Imagine for a second that you’re starting second grade. It’s the year to begin learning multiplication. But instead of Ms. Johnson busting out the multiplication tables, she hands every student a calculator. “We’re going to learn math the easy way.”
Obviously, this would never happen. Most of us understand the reluctance to give students calculators before learning to do the math functions themselves. But ultimately, once they reach a certain age, we say it's okay to use a calculator all the time.
The calculator conundrum is something that teachers/parents all think deeply about. When is the right time to let kids start using calculators in lieu of written/mental math?
If the tool (calculator) can do the skill (math) for us and alleviate all of that brain power, why learn to do the skill (math) in the first place?
I feel that the calculator conundrum is a relevant metaphor for Generative AI. Except that we’re cranking this conundrum up from a 1 to a 10. Generative AI has infinitely more potential to augment our skillsets, thus, has infinitely more potential for damage.
Whereas the calculator replaces a hard skill, Generative AI replaces a number of soft skills like critical thinking, creative ideation, and interpersonal communication.
If a kid uses AI to write all of their school papers, then obviously, that’s a problem. The student isn’t learning anything and using an external source to do their work. Ultimately, it’s not the end of the world, though.
The second-order impacts on skill-building that will result from over-dependence on Generative AI are what we should really prepare for.
The kid that uses AI to write all of their school papers may never develop the ability to organize their thoughts and present an argument. That kid may never build the research skill of reading a long passage and pulling out the pertinent information because AI can do that for them.
These are the types of hidden soft skills that are critical to being a productive employee. And that’s at the bare minimum. If you want to have a big impact and advance in your career, you need to excel at critical thinking, creative ideation, and interpersonal communication.
It’s Not Just A Kid Problem
I don’t want to make it seem like this is “another technology that is going to ruin the youth.” That narrative is played out. And honestly, it’s not just a problem for the next generation of skilled workers. Generative AI could lead to a lot of adults atrophying their skill sets.
The argument that is often made (which generally subscribe to) is that generative AI is just a tool. And tools can be used in productive or destructive ways. Yes, this holds true. But it’s also so much more than a tool. It’s a tool that replaces, bit by bit, task by task, human skills.
Generative AI is more than a hammer. Because a hammer enables us to do a task we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do with just our bodies. Generative AI is more like an extra set of arms, taking away from the reps and strength we’d give to our normal set of arms.
I’m hesitant myself to lean on AI too much in my writing because I know I still have room for growth that could be stifled by over-dependence on AI. I also don’t want to be handcuffed by the tool and lessen my ability to open a blank Google Doc and just pour out ideas.
I know I’m usually the one that’s charging head-first into innovation and emphasizing the need to learn tools like Generative AI. Yes, I’m still singing to that tune. But I think it’s important to realize what we’re fully up against.
Partly I’m playing devil’s advocate because of how crazy yesterday’s experiment with Generative AI turned out. I was completely shocked by the AI-generated marketing campaign. It was able to do marketing not quite at the director level but certainly far beyond an entry-level marketer. I’ve always been amazed by the visuals that Generative AI can produce. But seeing that excellence in the written medium, in a complex discipline like marketing, had a much greater wow moment for me.
Overall, Generative AI presents a massive attack on the soft skills used in professional work. The long-term effects on skill-building are a real threat that we should be aware of. Still, that doesn’t discount how fun it is to equip the instant superpowers that Generative AI gives.