College students with degrees in English, theater or other areas of the humanities may find it easier than they expected to land a job after graduation. That's because tech companies are seeking out candidates with college majors that have traditionally been considered as "unemployable." Liberal arts degrees are the ideal background for workers on the front lines of developing certain forms of artificial intelligence or AI.
The growth of bot technology in customer service
While AI technology may sound like something that only government agencies or large corporations in Silicon Valley use, it is beginning to play a very specific role in customer service for businesses of all sizes.
Within a few years, if you use a company's web chat option for customer service, you will likely be interacting with AI in the form of a trained, intelligent chatbot. [Read related story: Realistic AI Chatbot Trends for Business]
"The natural thing to combine is AI and chatbots," said Rurik Bradbury, the global head of conversational strategy at LivePerson, a company that specializes in developing AI for customer service. "The more of the interaction of these [service] conversations that goes through these platforms … the more it makes sense to automate them."
Conversational design and the humanities
Why are humanities majors so successful in the world of AI?
"Humans are naturally conversational animals," explained Bradbury. A person calling their bank for help, for example, is likely to initiate the conversation by saying, "I'm moving to a new home" in order to request help with a specific service.
"The bot has to interpret that [in order] to understand the practical thing that the person is getting at," Bradbury explained. "Does that mean you want to change your address? Do you need a credit card shipped to this new address?"
These clarifications and leaps of logic are natural to humans in conversation, but bots must be trained to make them in a process called "conversational design."
Conversational design, a new field that is quickly developing as more companies use AI, involves creating, training, testing and improving AI.
Good conversational design, said Bradbury, involves more than just technical knowledge. It requires creative thinking and social understanding. "You do need to have some of the technical mindedness," he explained. "You also have to think with a degree of empathy … about the possible range of what can go right or go wrong."
This, it turns out, requires many of the soft and hard skills that humanities majors specialize in.
Skills humanities majors bring to AI development
Strong communication skills are a key component of what makes workers with a background in the humanities useful for companies like LivePerson.
"The ability to communicate, have empathy, [and] listen very carefully to understand what the person is really asking and then code that into the bot," are all vital parts of conversational design, said Bradbury. Problem-solving and the ability to recognize and predict patterns of behavior are also critical skills.
Strong writing, a key component of most humanities degrees, is a large part of intelligent bot development, especially the ability to write in a natural, conversational form. This not only creates bots that communicate clearly but makes them seem more human, which makes them appealing to customers.
A creative background also allows bot writers to develop distinct "personalities" that match the tone of the company each bot will work for. A chatbot for a bank or security company, for example, would need a professional and reassuring personality, while a bot used by a home startup could have a more casual, friendly personality.
Having an acting background can also be helpful in the design of chatbots. The ability to role play and act out potential scenarios allows designers to understand the situations a bot is likely to face and plan accordingly, creating dialog and script options that keep chatbots responding naturally and helpfully.
The newness of the field, Bradbury said, means that employers are open to hiring workers who demonstrate a variety of relevant skills, regardless of their technical background or specific field of study. "It's quite early in this, and it seems to be random what college degrees are brought to it," he said. "But the skill set is important."
The future of jobs in bot development
Because conversational design is still a new field, the roles that developers take on often may not be entirely distinct. At companies like LivePerson, workers tend to fall into one of four categories.
- Bot designer: responsible for writing and creating a script that brings intent to life, allowing bots to interact naturally with customers
- Conversational analyst: analyzes the success of bot interactions to detect areas for improvement
- Architect: develops the big-picture strategy of what is possible, not possible and necessary for bot development, similar to a creative director
- Bot developer: executes the technical work of creating, coding and improving bot AI
As the technology behind conversational design improves and bot technology becomes a common part of customer service, Bradbury predicts these roles will morph, along with their creations, becoming more defined and specialized.
"Most of the bots in the last couple of years have been pretty bad," said Bradbury "They have a limited range of things they can handle … In five years, you'll see a lot more natural and useful bots in everyday use."
The creative skills that humanities majors bring to the table, he added, will play an integral part in making that happen.