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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Questioning the machine

Advances in AI make critical thinking skills crucial for the future of work, writes Chris Griffiths

If you’re not sure what to expect from the future of work, you’re not alone. All indicators suggest we’re at the dawn of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) age, and the larger implications for the working world remain to be seen. While there may be a lot we can’t predict, there are still many things we can do to prepare ourselves for this new future. Perhaps most important of all is the enhancement of our critical thinking skills.

To see why this is, we need to understand the differences between man and machine. It is certainly true that there has been concern about the speed at which AI is developing. In fact, earlier this year, a large group of tech giants and experts (including Elon Musk) signed an open letter calling for a pause in the development of AI. Certainly, we should be aware of the risks associated with the creation of such a powerful tool, but it’s important to note this doesn’t mean that AI will supplant the need for human thought.

On the contrary, we should view AI as an aid for human abilities, rather than an out-and-out replacement for them. While this doesn’t mean that AI won’t change things – in fact, it will almost certainly boost efficiency and productivity – there is currently no evidence to suggest it has the ability to engage in human-level critical thinking skills.

At its heart, AI is a complex set of algorithms able to organise vast quantities of data and automate processes which follow a particular sequence of steps. As AI lacks subjective experience, it is not capable of true discernment or able to express an original opinion. And that’s not to mention that AI is not infallible, it may sometimes produce mistakes or replicate biases. That’s why it’s so important humans are able to work alongside it, and challenge any errors it might throw up.

So, what actually is critical thinking, and why is it important? Simply put, it’s a process which requires a person to analyse information and make a judgement based on that analysis. In many instances, there is no objectively “correct” answer, and an ultimate judgement must be made based on a number of factors including context and empathy. In other words, critical thinking goes beyond a rigid set of calculations. A person engaging in critical thinking will question assumptions and biases, as well as taking into account other people’s opinions and perspectives. Something AI is ultimately not capable of.

That is why critical thinking will be so crucial to the future of work as technology continues to evolve and disrupt traditional job roles. One of the key differences between human critical thinking skills and AI’s abilities is the importance of context. While AI is capable of processing large amounts of data at breakneck speed, it is not able to understand the nuances of language and culture that are essential for effective communication and decision-making.

You can think about how this might work in a context such as customer service. This is a sector widely expected to be disrupted by AI. While AI-powered chatbots may indeed become the new frontline for resolving customer service issues, it will not be able to truly understand the underlying feelings which might motivate a customer’s complaint or issue. That’s why humans will still be needed to deal with complicated queries, but also to dream up new ways to make customers feel catered to and understood.

Creativity is another key aspect of critical thinking. Imagination and originality are not only what mark the human race out as special, they’re also the bedrock of all advancement within civilisation.

While AI is capable of generating ostensibly “new” ideas and solutions, it can only work with the data points it has already been fed, and so cannot dream up truly novel ideas. It’s no secret that creativity is essential for success in a rapidly evolving economy, where new ideas and products are constantly being introduced – and without humans, that creativity can’t exist.

Fostering creativity and innovation is one the biggest challenges facing CEOs and leaders today. Now, with the prevalence of AI, these areas will become even more crucial. When rote, technical jobs are handed over in their entirety to AI, there will be more time and emphasis placed on creative critical thinking than ever before. A culture of experimentation and risk-taking is an essential part of establishing this, and (at least for now), culture remains the sole remit of human-to-human interaction. AI by its very nature and lack of personhood cannot exist in – or truly understand – company culture.

It’s important to note that both creativity and critical thinking are rooted in our experiences of the world. Creativity is drawn from our knowledge and experience; it takes place when we fuse together pieces of existing knowledge to create a novel idea.  Critical thinking, on the other hand, requires that we understand conventions and biases in order to be able to question them. Together, creative critical thinking allows for true innovation – which looks beyond the way things have always been done, and dreams up new ways to do things altogether. Pair this with AI’s power to boost productivity and overall efficiency, and you have a powerful recipe for success in a new, AI-driven working era.

There is no denying that AI will make up part of the picture of success in the future. To completely ignore the potential AI provides would be madness. Lest we forget, collaboration has always been integral to innovation – and that will continue to be true, even when the collaboration must be between humans and AI tools. Staying ahead of the curve will mean not only embracing AI, but embracing a workforce who are equipped to make the most of the many opportunities AI presents. After all, it wouldn’t have been any good for NASA to design a rocket capable of going to the moon, if they didn’t also train astronauts capable of stepping out onto the surface.

Written by Chris Griffiths and Caragh Medlicott, authors of The Creative Thinking Handbook. Chris is also a keynote speaker, and founder of productivity and mind mapping app, ayoa.com.


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