After AI, will anyone achieve mastery ever again?

Clovis McEvoy
January 31, 2024

AI will not just reshape the future of work, it will fundamentally change how humans think about skill and talent. How do we guide this change to benefit the next generation?

Renowned artist Ai Weiwei recently wrote that “the advent of AI does not present a challenge to art itself. Instead, it challenges the traditional understanding of how humans acquire skills.”

Throughout history, mastery of crafts like art has been dependent on what you might call ‘grunt work’. Sushi chefs spend years perfecting the art of cooking rice before they ever pick up a blade. Aspiring illustrators tirelessly trace the human form until they know each motion by heart. Composers and musicians work their way up from commercial jingles to TV soundtracks.

Generative AI throws this system of apprenticeship into complete disarray.

It looks inevitable that artificial intelligence will eliminate low-skill jobs across a huge range of professions. AI has often been likened to having an infinite supply of interns, entry-level artisans who can perform the more menial parts of a job.

But interns are not just workers – they are learners, and to automate them away begs the fundamental question: how do we master a skill in a world where there is no low, or even middle-tier, for our future leaders to cut their teeth? Will anyone achieve mastery ever again?

Technology analyst Ben Evans compares AI to infinite interns that can, for example, create better product photos, and that AI experiments are ubiquitous at big tech companies like Amazon.

Progression in every industry depends on this kind of implicit, on-the-job learning to some extent: engineering, teaching, healthcare, even the most technical parts of applied science, as well as hospitality and other forms of customer service. The list goes well beyond the creative industries.

The most optimistic answer is that the world will simply move to a higher form of skill. As well as helping today’s experts, AI might accelerate today’s novices, letting apprentices work at a capacity once reserved for experts. To create this future, we’d have to build new training pathways in work that promote the use of AI and embrace the new, improved techniques that workers harnessing AI will inevitably discover.

Parallels can be drawn to the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement and its reaction to the rise of factories, mass production, and standardisation. Combining new manufacturing techniques with traditional craftsmanship, American manufacturers took advantage of innovation to create better products than ever before, whilst also creating new pathways for the apprentices who followed.

But it is not hard to envisage commercial work further broken down into an assembly line of prompt engineers; each skilled at applying small levels of polish without any holistic understanding of the broader vision and, therefore, with little skill or opportunity to progress.

“AI challenges our understanding of how humans acquire skills.”

— Ai Weiwei

No amount of professional upskilling or forward-thinking teaching will be sufficient, if the workplaces of the future do not value skill or craftsmanship. We must learn the lessons of the Arts and Crafts movement to guide the industrial applications of AI in a way that elevates craftsmanship, rather than automating it.

Such concerns are hardly new, and the position of modern creative professionals can be compared to the Luddites – the 19th century labour movement that tried, and ultimately failed, to ensure that new technology augmented the workforce, rather than automating it. 

As technology journalist Brian Merchant notes in his recent book charting the history of the Luddites, members of that movement did not hate technological progress. They hated how technology was used to attack skilled craftsmen, benefitting factory owners at the expense of those working within them.

“We must guide AI to elevate craftsmanship, rathan than automate it.”

It’s also worth noting that the Luddites pushed the British government to draw up legislation that would safeguard their products and rights, and that government instead dispatched the army to quell Luddite uprisings. Breaking machines became punishable by death in 1812.

In the modern era, governments will once again set the scales towards the owners of private AI models or to those whose work makes such models possible — or to strike a balance between innovation and preservation.

AI will change our very conception of human skill: how we attain it, how we deploy it, and what it’s worth. If the next generation is to retain dignity and agency in their work, then we must ensure that AI elevates human skill rather than automate it.

It is not hard to envisage commercial work further broken down into an assembly line of prompt engineers.
It is not hard to envisage commercial work further broken down into an assembly line of prompt engineers.
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Clovis McEvoy
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Clovis is a New Zealand born writer, journalist, and educator working at the meeting point between music and technological innovation. He is also an active composer and sound artist, and his virtual reality and live-electronic works have been shown in over fifteen countries around the world.