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Artificial L&D: How AI Will Rewire Employees' Critical Thinking Skills—for Better and Worse

People + Technology

image of brain and AI

In our rapidly advancing digital age, individuals, leaders, and organizations are all hoping to harness the potential of artificial intelligence to increase efficiency, accelerate learning, and empower their teams through advanced insights.

While we may not yet fully realize the full breadth of AI’s capabilities or where it has the potential to fail us, the AI age is already upon us. We’re all using AI agents in our everyday lives, and we’ll soon have an ever-present “AI assistant” in our pocket, all while developers continue to miniaturize these devices and move from ones that require explicit requests to performance devices that are “always on and available.”

At the Intersection of Reluctance and Inevitability

As history is apt to repeat itself, we find ourselves once again at the intersection of reluctance and inevitability. Much like past technological advances, AI both excites and unnerves us as we embark into the unknown. Take the pocket calculator as an analogue to AI. The decades-old innovation was initially met with deterrence. While students embraced the technological cheat code to bypass arithmetic, teachers and parents everywhere said, “You won’t always have a calculator in your pocket!” We could go further back to find more examples. The dying art of map reading—a skill once of utmost importance—is perhaps only still vital to hikers and Scout troops.

With the rise of ubiquitous AI agents and AI tools, will tomorrow’s employees be better or worse off? Will AI be an indispensable aid to knowledge workers, or will it create a generation of employees who lack the capacity to generate or leverage knowledge without help? In this article, we explore some potential impacts of AI on the competencies of knowledge workers and our organization’s learning and development (L&D) models.

While AI has the potential to affect our ability to use critical thinking, it’s likely that (as with the advances of the past) we may diminish some very basic tasks in favor of overwhelming improvements.

Revisiting the calculator example, while it is possible that the average person’s ability to perform mental math has decreased, our ability to quickly solve equations with a machine did not thwart a global improvement in data literacy. In fact, the capacity gained with these tools has furthered our ability to understand, assess, and rely on complex data.

Much of the consternation around AI hinges on the need to maintain and refine one core capability of knowledge workers: human intelligence in the form of critical thinking skills. How might artificial intelligence impact human intelligence, learning, and development?

Since the arrival of the internet, we have increasingly gained access to more information with fewer filters. Take news, for example. It was historically delivered through a few channels and held to regulation and standards. Today, users can choose to watch cable news channels filled with unfiltered opinions or read misconstrued and one-sided headlines reposted by friends on Facebook. Without critical thinking, both sets of information suddenly become equal in their truth and relevance.

Will AI be an indispensable aid to knowledge workers, or will it create a generation of employees who lack the capacity to generate or leverage knowledge without help?”

The Rise of AI Agents

The next phase of AI—after web-based portals and embedded tools—is the rise of personalized AI agents. Simply put, these devices would act as an ever-present assistant with a level of autonomy to watch and listen to everything we see and hear. Powered by generative artificial intelligence (GenAI), an AI agent is (seemingly) capable of reasoning, planning, and acting autonomously to interpret and decipher data, make decisions, and adapt to changing environments. Current versions of these AI companions—from virtual assistants to smart home devices—offer convenience and efficiency. They can be programmed for a specific project, pull from private data, and, if given permission, take actions on your behalf using your credentials.

Perhaps critical thinking will become even more necessary (not less) as these AI agents become more advanced over time, making them more reliable and effective. At the outset, AI cannot operate independently. It relies on human intelligence and human interventions (and humans’ critical thinking!) to learn new things that generate high-quality and accurate outputs.

The drive to incorporate AI agents has already been justified in several ways. For the HR professional, there are many potential benefits of incorporating AI tools into training resources and programs, including more customization, increased accessibility, and time and cost savings. Where we once needed to plan, record, and produce training videos, we can now use AI-generated videos with human avatars. We can also use AI to rapidly create adaptive learning experiences tailored to specific employee needs.

However, organizations and leaders must also be aware of the drawbacks of AI. It’s important to create a strategy for implementing AI agents that accounts for their potential positive and negative effects on critical thinking skills, providing insights to optimize use and ultimately improve L&D strategies.

Positive Effects of AI Agents on Critical Thinking Skills

The ability to analyze information and make reasoned decisions is crucial in problem-solving, decision-making, and innovation in the workplace. Personalized AI agents can quickly mine and organize data, learn from it, and make decisions to help knowledge workers achieve specific goals.

When used by L&D teams, AI can assist with problem-solving using data-driven insights, build topic-specific curriculum, and deliver tailored learning experiences by audience in minimal time. Teams can save time and quickly create hyper-specific and niche curriculum as needed.

Often, our training programs are reliant on some of the most in-demand people on our teams—our subject matter experts (SMEs). By educating our SMEs on available AI tools and incorporating AI-assisted authoring, we can streamline the time-consuming effort of content creation and make it easier for teams to access our experts and their knowledge. A training process that previously took weeks or even months can now be accomplished in days or even hours. We can create more content, more frequently, and more easily.

In addition to the efficiency gains in data analysis and fact-checking, AI assistants can promote analytical thinking by presenting information in organized and digestible formats. With an ability to digest more information more quickly, users often find increased capacity to consider multiple perspectives before drawing conclusions. This was previously a laborious and time-consuming task when completed by a single human.

AI is also improving the ability to present information in different models, which creates a more effective learning tool for your audience, no matter their preferred style of learning. Through adaptive learning algorithms, AI creates content tailored to individualized preferences and learning styles. This personalized curriculum allows facilitators to quickly adjust content with a specialized lens for each individual audience. Plans can also be accommodated for users’ personal learning style through targeted exercises to reinforce understanding, regardless of potential weaknesses or challenges.

While we directly benefit from the outputs of AI, the process of getting to those outputs can potentially improve the critical thinking skills of the humans making the request. “Prompt engineering” (the request to the AI tool) is a novel form of critical thinking. An AI user’s prompts should improve over time as they learn to be more explicit, provide clearer direction, and begin anticipating exactly how to best delegate a request.

In that regard, asking questions of an AI tool is like learning how to communicate and make requests of an international colleague. Over time, we learn to accommodate for language barriers, cultural differences, and ways of working to ask meaningful questions that ultimately improve the deliverable.

The Bright Side

Personalized AI agents and AI tools can have a potential positive impact on employees’ problem-solving and critical thinking skills by:

  • Providing efficient access to vast quantities of information.
  • Promoting analytical thinking through organized presentation.
  • Delivering tailored learning and development experiences.
  • Improving employees’ effectiveness in asking questions and providing direction.

Negative Effects of AI Agents on Critical Thinking Skills

While AI carries potential positives, overreliance on AI for decision-making may diminish critical analysis, potentially leading to complacency. Questioning assumptions, applying logic, and seeking diversity of perspectives have always been essential human skills that are imperative to workplace success. But they’ll be even more needed in the coming years as we ensure that personal AI produces accurate and reliable results.

Continuous reliance on personal AI agents for information retrieval and decision-making may lead to reduced effort in critical analysis. Employees may become complacent, relying solely on AI recommendations without also engaging in independent thinking or problem-solving. As with most emerging technology, AI still requires a human element to ensure true understanding of the content by the facilitator.

While AI can increase exposure to multiple perspectives, the very way in which it learns is informed by user preferences and past interactions. Because of this, AI algorithms can reinforce existing biases by filtering information through this lens. That can limit exposure to diverse perspectives, potentially skewing decision-making processes and inhibiting critical thinking. Users must consider multiple points of view to counter bias and preconceived notions.

As with many technological advances, the instant gratification provided by AI agents can shorten people’s attention spans and diminish their ability to focus and engage in deep, critical thought. Relying on these tools for memory recall tasks may also lead to the erosion of human memory capabilities.

The Dark Side

Here are some of the potential downsides of AI on employees’ critical thinking abilities:

  • Overreliance may diminish critical analysis efforts, leading to complacency.
  • Biased information that’s filtered through AI may limit employees’ exposure to diverse perspectives.
  • The instant gratification provided by AI agents may shorten employees’ attention spans and impede critical thinking.
  • Relying on AI tools for memory recall may lead to the erosion of human memory capabilities.

How AI Can Accelerate L&D

How can organizations maximize the positive effects and minimize the negative effects of AI on L&D?

They must start by educating employees on how AI operates—especially the known limitations—to empower them to critically evaluate AI-generated content. Teaching digital literacy skills in the age of AI encourages individuals to question information sources and discern between credible and unreliable sources. AI tools are continuously improving and becoming smarter. However, in their current state, we still need to spend a significant amount of time teaching users about the tools and how to effectively prompt AI systems to deliver the solutions they seek.

Educating employees about AI is equally as important to enabling its success as it is to preventing its downfall. Knowing a tool’s capabilities and limitations is helpful. But truly understanding which AI results you can trust or shouldn’t trust is critical.

Much like a manager would review the work of an intern, AI-generated content should be reviewed by knowledge workers to ensure accuracy. Reinforcing the need for human oversight in decision-making processes ensures that an AI assistant will complement, rather than replace, human critical thinking skills. By viewing AI as a tool rather than a crutch, employees can maintain control over the technology and actively engage in complex problem-solving tasks.

Implementing guidelines for unbiased algorithms and ensuring transparency in AI systems are essential steps in mitigating negative effects. Ethical AI development can help promote fairness, accountability, and the preservation of diverse perspectives. Together, this creates and reinforces an environment conducive to critical thinking.

In summary, when using AI to accelerate L&D tasks, three primary objectives remain the same:

  • Promote digital literacy skills for your employees.
  • Use AI as a tool and supplement, not as a crutch or substitute for critical thinking.
  • Support and enforce ethical development of your AI tools.


The integration of personal AI agents into daily life presents both opportunities and challenges for developing human intelligence and critical thinking skills. While these technologies offer unparalleled access to information and cognitive support, they also pose risks of dependency, bias, and cognitive decline.

To harness the benefits of AI for knowledge workers while safeguarding critical-thinking abilities, it is crucial to promote digital literacy, balance AI assistance with human engagement, and prioritize ethical AI development and regulation. By taking proactive measures, you can ensure that personal AI agents serve as tools for empowerment, rather than impediments to independent thought.

AI will undeniably revolutionize how we approach training and development, and it will create opportunities for L&D professionals to spend more time consulting with their partners and learning the business. As we continue to navigate the evolving landscape of technology, it is imperative that leaders understand the nuances of this new technology, invest in the education of their teams, and create plans for thoughtful integration of this powerful tool.


Neal Sample

Neal Sample is a tech-focused business enhancer who has served as a board director, CIO, startup advisor and executive coach. He is currently focused on AI and its impact on innovation, leadership, and productivity.


Angie Emrey is the director of Tech Culture and Change Management at the Walgreens Boots Alliance, the parent company of Walgreens. She has spent her career in various communications, branding and employee engagement roles. 

Brad Winn

Brad Winn is a professor of leadership and strategy in the Huntsman School of Business and executive MBA director at Utah State University. He serves as senior editor for People + Strategy and is principal of Winn Consulting Solutions.