The TED2018 conference “The Age of Amazement” in Vancouver left me amazed indeed. I was sitting with my jaw dropped in Gartenbaukino on the broadcast event organized by TEDxVienna. But there was one particular talk that kept my brain busy for months after the live stream in April. It was Kai-Fu Lee’s assessment of how AI and humankind can coexist in the near future.
Artificial Intelligence is coming. Whether we like it or not. And it is going to change our working world immensely. In his talk, Lee explains how AI is continuously going to replace jobs that are based on repetitive, routine and optimizing tasks. Thus, the question “How do we differentiate ourselves as humans in the age of AI?” is becoming increasingly important.
He identifies two fields that AI cannot replace: one is creativity, and the other one is care-giving, the latter being based on the fundamental values of compassion and love.
How do these two fields of work look like in practice? What is it like when you connect creative practice with compassion for others? Instead of making assumptions on my own, I have invited Tabi Hamar, a current fine art painting student at the University of Brighton, UK, to discuss these ideas with me. In her latest volunteering activities, Tabi has been focusing on care-giving and creativity by running art workshops for homeless people in Brighton.
Caring Creativity/Creative Care-giving
“I have recently found out that you got involved in a project which combines these two aspects Kai-Fu Lee emphasizes in his TED talk: creativity and compassion. Could you tell me a bit about the context of this new project?”
T: “It’s not easy to find affordable housing in the UK. Inevitably, homelessness is a big issue. I am currently studying in Brighton and there are a lot of homeless here. It’s quite hard to not notice this problem, because it’s a very visible one.
I got in touch with an organization called Justlife, that helps people get housing, and takes them to medical appointments. I volunteered to work in their art studio to gain some experience. It was very nerve-wrecking since I’ve never done something like this before. First, I started as an art therapist’s assistant, talking with people who have experienced homelessness. But then, I was asked if I wanted to do my own workshops.”
“So what are these art workshops about?”
T: “The purpose is to help people express themselves, develop skills, and I have also found that the sessions were a form of escapism. Taken out of their issues, they could have a new perspective for a couple of hours, connect with their peers, and build relationships. The exercises we do during the workshops aim to teach them different ways to reflect on their identity and their identity as a group.”
Photo by Tabi Hamar
The Loss of Meaning
While the Industrial Revolution has created more jobs by decomposing complex craftwork into many little tasks, the AI Revolution will completely replace individual jobs in the assembly line with robots. The scale of job replacements is certainly a huge concern. But “what’s more serious than the loss of jobs is the loss of meaning”, Kai-Fu Lee argues. “The work ethic in the industrial age has brainwashed us into thinking that work is the reason we exist, work defines the meaning of our lives.” As a consequence, losing our job will mean more than just losing our job. It will mean losing our meaning, losing our identity.
“The people you have worked with during your workshops were not only homeless, but usually unemployed too. Was there a general attitude you noticed among them?”
T: “There was definitely a sense of disappointment and mistrust towards society. Which is understandable, when there is such a stigma attached to homelessness. But the reality is: it could happen to anyone very quickly. On the other hand, I have come to realize that they can reinvent themselves in creative ways, when they have a community that accepts them the way they are and encourages them to be better.”
Photo by josemdelaa from pixabay.com
The Change We Need
“Kai-Fu Lee mentioned in his TED talk that in order to close the unemployment gap AI will cause, we not only have to invent new jobs in the realm of compassion and creativity, but we also need an influx of people in already existing jobs.”
T: “I agree, there is a need for more social workers and mental health workers. In my opinion, the problem lies in how these jobs are perceived. I think they should be more appreciated by our society in order to make them attractive career options, in which one can progress.”
“This collective appreciation must translate into financial means as well, correct?”
T: “Yes, pay teachers more, pay social workers more… When it comes to the creative sector and the arts, I personally think that the future of art is socially engaged. I don’t think that the future artist’s role would be to sit in an isolated studio and make pretty art. It’s more about making change. I’m not saying all artists have to become activists. It’s more about asking: What is the thing that personally affects you as an artist and how can you take that out into the world? Prime examples of artists who took on that extra leadership role and whom I admire a lot are Theaster Gates, Krzysztof Wodiczko and Helio Oiticica. They’re all concerned with questions of artistic identity and they often explore these through engaging with their environments and the communities around them.”
“It seems like the future will need a massive shift towards creative and care-giving jobs. But is everyone creative? Is everyone compassionate?”
T: “I do believe people are born with the ability to be creative and compassionate. But I don’t think everybody will have to take on a job in the humanities. I think what Kai-Fu Lee tried to emphasize was that our collective consciousness has to shift, the way we view each other. Do we view each other only as competitors? Are we relieved at the sight of someone in a marginal situation, because at least we don’t have to worry about them competing against us? We need to change our priorities. We need to become more people-centered, more inclusive and more empathic in whatever we do professionally. Because the truth is, we are not that separate from each other. If someone’s hurting, everyone’s hurting.”
A (realistic) opportunity
“So what is the value of art in the process of making a better society?”
T: “Making art gives us confidence that could help us face uncertainties in real life. Because in art, it’s OK to not know. So you can take that and implement it in other parts of your life by saying ‘I’m OK with not having all the answers and I can still enjoy myself and learn from the experiences I have.’ Art helps you develop self-compassion. And people who love themselves, can also love others more. This is how I think art can really help us be a better society.”
“Kai-Fu Lee’s TED talk is obviously quite optimistic. Do you have any scepticism or reluctance towards his outlook on how to build a new societal order in the midst of the AI revolution?”
T: “I think it’s important that we keep our history in mind. People usually start with a good idea but then it can quickly end in a nightmare. The most important thing in my opinion is that we pay attention to the people around us. I can’t enforce my ideas on everyone, just because I think it will help them. I need to listen to what they say they actually need. These are things we need to take into account when thinking of ways AI would change society through arts.”
Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels
“So where can we start today?”
T: “I believe just being more content with ourselves will solve a lot of issues. Because usually hurt people hurt people. And you can work through that with the help of art. It’s interesting… because art is such an individual thing, isn’t it? Like people think artists are selfish… and indeed, art is a bit selfish. And it’s interesting that you can do it from a place of ‘I’m doing this for myself’ and it would still lead you to others. So it’s quite magical in that sense.”
AI and humans
Many of us fell victim of a hamster-wheel lifestyle, without even realizing it. Because from the inside, a hamster wheel actually looks like a career ladder. But at the latest when we are facing death, we become aware of how distorted our priorities are. Kai-Fu Lee did too, when he discovered he had fourth-stage lymphoma, leaving him only a few months to live.
He painfully recognized how foolish he was to base his entire self-worth on how hard he worked and how much he had accomplished. A mindset many of us bought into as well.
But work is not the meaning of life. And AI gives us all an opportunity to wake up and re-examine our values and what it means to be human. Fortunately, Lee is in remission and here to tell us: “Humans are uniquely able to give and receive love. And that’s what differentiates us from AI.”
To watch Kai-Fu Lee’s TED talk click here.
Header image credits: Amaury Salas via Unsplash
About Tabi Hamar
Tabi is a young Hungarian artist currently based in Brighton, UK. She is passionately following her dreams and studies Fine Art Painting at the University of Brighton. In an increasingly complex world, she is utilising art to help her make sense of the universe, people and herself. She is a bookworm, a morning coffee addict, and a fan of wearing recycled oversized clothing (preferably stained with paint). Find her work on instagram or on wabisabitabi.com.