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Starmer's right on AI: Helping kids to be creative and empathetic does more than teaching them to code

We can't hope to compete with AI on speed and volume of technical tasks. But AI can never compete with us in the truly creative thinking - from music, to philosophy, to the kind of inspired science fiction that guides actual technological progress. As humans, this is our natural advantage, and it needs to be shored up. 

July 08 2023, 14.06pm

The UK has been as obsessed with AI as the next country, but as of this month, we can say the issue has well and truly arrived.  One sign was the literal arrival of OpenAI on these shores: the company behind ChatGPT, Dall-E and other platforms synonymous with the AI revolution has announced they will be opening an office in London – their first outside the United States. 

Another was the speed with which politicians have made room for this still-nascent technology in their developing manifestos - first Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was quick to lay claim to hosting the world’s first AI summit later this year, and now his rival and putative successor, Keir Starmer. Interestingly, while Sunak tackled AI through the prism of governance and regulation, Starmer made AI a key part of his “mission” speech defining Labour’s pledge on something else entirely: education. 

“The old way – learning out of date IT, on 20 year old computers – doesn’t work,” said Starmer in his speech at a college in Gillingham on Thursday. “But neither does the new fashion, that every kid should be a coder, when artificial intelligence will blow that future away.

Children need to be able to understand technical problems as adeptly as they can interact and be human, said Starmer. “They need knowledge and skills, practical problem-solving and academic rigour, curiosity and a love of learning – that’s always been critical. But now, as the future rushes towards us, we also need a greater emphasis on creativity, on resilience, on emotional intelligence and the ability to adapt.”

Emotional intelligence was key, he said, all the more so because of the AI revolution. “Emphasis on all the attributes – to put it starkly – that make us human, that distinguish us from learning machines, make our communities and our lives so rich and rewarding,” he added.

Speaking as someone who’s written about AI for some of the world’s biggest publications, the Labour leader has a point.  We’ve all heard about the impact artificial intelligence is going to have on our jobs and our working lives – a 7% boost to global GDP in the next decade, and a bolster to sluggish productivity, is just the start of it. 

AI can’t replace creativity, human connection, or empathy - all of which are as important in pathbreaking scientific endeavour as they are in humanities and the arts

At the same time, AI can’t handle many of the things that make us human. It can polish interactions, yes, and is a boon for those with neurodivergence who struggle to communicate – making their message clearer, or deciphering the foibles and double-speak that we use in day-to-day interactions.

But it can’t replace creativity, human connection, or empathy - all of which are as important in pathbreaking scientific endeavour as they are in humanities and the arts. It can only offer a pale imitation, based on pattern matching thousands of interactions and trying to find the most statistically relevant result.

And as AI encroaches into more elements of our lives – both in work and outside of it – those softer skills, inimitable to a computer, will become vital.

Management experts and HR practitioners have long spoken of the importance of EQ: emotional intelligence the equal of your IQ. But in an AI world, it’s going to become ever more important that you can emphasise the human, and build communities to separate yourself from the pack.

AI can be a tool to help improve creativity, of that there’s no doubt. I’ve spoken to enough artists and painters who integrate AI into their work to know its immense power acting as a sounding board, an assistant and a rough draftsperson, enabling them to churn through early iterations before hitting on the final draft of their work. But as anyone who has tried to get ChatGPT to write poetry and read through the schlocky results it produces will know, get beyond the “throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks” stage of creativity and it struggles.

Pinpointing the human condition? Trying to empathise with others’ plight? Finding what’s universal within our experience, and framing arguments from that point of view, building connections along the way? Producing the kind of philosophical work that allows us to take a fresh angle on scientific advances, or the kind of emphatic, emotive science fiction - from novels to cinema - that inspire genuine technological quantum leaps? Good luck.

Early adopters of AI are people with very little coding experience but with inspired ideas and the conversational and educational skills to make the best of the technology's capacity to understand normal human language. 

For many of us who have spent years in the creative industries, whenever we’ve been piled on by a troll army, their line of attack has been a mocking bit of advice: “learn to code”.

But the quintessential demonstration of the AI revolution we’re living through today is that this advice has been turned on its head: rather than forcing us to learn to code, AI has been taught to understand and operate in “normal”, spoken human language. Early adopters of the new technology are people with very little coding experience but with the inspired ideas and the conversational and educational skills to nudge AI engines into producing and refining the code that transforms a verbal description of a game or an app into an actual product. And we’ve just learned that OpenAI will be rolling out its code interpreter – which can develop code as well as analyse vast volumes of data – to its paid-for version of ChatGPT over the next week.

It turns out the supposedly future-proof plan of learning to code no longer cuts it. Instead, we’re recognising that those creative skills are what separates us from mere robots. And when robots are becoming even more powerful, we’re starting to value those skills even more.

IT classes are all well and good. They’re even necessary – as a university lecturer, alongside a journalist, I’ve seen in real time the degradation of tech literacy in a world where apps are intuitive and companies like Apple smooth over the idea you’re interacting with a machine at all in the pursuit of user experience. But they’re not the be all and end all. Our “soft” skills are the hard edge we have, and likely will have, over artificial intelligence. Developing them is more important now than ever.