Columns

Vilsan ’19: Robots or not?

By
staff columnist
Monday, September 11, 2017

The queue in front of me in the pharmacy was moving impressively fast, customers walking off with a handful of change less than a minute after placing their orders. As I glided forward, I couldn’t help but appreciate the efficiency. I speedily arrived to the front of the line, only to discover that the pharmacist who had been filling out my prescriptions since I was old enough to look over the counter had been replaced by a five-foot machine that took orders twice as fast and spit out exact change without so much as a “hmm.” And this wasn’t the first time this summer I’d come face to face with a machine where a worker used to be. Whether I was placing an order at McDonald’s or checking in my luggage at the airport, human assistance was becoming all but obsolete.

As technology makes its way into every nook and cranny of our day-to-day lives and artificial intelligence can be found in headlines everywhere, many students are wondering if they should be changing their majors or considering the tech industry. How can we, as students in the humanities, be sure our jobs are safe, when machines seem to be capable of anything these days? And is my job next?

Thankfully, no. As it turns out, the communications, critical thinking and creative skills that a well-rounded, humanities-based education provides are much-needed tools in the 21st century economy, and humanities students shouldn’t feel the need to compromise on their passions.

Admittedly, the fear of technology becoming the be-all and end-all of future careers is prominent among students who have not chosen a tech-related path. With Silicon Valley increasingly driving the economy and technology becoming irreplaceable in office buildings across America, students who are simply not interested in computer science — but are willing to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into pre-professional or advanced education — are bound to have misgivings about their chosen path. And a superficial browse through the world wide web does nothing to assuage these worries. With screaming headlines promising robots will do your jobs without asking for healthcare benefits, it’s no wonder people are concerned. Deloitte estimates that, in the next 10 years, close to 40 percent of jobs in the legal sector could be automated. After all that money spent on a legal education, those numbers are sure to send a shiver down the spines of prospective law students. But even if a robot doesn’t physically replace your job, it can often feel like you’re still in danger of being pushed out or overlooked if you didn’t jump on those CS classes in college. Billionaire Vinod Khosla says, “Little of the material taught in liberal arts colleges today is relevant to the future.” How can you not worry?

The reality is that skills taught in liberal arts colleges are still valuable in the work force. Sure, some jobs are on their way out, and it doesn’t hurt to be somewhat technologically adept even if you’re not planning a career in the digital world. But us non-robots (and even tech virgins) have a saving grace: creativity. According to Wired Magazine, a study on the impact of robots on jobs across 17 countries found that while technology reduces the hours of the average low-skilled worker, it doesn’t reduce the hours of the average human. In its current state, technology is doing more to boost job opportunities than it is to diminish them.

And when it comes to students passionately pursuing careers outside of the technological sphere, creativity and critical thinking will equip you for fruitful careers despite your digital handicap. One article in the New York Times with the comforting title, “Don’t Panic, Liberal Arts Majors. The Tech World Wants You,” expresses that sentiment exactly. The skills taught in humanities are far from becoming unnecessary in the tech world. A broad humanities education, in fact, gives students diverse insights into a variety of fields — history, politics and economics, to name a few. This intellectual versatility translates into the professional world quite neatly. For example, being able to communicate a vision, whether you’re talking to clients or a future employer, that is informed by a multidimensional education is a skill that shouldn’t be underestimated. So, even if you’re considering a career in the tech world without embracing the tech, you’re in luck.

Of course, if you’re a humanities student, it does help to have some exposure to CS. It is also the responsibility of society to make sure those who find their work on the cusp of automation can develop the skills necessary to reorient and reimagine their careers, rather than passively accepting replacement. As a international relations concentrator myself, I’ve opted to take introductory CS courses not because I want to work in Silicon Valley, but because a smidgen of tech skills can open up opportunities. The key here is to understand that humanities and technology are not at odds; they are complementary. As the economy continues to shift and grow, we — as students and as professionals — have a chance to redefine our futures. We shouldn’t be worried about being replaced. Instead, we should be interested in how we can apply our own passions, interests and capabilities in an evolving world. In short, humanities majors can let out a sigh of relief. Don’t fear being pushed to the margins; look forward to carving out your own place in your chosen career.

Fabiana Vilsan ’19 can be reached at fabiana_vilsan@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.