Outsmarting Smart Robots

How can humans outsmart robots equipped with artificial intelligence (AI)? This is the million-dollar question that one group of experts the world over is scrambling to answer, while another group races to build machines with near-human capabilities.

One among many predictions is by McKinsey Global Institute, which sees millions of jobs being be wiped out. Others take on a more optimistic view: humans will survive the 4th industrial revolution. Accenture suggests – that if we pick the best from each – humans and machines will work together in harmony, A recent Harvard University study shows that doctors are able to diagnose cancer with greater accuracy when working with AI.

Nevertheless, there is a consensus that jobs are changing in drastic ways and getting our current and future workforce ready for such changes is critical. More of the same will no longer be enough.

Skills to complement AI

As machines become more intelligent, three types of complementary skills are expected to become more important for people to develop.

The easiest to teach at scale are technical skills: Both basic and advanced technical skills are equally important. While advanced digital skills have received much attention – such as coding, data analytics, etc. – basic digital skills will be just as critical for the current workforce to survive the changing workplace.

Learning how to use digital productivity tools, doing online research and transacting are a few of the basic skills many still struggle with, especially in underserved communities like urban poor, rural, disabled and elderly communities. Earlier this year, Sundar Pichai, Google CEO affirmed this when talking about Google’s move to train people with basic digital skills.

Coming back to advanced technical skills, these will be most critical for the next generation of workforce.  Digital natives will need to know how to harness and complement their intelligent-robotic counterparts. A McKinsey survey of 3000 business leaders suggests that demand for technical skills is expected to grow the most compared to the 3 types of skills mentioned in this article, hence the emphasis on STEM, computational thinking, computer science and coding in educational institutions must continue, be it in schools or universities.

Aligned to this, MDEC is supporting the Ministry of Education’s efforts to integrate computational thinking, computer science including coding into the national school syllabus. We are also work closely with a premier group of local universities to strengthen tertiary-level Computer Science curricula and teaching.

The second set of essential skills for the future workforce are higher cognitive skills, or higher order thinking skills. These include creativity, critical thinking, decision making, complex information processing. Basic cognitive skills such as, literacy and numeracy which have been a strong focus point for industrial era education systems, are increasingly becoming hygiene factors, i.e. important for basic survival, but do not give us any edge over AI machines. Higher cognitive skills require deep learning experiences, for example, guiding a student to be aware and understand his/her own thought process. This kind of deep learning is challenging to deploy at scale, and will require significant changes across the education delivery system.

The third set of skills are unique to human beings, i.e. social and emotional skills. These are expected to be the hardest for AI to replace. Inherent but less emphasised skills like adaptability, interpersonal communication, negotiation, empathy, leadership, managing people and relationships, entrepreneurship and innovation, teaching and training people are critical if we are to remain relevant in the future workplace. These skills are often neglected in most conventional education systems which tend to focus more on academic excellence.

Never stop learning

As technology and roles in the workplace evolve, forecasts suggest that most people will have 4-5 careers (not jobs) in their lifetime, hence re-skilling will become extremely important. Formal education may prepare us for our first careers. Thereafter, life-long learning via self-directed, informal learning, and on-the-job training will be key to facing rapidly evolving jobs of the future.  Employers can no longer expect graduates or for that matter, any new employee to come fully-equipped for the role. Instead, they must be prepared to invest in training and re-training staff. From a policy perspective, we must find ways to encourage the culture of life-long learning; and support employers, especially SMEs to provide on-the-job training. In Singapore, for example, all citizens aged 25 and above receive periodic credits of SGD500 to pursue training courses for in-demand skills. Here in Malaysia, similar efforts could be prioritised for those at risk of being displaced by AI.

Education is for life, not just to make a living

Given rapid changes and uncertainty in the type of skills/jobs that will be in demand, experts suggest that universities should prepare students for life, emphasising cross-curricular learning instead of over-specialisation for specific jobs. There is also consensus that real-world experiences will be highly valued compared to pure classroom learning, hence, tertiary institutions and employers must work together to structure robust internship or apprenticeship programmes. Given these scenarios, universities need to re-think and re-focus on the fundamentals of education, while regulatory and policy measures are needed to encourage employers to offer internships or apprenticeships. With regards to the latter, the UK government’s apprenticeship funding model is interesting to study.

There’s obviously a lot that needs to be done to prepare our current and next generation for a future with AI. Tremendous political will and excellent coordination between the powers-that-be will be required to move this massive mountain in the right direction. But we must play our part: Simple acts like taking an online course, and encouraging life-long learning among our employees, colleagues, and loved ones. As the saying goes, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” So, go ahead and secure your seat in the AI world.

Sumitra Nair is the Vice President for Talent & Digital Entrepreneurship in MDEC.

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