Your art degree might save you from automation, an AI expert says

Kai-Fu Lee gives us some hope.
Kai-Fu Lee gives us some hope.
Image: Quartz/ Johnny Simon
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When machines control all the world’s finances and run factory floors, what will humans be left to do?

We’ll make art, says Kai-Fu Lee, a former Google and Microsoft executive who has since launched VC firm Sinovation Ventures.

“Art and beauty is very hard to replicate with AI. Given AI is more objective, analytical, data driven, maybe it’s time for some of us to switch to the humanities, liberal arts, and beauty,” Lee told Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney during a live Q&A session. “Maybe professions where it’s hard to find a job might be good to study.”

Students now deciding whether to pursue arts or sciences face an uncertain future: While automation is just starting to impact the workforce, Lee believes that 50% of jobs held by humans today will be automated in 10 years, extrapolating from an often-cited 2013 Oxford study. Jobs that require “less than five seconds of thinking” will be among the first to disappear, Lee says. He offers receptionists and factory workers as examples, which have already faced some level of automation. Next will be jobs that rely on crunching numbers, where data is available to make decisions, like bankers, traders, and insurance adjusters.

While art isn’t on Lee’s list of skills that will be replaced by AI, both large tech companies and small startups have dedicated resources to making AI that can generate artistic images, doodles, music, and entertainment. Google’s Magenta project has the sole purpose of developing creative artificial intelligence and is working to make AI sketch, while Sony frequently releases research on generating new music—even actress Kristen Stewart has explored using AI to help her make art.

But human authenticity won’t go out of fashion, whether that be in art or even service jobs. In a commencement speech to Columbia University’s engineering department yesterday, Lee said that a new class of workers will be born from AI: “Workers of love.”

“The displaced workers can take up careers spreading love and experiences—whether a passionate tour guide, an attentive concierge, a funny bartender, an infectious sushi chef,” he said. If those jobs don’t pay, Lee suggests they volunteer, supported by some kind of universal basic income.

Lee also imagines this same kind of authenticity benefitting other professions, like doctors and oncologists. He predicts people won’t want to hear their diagnoses from machines, so instead a doctor’s role will focus on delivering the bad news and assisting in treatment, rather than making the primary medical decisions.