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In The Era Of Artificial Intelligence The Liberal Arts Grad Is King

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According to Canadian Economic Advisory Council head Dominic Barton, 40 per cent of all jobs will disappear over the next decade due to automation.

Interviewed April 23 on CBC radio's Sunday Edition, Barton -- who is also global managing partner at McKinsey & Company -- predicted that whole job categories and employment sectors will be decimated. These include professions like accounting, law, engineering and, yes, even medicine.

Thus, whereas automation was until recently considered a threat only to factory and assembly line workers, travel agents and toll booth attendants, the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly moving the phenomenon up the employment food chain.

ibm watson computer
IBM's Watson is seen in the immersion room during an event at the company's headquarters in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014. (Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The evidence is all around us. For example, IBM's Watson supercomputer (the one that uses and understands natural language and defeated champion Ken Jennings on the TV game show Jeopardy in 2011) is already revolutionizing medical diagnoses and has teamed up with H&R Block to provide A.I.-assisted tax advice.

As someone who is in the business of identifying and recruiting high-performance management teams -- and as an individual with a deep personal interest in the technology sector -- I am often asked by young people, in particular, how best to navigate through such a rapid and disruptive era of change.

My short answer is to stay human. Develop and hone skills that are difficult, if not impossible, to replicate.

One is creativity. Humans have an uncanny ability to take ideas in whole new directions. Think of Steve Jobs, who took a calligraphy course at Reed College (as a "drop-in" after he had dropped out) and subsequently revolutionized the look and feel of personalized technology.


Contrary to conventional wisdom, it may well be liberal arts grads that inherit the earth (or at least survive in the workplace).

I am not alone in this thinking -- recently entrepreneur and billionaire Mark Cuban said he would advise people today to get a degree in philosophy if they want to remain "robot-proof." Google executive Jonathan Rosenberg recently told CNBC, "I think Mark Cuban is right. We need more liberal arts grads."

Full disclosure: I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate at McGill University. It served me well -- in fact I encouraged my own daughter, who just started university this past year, to pursue a liberal arts education. She is doing so -- and loves it.

It is important to point out that for most, a liberal arts degree is, in the best sense of the word, foundational. Philosophy majors, by and large, do not become philosophers, any more than anthropology majors become anthropologists or history majors become historians. But ideally they all will have developed the foundational skills of critical thinking, problem-solving, researching and effectively communicating.

woman computer technology student
(Hero Images via Getty Images)

Often, they will go on to acquire more specific job-related competencies through graduate certificate programs tailored to the market needs of the moment.

Robert Waite, a Rosenzweig & Company advisor and one of Seneca College's graduate program professors, believes the model of the future will increasingly see liberal arts students move straight on to job-ready programs following university. And he sees them being highly successful.

"I tell my students that they need to be ready to train and retrain frequently throughout their careers. They will of necessity need to acquire specific in-demand skills and adapt to evolving technologies or markets. But I also tell them to never let go of the ability to apply critical thinking or creativity to whatever task is placed in front of them. That's what will ultimately separate them from an algorithm or a Watson," said Waite.

What is the bottom line in all of this? In an increasingly automated world, it is the qualities that make us most human that will be valued highest in the workplace of the future. And the liberal arts -- also known as humanities -- may well offer the clearest path to success.

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