Robots are here, let's learn new skills

Instead of dreading AI, we need to recognise that a workforce with the right skills will always find a way to thrive with new technologies

By Abdul Rahman Al Thehaiban

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Published: Wed 23 Aug 2017, 10:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 24 Aug 2017, 12:00 AM

"Beware of the robots! No office job is safe!" Or so reads the headline of yet another article about why Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation spell doom for today's worker. The media has been shining a particularly harsh spotlight on automation, propelling widespread anxiety around its potential to cause mass unemployment, but are these fears overblown?

This is just the latest moral panic aimed at creating hysteria over a new threat to society's interests. Stanley Cohen introduced the idea of "moral panics" in his book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, to describe how the media created exaggerated fear around the rise of Mods and Rockers in the 60s and 70s. This is the same approach that made people blame violent films for youth violence and distrust strangers in hooded sweatshirts. While their concerns are somewhat warranted we can all agree these issues have been blown out of proportion.

Fears around AI are no different. Instead of dreading AI, we need to recognise that a workforce with the right skills will always find a way to thrive with new technologies. As with the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century and the rise of personal computers in the 1980s, some jobs will disappear but new roles and opportunities will also be created as we uncover new uses for

Building the right skillset needs to begin at a young age. Our current education systems haven't kept up with the pace of technological change, which means businesses can't just expect graduates to come knocking on their doors having already mastered cutting-edge technologies. The World Economic Forum has predicted that 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will eventually take up job roles that don't even exist yet. Even as more students pursue technical careers, they are still sorely under-represented considering our current employment gap, and the skills they learn at a young age will largely be obsolete by the time they start working.

Encouragingly, both governments and businesses are taking steps to boost computer science and coding proficiency among young people. For example, the European Commission recently launched its Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition to help build digital skills among Europe's youth.

Building on this, programmes led by IT companies have the advantage of giving students hands-on experiences with new technologies. Inclusion and diversity continue to be a major problem in technical fields. The forward march of automation and AI is indifferent to a person's creed, gender or colour and as the job market increasingly demands coding and IT literacy every young person needs to be on equal footing to succeed.

Young women, in particular, need more encouragement to pursue technical careers. The stigma that IT and engineer jobs are reserved for spectacled men who can't be pulled away from their computer screens doesn't help, nor does the high viewership for TV shows like The Big Bang Theory that perpetuate the stereotype.

Young girls have strong role models like ?Dr Aisha bin Bishr, Director General at Dubai Smart Office to look up to, and it will be up to teachers, their parents and society as a whole to hold these examples up as inspiration if we are to get over today's perception gap.

It is not inaccurate to say that our workforce is under threat ­- some jobs will indeed be taken over by robots and intelligent software. However, this simply marks the next step in human productivity and resourcefulness. A major reason for today's media frenzy around this issue is that the job market is evolving more quickly than ever, which means we have little time to adjust.

This is not the first time people have been tested, nor will it be the last. If governments, businesses, and educators work together to reshape the job force as they have many times before, the rise of AI and automation will be a boon instead of the curse many have predicted.

Abdul Rahman Al Thehaiban is Senior Vice-President - Technology, Middle East and Africa, Oracle

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