In the News

The Humanities and the Future

Abraham Loeb
Scientific American

The humanities are often preoccupied with thinkers of the past, such as the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. But most of the humans who will ever live will exist in the future, which means that their lives will be intertwined with advanced technologies.

Currently, the number of college students in the humanities is dwindling, and academic advisors often belittle the relevance of liberal arts for the job market relative to more practical disciplines, such as science and technology.

But the heart of the matter is that science and technology aim to assist humans. And the interface between humans and advanced technologies is a frontier where the humanistic perspective is indispensable.

Three decades ago, I was a fledgling postdoc advised by his experienced mentor that in order to develop a successful career in science I need to specialize in a narrow field and be regarded as the world expert in a particular specialty. Back then, developing a narrow expertise was key to being professional. A maker of leather shoes with rubber soles was supposed to know everything there is to know about crafting leather and rubber into the shape of shoes, with no time left for any peripheral learning.

Fortunately, I did not listen to that old advice, as interdisciplinary perspectives are the carriers of innovation today. And by extension, the future belongs to the incorporation of liberal arts into science and technology. Academic research on the interface between humans and machines will rejuvenate disciplines that had become dormant and link the humanities to our future rather than our past.

A few contexts immediately come to mind. First and foremost, the study of ethics. There are major ethical questions regarding genetic engineering: Which revisions to the genetic making of humans should be engineered? Should we design the qualities of people that we wish society to have?

Another area involves the implications of big data sets: How can we employ the vast information that is collected daily on people, and analyze it for the benefit of psychology and social science? Can we use these data to construct computer-based models that would forecast human behavior to guide policies or political decisions?

Recent developments in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning touch upon fundamental questions in philosophy, such as: What is the meaning of consciousness? Is there free will?

View full story: Scientific American



Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences

Richard H. Brodhead and John W. Rowe