Is automation a friend or foe? It's within our power to choose
Other industrial revolutions have been net creators of jobs, so why not this one?
We all implicitly know what industrial revolutions do - they replace the outdated with the modern, and humanity lurches forward into ever greener pastures. But how often do we think about them in terms of winners and losers? Or in terms of destruction and creation? I refer, of course, to the impact on jobs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Other industrial revolutions have been net creators of jobs, so why not this one?
Job displacements have been taking place for decades as countries and organisations continue to modernise their operations. Mckinsey & Company predicts that this will accelerate between now and 2030 with 45 per cent of existing work in the Middle East potentially being automated. However, countries in the region will enjoy growth if AI and automation are well embraced, and the workforce is equipped with the right skills to take advantage of this transformation.
A survey conducted this year by the International Quality and Productivity Centre, highlights the public- and private-sector response to the Middle East's AI boom. There is almost complete agreement (95 per cent of respondents) that AI will have a positive impact on economies and 70 per cent said they had already set aside budgets for AI adoption. Some 62 per cent are planning action for the coming year and 63 per cent are looking for an AI start-up to partner with.
Middle East organisations also indicated the areas in which they believed AI would have greatest impact, citing refinement of customer insights, enhancement of office automation and workflow, improvements in service delivery, market and sales forecasting, cybersecurity, fraud detection, the development of smart-city applications and space research.
Numbers speak volumes
Another Research published by Thomson Reuters and Greenwich Associates, suggests institutional investors are planning a surge in their use of AI to guide investment decisions. Also last month, Smartworld discovered something interesting during its monthly CIOMajlis. At a roundtable led by management consulting firm McKinsey, the future impact of AI on jobs started to crystallise. Delegates agreed that jobs in manufacturing, transportation and retail were most vulnerable in the near term, and that 57 per cent of those educated to a high school level or lower could be negatively impacted by automation, with 22 per cent of those with a bachelor's or higher degree facing similar challenges.
Smart technologies have the potential to disrupt. Computer vision combined with advanced analysis and decision-making can replace everyone from radiologists to vehicle drivers. That same analysis and decision-making can come together with speech-recognition to supplant service agents in call centres and fast-food outlets. Natural-language processing can make translators redundant. And machine-learning can threaten the job security of anyone working as a paralegal, or in the monitoring, maintenance and repair of machinery.
So, who is safe?
But machines have their limits. The kind of software that can think creatively and humanely remains the stuff of science-fiction. It is hard to design, even at the highest level, an algorithmic stand-in for compassion. Or for inspiration. Or for imagination itself. That is why social workers, nurses, therapists and any profession with empathy at its core is safe from 4IR disruption, and that of any subsequent industrial revolution.
Teachers also find themselves in this category. You may think you can thrust a tablet into a student's hands and fill an empty vessel with knowledge. But who will add context? Who will challenge pre-conceptions, assumptions, misinterpretations and outright errors? Machines cannot mimic the complex philosophical inquisitiveness of the human mind. And teachers will play a vital role in what's to come.
Destroy to create
Which brings us to job creation. Teachers will be pivotal in preparing today's youth for the future. The World Economic Forum's "Future of Jobs" report, published in January 2018, tells us that two in every three children starting school this year will end up working in jobs that don't exist yet. That is the boon of every industrial revolution - to let machinery take the effort from the hands and move it to the brain. Teachers across the Middle East and Africa will need to create these future professionals - IoT data analysts, biohackers, visual-space designers, trainers for autonomous cars, AI programmers and many, many more.
Algorithms require the explicit; facts and data. But humans - or "humarithms", if you will - are more flexible. They can deal in the implicit; in assumptions, ethics and creativity. While algorithms need to track and monitor everything, humarithms have the gift to engage only with what matters, and to apply judgement and initiative. Data and verifiable information versus embodied cognition, emotion and meaning. Each has its strengths; each has its weaknesses. But each has a part to play in humanity's future.
Up-skilling and reskilling to AI readiness is vital, both to plug aptitude gaps and to prevent escalating unemployment. We believe that a people-centric approach to AI can extend the capabilities of individuals and organisations around the globe, freeing them up for more creative and entrepreneurial exploits, and helping them achieve more.
The writer is chief operating and marketing officer at Microsoft Middle East and Africa. Views expressed are his own and do not reflect the newspaper's policy.
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