A Vital Element of AI? Empathy
How one Colby graduate is putting humanity into AI technology
A liberal arts degree may not immediately seem like the most direct path to a career in AI technology, but its broad and interdisciplinary curriculum provides a strong foundation for success in this rapidly growing field. With a focus on critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills, a liberal arts education can equip students with the tools they need to navigate the complex and constantly evolving landscape of AI.
That’s how the introduction to this article would read if it was written entirely by OpenAI’s ChatGPT, with no human editing. Would you have guessed that it was AI-generated?
If you answered “no,” then you’re not alone.
From personal assistants like Siri or Alexa to “smart” home appliances and automated investing, artificial intelligence is ubiquitous in our lives. Colby launched the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence in 2021 with a mission of establishing Colby as a nationally recognized center of excellence in interdisciplinary, human-centered approaches to AI.
As AI becomes more sophisticated, experts sort its capabilities into several different kinds of intelligence: perception, representation, action, and learning. Generative AI, like the widely publicized ChatGPT, is all about action.
“It’s exciting to see, but there are limitations we have to acknowledge,” said Amanda Stent, director of the Davis Institute, citing the ease with which chatbots can produce harmful content. “We’re building AI tool-builders and AI tool-users who are always thinking critically about how this will help individuals or society at large.”
Putting the human element back into technology
That’s where a liberal arts education comes in. You don’t have to have a degree in computer science to have a career at the forefront of new technologies. Take Amanda O’Malley Santangelo ’14, product manager at Apple Watch. The global studies and East Asian studies double major never expected to turn her degree into a career focused on artificial intelligence.
She looked around more traditional career paths like medicine, law, or finance, but none of it seemed right. “The more I looked at the technology space and its potential, the more I was interested,” said Santangelo, who landed her first post-graduate role in IBM’s leadership development program and helped bring IBM Watson, the company’s AI-based question-and-answer computer system, to other enterprises.
“It was truly liberal arts at its core. You have this amazing capability, and we were trying to figure out across all of these different industries how to harness the technology to improve people’s lives,” she said.
IBM threw Santangelo headfirst into the world of AI, working with small- and medium-sized startups to understand how Watson could be applied to business. Just a few years later, that sounds elementary—companies today use hundreds of software tools to get things done. But at the time, Watson was best known for crushing elite contestants Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Jeopardy!, not changing the world.
“Coming from a business perspective and not an engineering one allowed me to just ask questions and focus on empathy,” said Santangelo. “How is this actually going to work? Will it help the oncologist figure out the treatment options for this patient? Technology and empathy need to go hand in hand.”
Building the next generation of human-centered designers
Santangelo follows the principle of human-centered design, an approach to solving technological business problems that starts with empathetic questions. Why this product? Who are we serving? What do they need? What can the technology do?
“I think it’s very easy to focus on the technical aspects and get lost in those,” said Santangelo. “But then you’re not truly understanding what the human problem is that you’re supposed to be solving. Design needs to work in tandem, so that you build it to serve the needs of that person, whether it’s a doctor, teacher, or investment banker.”
Starting with the needs and priorities of humans is part of Stent’s work at the Davis Institute as well. “Human-centered design starts with people, rather than the capabilities of the technology. So if we think about a conversational system like Siri, there are people who speak general American English, but that’s just one dialect. How can we make sure that all speakers of English get the same experience?” said Stent.
This past Jan Plan, the Davis Institute for AI sponsored two different courses to introduce students to the fundamental pieces of AI: Natural language processing (what powers text-based chatbots like ChatGPT) and computer vision (what powers visual-based AI like self-driving cars). Both courses encouraged non-computer science majors to enroll.
“In survey after survey of employers in technology and engineering, it’s a liberal arts education that provides the skills they’re looking for. They’ll say, ‘Well, my new employees know calculus, but they can’t communicate, think critically, or engage in public speaking.’ With a liberal arts education, you get that practice from day one,” said Stent.
Technology will keep changing. But Santangelo credits the skills she learned at Colby with the foundation for her career in tech. “I wanted to work in a role that had impact and value on the business and on the world,” said Santangelo. “I realized right away that the liberal arts toolkit was more diverse and more versatile than I ever suspected.”
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