Blog: The Humanities and AI

THE HUMANITIES AND AI

Every Sunday morning at 9:05, I get a notice on my phone about how many hours I spent the previous week scrolling mindlessly through Instagram and the like. It’s an embarrassing and humiliating number, much more so than the number on the bathroom scale during my weekly weigh-in. As if I wasn’t struggling enough to keep down my screentime (and waistline), along comes ChatGPT.

ChatGPT is apparently a gateway drug into artificial intelligence – or AI – as I have found it quite addictive, momentarily exhilarating, and downright scary.

By now most people have probably heard of this intellectual interloper, but for those who have not tried it, it is surprisingly easy to use. And shockingly responsive.

I asked ChatGPT, How can the humanities be used to solve Wyoming’s challenges?, and it responded lickety-split with a 227-word mini-essay worthy of a Wyoming Humanities donation appeal letter. Its answer touched on economic development and strengthening communities. It addressed the role of the humanities is understanding and addressing social issues and promoting civic engagement. “By studying literature, history, and philosophy, we can gain insights into the ways in which (social) issues have developed over time and identify potential solutions that are grounded in a deeper understanding of their causes.”

There is an irony in ChatGPT doing such a good job describing the importance and use of the humanities.

In 1965, Congress passed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, which created the National Endowment for the Humanities and Arts. Congress declared in the Act: “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.”

A risk of ChatGPT is that in its instantaneous synthesis and mastery of masses of on-line content, it can make us unthinking servants reliant on its (insert air quotes) wisdom.

So why even study or appreciate the humanities when we have ChatGPT that can do it for us?

David Brooks opined about this in his February 2, 2023, New York Times opinion piece, “In the Age of AI, Major in Being Human.” Brooks described those things that only humans can do. AI cannot have a distinct personal voice. It cannot have a childlike talent for creativity or unusual world views. It cannot have empathy.

To summarize Brooks’ points, platforms like ChatGPT cannot tell a story, let alone a good one. The art, purpose and importance of storytelling remains solidly within the purview of humans.

I asked ChatGPT, Why should we care about the humanities?, and in a matter of seconds it kicked back a worthy response elaborating on cultural enrichment, preservation of language and history, critical thinking and problem-solving, and community building.

But what it couldn’t kick back (and I argue it never will be able to) is a single sentence story that answers the question much more meaningfully, surprisingly, and with voice.

In 2013, Pete Simpson addressed the Wyoming Humanities board. He answered the same question I asked ChatGPT. “The humanities are our intellectual broadswords to fight ignorance, cynicism, trivialization and complacency and the more and better ways we contrive to wield them, the more we meet our responsibility to our citizens.”

Who did it better?

To read Pete’s address, check out our Democracy Under Construction e-book.