May 18, 2023

In the AI Era, Is a Liberal Arts Degree Obsolete?

Artificial intelligence is rapidly reshaping our world, presenting both awe-inspiring advancements and potential concerns.

Revolutionary advancements in artificial intelligence are changing the world around us with astounding and accelerating speed. From chatbots engaging in stunningly realistic conversations to deep fakes convincingly imitating pop stars, a mounting wave of technological progress presents major implications for how we will learn, work, create, and even think in the not-so-distant future.

Studying the liberal arts can help you build broadly applicable skills like writing persuasively, critically analyzing sources of information, and communicating effectively with a team. But when AI is capable of generating an essay in moments and passing professional licensing exams, are these competencies becoming obsolete?

In fact, far from rendering the liberal arts useless, technological change is making education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences even more valuable.

In this article, we’ll examine how a Master of Liberal Arts can prepare you to make thoughtful decisions and proactively confront challenges in this emerging period of rapid, often disorienting, progress.

AI-driven challenges

Large language models—such as the technology that powers ChatGPT—are artificial neural networks trained on large volumes of text to complete tasks such as predicting the next words a human is likely to write in a sentence. Platforms that draw on cutting-edge machine learning research can become powerful tools for finding information quickly and rapidly generating text or images that are similar to what a human would produce.

These expanding capabilities will undoubtedly have lasting effects for employment and education as organizations seek out professionals who can work efficiently with AI software tools. But in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, University of Chicago Professor of Statistics and Computer Science Rebecca Willett discussed why human input will remain crucial going forward.

“There’s going to be a need for learning how to best work with and utilize these tools, how to use them ethically and responsibly and ensure that we’re not doing anything that hurts the underrepresented,” Willet explained.

These are precisely the kinds of issues that the liberal arts equip professionals to tackle. MLA students grapple with foundational questions about the nature of human intelligence, the obligations of leaders, and the cultural impacts of technology. The resulting insights can help organizations make better use of new tools while accounting for their impact on employees and communities.

Seeking interdisciplinary solutions

Collaboration is at the heart of the liberal arts approach to research and education. And with AI and automation poised to affect almost every aspect of human life, it’s vital for thinkers and problem solvers to engage with one another across disciplines.

For example, at one UChicago event, scholars in fields such as technology studies and law discussed how the widespread adoption of AI solutions could affect human rights and democracy. Researchers noted growing threats such as the use of bots to influence voters with misinformation and made recommendations that could guide future regulations.

Another major area of concern is AI platforms’ ability to appropriate creative works, potentially damaging the livelihoods of visual artists, musicians, writers, and designers. Widely used platforms are able to search through an archive of existing pieces of art and borrow features to generate visuals without permission from the original creator. To some artists, this means their work is being effectively stolen.

A group of computer scientists led by UChicago professors presented a possible countermeasure to this legal and artistic quandary. They developed a tool that disrupts AI models to prevent them from adopting a given piece’s stylistic features.

As AI evolves, we will continue to rely on interdisciplinary collaboration, thoughtful engagement, and inventive problem-solving to make the most of the emerging possibilities. The skills and knowledge you gain in a Master of Liberal Arts program can prepare you to manage the changes brought about by AI and other technological breakthroughs.

Skills that bring people together

We live in a hyperconnected global environment where we’re constantly inundated by news, opinions, and misinformation. It’s become all too easy for many of us to close ourselves off from ideas and perspectives that are different from our own. We can seek out sources that tend to confirm our preconceived notions, rather than welcoming varied points of view that challenge our beliefs and add nuance to our arguments.

A liberal arts education breaks open echo chambers, exposing learners to a spectrum of intriguing ideas and providing frameworks to think critically about complicated topics. To work with others productively and arrive at the best solutions to problems, you need to be capable of turning a skeptical eye to even your own ideas.

When PwC director Omer Imtiaz enrolled in the University of Chicago MLA program, he brought a background in computer science and engineering. However, it soon became clear to him that the liberal arts had an essential role to play in shaping the future of technologies like AI.

“Science and engineering can answer the ’what’ and ‘how’ questions,” Imtiaz said. “However, you will need a liberal arts education to answer the ‘why’ question. Otherwise, it is a pursuit of progress without any real end in mind. Just because we can use artificial intelligence, for example, should we?”

Advanced education in the liberal arts will be valuable in the new paradigm initiated by AI precisely because students go beyond memorizing facts or absorbing lectures from their professors. By actively engaging with concepts from multiple disciplines, you develop habits of mind that help to make sound decisions and collaborate with diverse teams.

Even as technology continues its rapid progress, decision makers at a wide array of organizations know that the most crucial factor in their success is a dedicated workforce that works together with a shared purpose. A 2023 survey from LinkedIn found that cross- functional skills like management, communication, leadership, research, and analysis are in the highest demand. These are precisely the kinds of strengths that can be developed through studying the liberal arts.

About the University of Chicago Master of Liberal Arts

The University of Chicago online Master of Liberal Arts provides a transformative education that strengthens skills in leadership, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. We welcome a diverse community of accomplished professionals to participate in live seminar discussions, guided by eminent faculty members with expertise in multiple disciplines.

Customize the online MLA to fit your goals by working with a faculty advisor to complete a thesis or special project that interests you as well as by choosing from three optional concentrations. In the Tech and Society concentration, you can explore the benefits and risks that emerge from societies’ influence on technological development, as well as technology’s effects on culture.

Contact us for more information about how earning an MLA can help you thrive in a period of technical breakthroughs and industry disruptions.


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