Careers in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Professor Greg Downey on how our career development course, Inter-LS 210: Taking Initiative, prepares students for a rapidly changing workforce.

It’s the first day of our one-credit career reflection and preparation course, Inter-LS 210: Taking Initiative. The slide on the screen at the front of the lecture hall shows a photo that most of my one hundred and fifty or so students quickly recognize: a scene from the TV quiz show “Jeopardy.” However, there’s something unexpected — instead of three contestants up on the stage, only two people stand at podiums facing host Alex Trebek, buzzers at the ready. In between them is an empty podium labeled simply “Watson.” As my students soon learn, Watson is a “machine learning” computer system developed by researchers at IBM, which in 2011 did what was thought impossible only a few years before: With instant access to the vast database of human discussion and trivia that is the Internet, Watson won Jeopardy.

Professor Greg Downey teaches the the career development course, Taking Initiative: Inter-LS 210.

Why start a course on career development strategies with this real-life science fiction example of artificial intelligence? Because understanding just what the new big-data systems like Watson can do well (and what they can’t do well) is a great way to help students to see the special value of the liberal arts and sciences education that they receive at UW-Madison – no matter what their major or intended career path is. They need to know that narrow technical training and basic web-searching skills are no longer enough to guarantee employment in the twenty-first century – not when automated systems are answering customer-service calls, driving trucks on highways, and even writing simple newspaper articles.

Fortunately, the benefits of a liberal arts and sciences education at a major research university like UW-Madison run much deeper than that. Students in “Taking Initiative” are reminded that the breadth of learning that they experience through their general-education requirements – from the history about their own society to the diversity of our global community to the workings of the natural and physical environment – goes hand-in-hand with the depth of learning that they experience through their choice of major – whether they delve into the literary imagination of the human condition, the anthropological exploration of human origins, or the technological programming of human-like computers. Employers refer to such a student as the highly-valued “T-shaped” hiring prospect – breadth at the top of the T, depth down the middle of the T – and that’s precisely the kind of candidate our college produces.

In Taking Initiative, I and my colleagues – especially our professional career advisers from SuccessWorks – help our students to understand their path through UW-Madison as an opportunity to try new things and discover new passions, to engage with learning outside of the classroom through service-learning and internships, and to build a robust social network of professors, advisers, alumni, and peers (soon to be alumni themselves) who will stay with them throughout their working lives. And we teach our students how to tell a compelling story to prospective employers about their own ever-growing skills and accomplishments in the areas of critical thinking, complex communication, cross-cultural collaboration, and creative innovation. The best computers can’t even come close.

As a professor at UW-Madison, I’ve made my career researching and writing about the history of information technology infrastructures, especially the way that they affect the world of human labor. I am convinced that the future will indeed be full of “Watsons” doing important work in the world that people never imagined before. But that future will also be full of smart and engaged Badgers, working across the public and private sectors in industries that haven’t even been created yet, making sure that the imagination, understanding, and empathy of the human perspective always takes priority over the cold recommendations of algorithms.

Learn more about how Taking Initiative prepares students for a lifetime of success.