The Case for “Fuzzie-Techie” Hybrids

Author & venture capitalist Scott Hartley argues that both science and the humanities play a vital role in automation


When Scott Hartley was working in Silicon Valley as a venture capitalist and startup advisor, he heard something time and again that he didn’t believe was true: “If you have soft skills, you’re going to work in a shoe store in the future.”

That—combined with the empathy he felt for the entrepreneurs he advised—led him to write the book, The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World.

“In Silicon Valley, the narrative was about the importance of coding,” said Hartley Monday in a GEOINT 2018 keynote. “Technical literacy is necessary, but it’s not sufficient.” He pointed out that a number of technology company executives studied history, literature, economics, and philosophy.

Hartley, who served as a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the White House, and worked at Google, Facebook, and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, referenced “The Two Cultures,” British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow’s famous 1959 lecture in which he laments the growing chasm between the sciences and humanities.

“The important message is that we bring these two cultures together again,” Hartley said.

In his book, Hartley examines the critical role of liberal arts in humanizing technology. “Techies”—those who have mastered disciplines such as engineering or computer science—are important for a world driven by big data and powered by algorithms, whether it’s to generate crime reports or Netflix recommendations. But we also must consider the valuable role of “Fuzzies”—those who help put our new tools in context and ask difficult questions of the data. How does artificial intelligence touch human lives? How should privacy and civil liberty concerns be addressed? What are the negative effects of designing technology in a way that’s inherently addictive?

“These are fundamentally big questions that have grey answers,” Hartley said.

Within our current workforce, Hartley explained, we have routine and automated tasks that are ideal candidates for robotics. Then we have non-routine tasks—the jobs for people who ask questions, train machines, and challenge our biases.

“It’s not just about what we’re building and how we’re building it, but why we’re building it,” Hartley said. “Learning code isn’t enough.”

He discussed the movement to add art to the center of STEM (often short for science, technology, engineering, and math) to create STEAM, but acknowledged the difficulty of training for soft skills such as empathy, creativity, improvisation, and collaboration.

You don’t learn about empathy by reading a book about empathy, he said. Rather, he mused, you would, “get in a taxi and talk to someone, or travel the world, or read a book of fiction that puts you in the mind of someone completely different from you.”

Hartley recommended that individuals who are “fuzzy” take data science classes and “techies” get comfortable with liberal arts, so the two sides can better communicate.

AI4ALL, a nonprofit working with high school students to increase diversity and inclusion in artificial intelligence, is one initiative aiming to broaden our conversations about AI, Hartley said. “It tells the philosopher and the anthropologist to come to the AI Club after school.”

He mentioned that some curricula already bridge the divide. Mechanical engineering courses, for example, include training in user experience, which Hartley said is a lot like anthropology and sociology. These graduates will be part of a new generation of workers who will be fuzzie-techie hybrids.

“One of the hardest jobs to hire for now is anthropology,” Hartley said, noting that before we experience a world of self-driving vehicles, we’ll live in world of mixed-use vehicles. “How do you manage that environment?” he posited. “There are cultural nuances that come into play.”

Headline Image: Scott Hartley urges both “fuzzies” and “techies” to venture outside of their comfort zones so they can communicate better.


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