We Need Anthropologists Everywhere—Especially in AI

May 16, 2024

This blog post was originally published by Cornell Alumni Magazine on May 9, 2024, and is republished here with permission. You can find the original post here.

One year ago, I entered the job market with a humanities degree. This was never the plan—until my senior year, I thought for sure I was en route to my PhD. Humanities were for academia, right?  

I was hungry to join the workforce, only I didn’t know how.

I wish the world were kinder to non-STEM majors. I had internalized self-doubt—a conviction that corporate America belonged to the engineers, that humanistic and research skills were inferior.

Now I lead applied AI software development at Gray Decision Intelligence, a provider of academic program evaluation software to higher education institutions.

The truth is that these skills transfer.

What’s the catch? The humanities don’t teach you the technical details—rather, they give you a toolbox. Your skillset offers an aggressive competency to research anything and everything and distill that dizzying volume of information into a thoughtful final product.

What you know going into a project almost doesn’t matter. When you’re trained in the humanities, your job is to think through incommensurable problems. What’s more complex than human nature?

My point is that the humanities prepared me for a biztech career in STEM—not something I would’ve anticipated a few years ago.

“The humanities don’t teach you the technical details—rather, they give you a toolbox.”

This is my story, and I hope it encourages more folks studying the humanities to join STEM careers.

I often say I studied anthropology. The more esoteric name for my field is Science and Technology Studies (STS)—not well known, but burgeoning with success in uniting STEM with the great thinkers of the humanities.

As an interdisciplinary field, STS encourages students to think about the rational world of STEM from a contradictory angle: the irrationality of human nature.

You start to see the world differently through STS. Truth becomes something only perceived through the imperfect lens of our human existence. Our biases layer into the practice of STEM and influence our ideas of “fact.”

What is technology, then, if not the codification of our biases into realized inventions?

Photo of Lorlei Boyd

This is to say that STEM is human by nature. Thereby, you can study the products of STEM like you would humans, and you definitely don’t need a CS degree to do it.

Take AI. ChatGPT, Gemini, Llama, and all of the large language models coming into our lives are the epitome of STS, with the very essence of human nature reflected in their training sets. They are born of human nature.

I studied these language models and their embodiment of human nature in my honors thesis, “Talking to Robots: Exploring Emotional Connection in Human-Robot Relationships with the Chatbot Replika.” The essay was non-technical, yet it instilled in me an incredible depth of understanding with AI.

Shortly after submitting my thesis, my current employer hired me as an analyst—a client-facing data consultant. But it wasn’t long until my passion for AI took over my job. I began prototyping an app to turn our data into written reports using tools like ChatGPT.

“What is technology, then, if not the codification of our biases into realized inventions?”

Six months after starting, my title changed to developer. From then on, I became something of an AI anthropologist.

I studied AI like a natural philosopher from the 18th century. I kept a journal for my notes, packed with trial after trial of experimentation.

At first, the AI’s behavior was unfathomable. Swapping the most innocuous word could completely alter the results. Slowly, the journal filled with incremental successes to understand this beast.

A common phrase for this process is “prompt engineering,” or making sure your instructions to the AI produce the best results.

But “prompt engineering” just doesn’t do it justice. Engineering is far more rational than this endeavor. Wrangling large language models takes the stubborn tenacity of an anthropologist to persist in the face of the absurd complexity of these systems.

“I studied AI like a natural philosopher from the 18th century.”

On top of wrangling the AI, I also had to learn how to put it in an app. This was when my work with AI became software development, so that other people could access my work via a tool on the internet.

I had never made an app before! At first, it seemed impossible. I wasn’t a CS major. I didn’t understand GitHub. (But who does?)

Remember when I said the humanities give you an aggressive competency to research anything and everything? Use it for moments like this. Building an app is nothing more than a big research project.

It’s not so intimidating, even as a novice, when you’re used to stepping into an ocean of books and journals to string together something coherent for your anthropology professor.

Understanding what “enough” knowledge is for the task requires the same skillset of resourcefulness and clever restraint.

Soon enough, you’ll have a fully functional, deployed app with AI!

At the end of the day, this is not to say STEM majors are worth any less. Rather, I hope to lift up my fellow humanities majors. You, too, are incredibly skilled and will bring unique gifts to your workplace. Trust your education.

Arts & Sciences alum Lorlei Boyd ’23 enjoys video games, learning Japanese, and outdoor sports.

(All photos provided.)

Lorlei Boyd

Decision Intelligence Developer

About Gray DI

Gray DI provides data, software and facilitated processes that power higher-education decisions. Our data and AI insights inform program choices, optimize finances, and fuel growth in a challenging market – one data-informed decision at a time.

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