4 minute read

Learning to question machines: the future of critical thinking

The advent of ChatGPT and similar technologies calls for an evolution in skills if humans are to keep up. Critical thinking skills are crucial to this, says Chris Griffiths, author of The Creative Thinking Handbook

Human questioning machine

If there was ever any doubt that the machines were coming, 2023 has put that firmly to rest. We’ve seen an explosion of AI development this year alone, with tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT becoming increasingly common in the workplace. But this is just the start. As the World Economic Forum has recorded, 90% of people believe that AI transformation – something they describe as “one of the biggest shifts in humanity’s history” – could happen in the next 100 years.

But what does that mean for you, and perhaps more pressingly, your job? The short answer is: It’s complicated. But that doesn’t mean it’s negative, or something to fear. There’s no denying that the working landscape will change with AI, and if businesses and individuals are to keep up, emphasis will need to shift from traditional work onto the human qualities which cannot be replicated by machines. These include creativity and, perhaps most important, critical thinking skills.

What is critical thinking?

Before we get into why critical thinking is so crucial, we need to get a full grasp on what exactly it is. There are a number of facets to how critical thinking functions, as well as a wide range of examples of it in action. At its core, critical thinking is about the ability to process information in a complex, nuanced way. That means not mindlessly accepting a given piece of information as fact, but questioning, contextualising and analysing it, instead.

Critical thinking is one of the most important skills humans possess, and it is the foundation of many creative breakthroughs and novel solutions to tricky problems. It is critical thinking which enables us to make sound judgments about a given situation, and also to learn from the past and integrate these prior experiences in order to better equip us to confront the future.

As I’ve already pointed out, examples of critical thinking are varied and broad. Solving a puzzle or riddle will likely require your critical thinking skills, as will facilitating a debate or making informed strategic decisions. In other words, there are countless situations which require critical thinking every day. The trick is learning to spot them, and make the most of these opportunities.

Why will it matter in the AI era?

So, now we know what critical thinking is, it’s time to look at exactly why it’s going to become so important. Of course, critical thinking is already a great asset in our modern working world – and it always has been. The reason it’s about to reach new heights now and relates directly to the abilities AI possesses.

The various iterations of popular machine learning tools such as ChatGPT can produce lengthy academic essays in a matter of moments, and offer comprehensive summaries of even the most complicated scientific theories. Given these tools will only get more powerful, it’s no wonder some have worried that they’ll eventually supplant human workers altogether.

But here’s the good news: there are some things even AI can’t do. For obvious reasons, we can’t dive into the deep inner workings of machine learning in full, but it’s important to understand that a tool like ChatGPT basically works by using a number of complex algorithms to sift data, spot patterns, provide analytical insight, and automate rote jobs. While it certainly has access to more data points than a human brain – it does not have access to context, subjective experience or emotional abilities.

This is where the human advantage comes in. Our individual and unique perspective means we all have something specific to bring to every scenario – whether that be tackling a problem, coming up with ideas, or bringing emotional nuance to a HR situation. Crucially, it will also equip you with the ability to make the most of AI itself. In a field where AI is quickly becoming ubiquitous, it will be those who are able to discern the accuracy of its output and use it in novel ways who will ultimately soar ahead.

How to foster critical thinking

Knowing that critical thinking is the skill of the future is half the battle, the other half is learning to foster the skill itself. It’s important to note that AI is not infallible, and it can make mistakes and even replicate human biases.

There is not one single thing you can do to instil critical thinking, it is more about outlook and general attitude. That means committing to an adventure of lifelong learning, knowing that there is always more to educate yourself on, and that your first reaction or understanding of a situation might not always be right.

For individuals looking to boost their critical thinking overall, learning to work with AI is a great way forward. That means using AI as a jumping off point – rather than excluding or relying on it – and then bringing you critical thinking skills to the situation in order to make the most of what AI is telling you. The middle ground between making the most of AI, while not trusting it without question, is the sweet spot.

For example, AI may be able to suggest pros and cons of a new business venture, and you can use your critical thinking skills to create a contingency plan which combines the AI’s output with your own personal understanding of what might lie ahead.

Overall, critical thinking is fostered by asking questions, practising active listening, reflecting on your thinking, and taking into consideration different perspectives. Learning to do this as a daily practice is the best way to futureproof your skillset – so you always have something to contribute, even in a world increasingly populated with machine minds.

Chris Griffiths, pictured below and Caragh Medlicott are authors of The Creative Thinking Handbook. Griffiths is also a keynote speaker and founder of productivity and mind mapping app ayoa.com

Chris Griffiths Ayoa

Published 10 May 2023
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