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The call to arts

How the humanities will live up to their name in the digital age

cartoon of paintings inside claw-machine arcade game Art: Stephanie Barahona

Since the Industrial revolution, the arts have been the victim of an ongoing existential crisis. Cast into irrelevance by a world more concerned with the future and the fastest way to get there, culture sank to the status of an afterthought; a pastime or distraction for those who could afford it. The venerating prestige once bestowed upon art, music and literature is under constant assault in an age of commercialised modernity. Why gaze down the annals of history or attempt to navigate the inner workings of the human psyche when the doors to wealth and prosperity await?

The popular consensus is that it’s difficult enough to reconcile starting a career with the three years of introspective theorising that is an arts degree, let alone a passion for the creative arts. Growth and prosperity, we are told, lie down the pathway of science, law and commerce. But, as even the most perfunctory glance at the headlines can attest to, times are changing. The worker’s task is slowly being usurped by a more efficient contemporary. Within a few decades, the arts will be all that we have left. As the tide of automation draws closer, we ought to take refuge in the fields that are tethered to our past, and more importantly, to our unique ability to understand ourselves.

The long dismissed sci-fi trope of the algorithmic overlord is no longer limited to the filmography of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but has rather become a threat to the established industrial order like nothing since the internal combustion engine. Over the past decade, the line separating servant from master has blurred, with the increasing autonomy of computers rendering us unwittingly subservient. In 2014, a Hong Kong venture capital firm became the first in history to appoint a computer program to its board — ‘VITAL’. Since its employment, VITAL has used advanced analytical techniques to steer its company’s investments, a process which, due to its judicious economic foresight, has resulted in the growth of other organisations which rely on the services of similar advanced algorithms. It is hard to see how this process of automated nepotism will slow down. In 10 years, is it really all that unreasonable to expect corporate boards composed entirely of computers? How long until a human loses a lawsuit to a machine?

How ridiculous, you might think, particularly if you’ve subjected yourself to the study of law. The legal system is a sacred human institution, immune to the corrupting forces that corporations may be vulnerable to. Machines may be able to build cars or trade stocks, but the nuanced governance of society is an innately human occupation. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In 2013, a paper came out of Oxford predicting the probability that certain professions would be automated by 2033. By then, there is 94% chance that paralegal assistants will be exclusively non-human. The same goes for legal secretaries (98%) and even to a lesser extent, judicial law clerks (41%). Perhaps the taunt of diminishing career prospects has found new subjects.

Attempts to combat the impending socio-economic effects of automation are scarce and speculative, as like all revolutionary technologies, the speed and capacity of automated technology itself seems to be a point of contention. The concept of a universal basic income (UBI)  — a living wage guaranteed to all citizens — has recently been gaining traction among academics and commentators across the ideological spectrum. UBI, it is hoped, will free humanity from the shackles of wage slavery and allow us to fulfil our artistic potential. However even the traditional ‘welfare warriors’ of Scandinavia concede the cost of such a scheme is astronomical. This fully-automated utopia seems a distant dream.

In 1950, pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing devised the Turing Test, the most primitive gauge for artificial intelligence. It stipulates that in order to pass the test, a computer must successfully convince a person that it is fact human. Almost 70 years later, perhaps it is time to devise a alternative test. Can you prove your humanity in world which has increasingly little use for it? Perhaps it’s time to put down the law book, the finance report or the medical journal, and let the machines tend to it. Take refuge in the arts — they might just become the sole justification for our existence.

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence.

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