Which is a pretty long time.  😉

          If it wasn’t for this, I might have had some interest in it myself. I consider writing to be my best talent, and/or the one that comes most naturally to me. Probably a reason that I never seem to wean myself off of here, as I keep promising myself (and still hope to do).

          In any case, I’m sure that some will be quite successful, despite the competition.

        2. David Greenwald

          “I’m guessing that more people are inherently good at writing”

          I don’t have a comparison point, but my experience is most people are not inherently good at writing, they get better through instruction and practice.

        3. Ron Oertel

          I’m basing that partly on the reputation of technical subjects being more difficult, for most people.  And, the relative high rate of reward for successfully navigating that.

          I suspect that “liberal arts” degrees are generally easier for almost anyone to obtain.

          But yeah, there’s some people who don’t write very well, in one way or another.  And probably wouldn’t make highly effective attorneys, for example.

          Some are nevertheless brilliant in areas which are more in-demand.  I suspect that there’s a few on this blog who have solid technical skills.

          I guess as long as students know what faces them (and are willing to pay for it, and take their chances), there’s nothing wrong with pursuing their goals. But again, I think our school system and universities have historically failed in preparing students for what’s “in demand”, and/or relaying that information to students. (Until recently, at least.)

        4. Ron Oertel

          And, that failure might be somewhat unique (in the U.S.), compared to other developed countries. Though a lot of them still seem to come here for the final piece of their education. (Which isn’t “philosophy” or “English studies”.)

        5. Ron Oertel

          I find your question rather irrelevant, but will leave it at that.

          But, hope your interns find employment which helps them pay-off the expenses they’re incurring, especially if they pursue law school.

           

          1. David Greenwald

            It’s not irrelevant at all. You have no experience teaching people writing, and you are making a huge number of assumptions and suppositions that are frankly wrong. In fact, your initial post was not only insulting to Jacob, but also wrong – something that you have not acknowledged.

        6. Ron Oertel

          In fact, your initial post was not only insulting to Jacob, but also wrong – something that you have not acknowledged.

          Critique regarding a major (and the system which leads to it) is not a personal insult.

          I think this is a struggle that many (if not most) students are faced with.  Even more so, if their innate skills do not correspond with what’s “in-demand”.

          Though again, many will be successful with law, as well.  Just not as “in-demand”.

          1. David Greenwald

            In fact, I will go further. Any future critique’s of people’s major’s will be removed. It’s not only insulting, you yourself are uninformed on this matter and not qualified to give students career advice.

        7. Ron Oertel

          I think you’re over-reacting, and are not actually paying attention to the main point (which again, isn’t personal).

          But, it’s “your blog”, as they say.

          I find career choices to be an interesting subject.

        8. Alan Miller

          In fact, I will go further. Any future critique’s of people’s major’s will be removed. It’s not only insulting, you yourself are uninformed on this matter and not qualified to give students career advice.

          The above makes no sense to me.  How is a critique of people’s majors a personal insult?  Why are you making such a big deal of this, and why are you calling people “wrong”.  That isn’t a way to create discussion.

          And further, why are you stepping in for another person and saying it’s insulting to them instead of allowing them to say it themselves if they wish to? Isn’t that rather insulting, even patronizing, to the apparent ‘victim’ of the ‘insults’ ?

        9. David Greenwald

          That’s just it Alan, people’s majors and career choices are not a point of discussion.  And may in fact discourage participation from them in the future.

      2. Alan Miller

        I’ll step in here.  You’re wrong.

        I would think such a sweet and subtle approach such as the above would get a lot of commenter’s comments deleted.  But like Trump, the man at the top gets a free pass.

    2. Eric Gelber

      As an attorney for almost four decades, much of which was spent supervising other attorneys and advocated, I can affirm that legal writing ability is among the most important skills among new attorneys but one of the rarest and most difficult to teach. Legal writing is quite different than creative writing; so, I have found that those with a solid background in academic or technical writing are often better legal writers than those with English majors. Legal writing, unlike most creative writing, focuses on conciseness and persuasiveness. For this reason, philosophy is an excellent choice for someone planning on entering the legal profession because it focuses on logic and persuasion.

      Keep in mind, also, that most attorneys, even litigators, are not trial attorneys and may never appear before a jury. But virtually all attorneys need to be persuasive writers.

    1. Ron Oertel

      From the article you posted:

      Since people with philosophy degrees do many things, one way to track them is by earnings regardless of their day job. According to American Community Survey data, the median earnings of full-time year-round employees ages 30-49 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and no graduate degree, was $51,000 per year from 2010 to 2012. In addition, the Department of Labor (DOL) also keeps statistics on what people earn by job category. “Philosophy and Religion Teachers, postsecondary” earn, on average, $71,350 (and presumably many are college professors with graduate degrees and the associated time-commitment and/or debt).

      In any case, thanks for posting it.  I find this type of thing interesting.

      1. Jacob Derin

        Also from the article:

        But philosophy majors also have some of the highest scores in the LSAT and GMAT — the required tests for entry to law and business school respectively, according to figures from the Educational Testing Service (ETS). And when it comes to earnings for people who only have undergraduate degrees, philosophy majors have the fourth-highest median earnings, $81,200 per year, out-ranking business and chemistry majors, according to the ETS. Bar none, philosophy majors have the highest salary growth trajectory from entry to mid-career.
        An example of the very top earners among these degree-holders is billionaire Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, who has a master’s degree in philosophy from Oxford. In politi-speak, he is definitely what’s called a “job creator.” Or, the candidates could have turned to their debate partner Carly Fiorina, who has an undergraduate degree in philosophy and medieval history from Stanford, and the second-highest net worth of the GOP candidates, stemming from her tenure running Hewlett-Packard.

        1. Ron Oertel

          Interesting, as well.

          Looks like the first quote is limited to an age-range.

          And some of them go on to business ventures.

          Still, I don’t know what job someone (not “you”, personally) initially get with that degree, but will refrain from further comment (per David’s admonishment to me).

      2. Jacob Derin

        One of the things you learn in philosophy is never to confuse correlation and causation. There are many reasons for people with these majors to go on and earn however much money they do. Lawyers, particularly ones with good LSAT scores who get into good law schools and then highly competitive firms, have pretty good earning potential.

        Philosophy majors tend to do pretty well on the LSAT for obvious reasons. So my chances are fairly good overall, even if the economy falters due to COVID.

        So no need to worry about me. There are plenty of people who will emerge from the pandemic in much worse straits than me and I feel for them.

        1. Ron Oertel

          Well, maybe I’ve learned something today.

          My apologies for the semi-personal comment.

          I’ve often wondered if I should have taken the plunge, regarding law school. (I was somewhat influenced by the oversupply, which existed even back-in-the-day.) Probably too late for me, now. So, it’s unpaid commenting on the “blog” for me, but with some of the same “disharmony” that attorneys face (but hopefully get paid for). 😉

  4. Bill Marshall

    Much drivel on this thread, not much “topic”…

    Ron O and David are both wrong…

    Good/exceptional writing skills tend to be innate, but do need mentors, friendly critics to get them to blossom…

    The most successful engineers (and surveyors) I’ve known have excellent writing skills… whereas a typical planner, or social science person may take 60 pages to write a staff report for CC, the best engineers/surveyors can convey the essential material, in laymans terms, in one to three pages.  That is good writing.

    1. Ron Oertel

      You are someone whom I was thinking of, regarding solid technical skills.  Which worked out well, for you.

      Interesting to hear about the need/desirability for writing skills in that field, as well.

  5. Ron Glick

    “There’s also been a glut of attorneys (for decades, now). According to the government occupational outlook publication.”

    Lawyering is the only profession I can think of that defies the law of supply and demand. The more lawyers there are the more you need.

    I lived in a small town with one lawyer. There wasn’t much work until a second lawyer took up residence. Then there was more work than either could handle.

    The great thing about lawyering is that other lawyers, the ones who go to work in their robes, make sure you get paid.

    Still we should be celebrating our lawyers, especially right now, as they have been holding the line on the rule of law against a would be but incompetent tyrant with no respect for the principles that have made this country a beacon of freedom to oppressed people throughout the world.

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