DNA Column : Education and skills in the times of Artificial Intelligence

I write for the dna on education, skills, and how the advances in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics are going to wipe out entire job areas; and what skills do we need to combat this.


source: Here

One of the things that separates humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom, is the ability to make nuanced decisions, through a process of finding and selecting alternatives, and picking the ‘best’ one based on individual values and preferences. This is a process that has been refined through the entire span of our existence on this planet. Problem solving, decision making, reasoning and learning, are some of the crucial aspects of human intelligence. The more adept we are at these, the more we are considered as being intelligent.

Throughout our existence as a species, humanity has tried to make it’s life easier through inventions and innovations -from harnessing fire to exploring space. And, one question that has been at the core of all the innovations that we take for granted today is “How do we do this in an easier, less time-consuming manner. In other words, how do we increase productivity”.  While productivity deals with increased output per individual, it also means fewer human workers to produce the same output.  From the start of the industrial age, there have been questions asked about the use of machinery in improving productivity. The key question was, what happens to jobs? And, the simple answer to that is, jobs as we know them will go. But, there will be new jobs in new areas.  The trillion-dollar question is, will we have the education and skills to adequately deliver in these new jobs.

Currently, we see increasing calls for restrictions on immigration in industrial countries, to stem local job losses. The fact remains that even zero immigration may not increase the total number of jobs. Most of these jobs have gone to robots with the ability to learn rapidly, adapt to change, and work in extremely hostile conditions.  Rapid Machine Learning, sometimes also known as Artificial Intelligence, is the order of the day.    And there is the other aspect of it, robots do not need salaries, or benefits; pensions or health care; they don’t form unions or go on strikes; they do not work at cross purposes, as humans often do. There are factories in China that have replaced 90% of their human workers with robots, and seen productivity jump 250%; there are factory lines in India that are completely automated; there are entire IT departments, in large organisations,  that have been replaced with extremely sophisticated decision making algorithms; computers are able to glean through data to produce journalistic reports; robots have taken over mining; and medical robots are becoming more pervasive.

The increasing use of AI in its various avatars, has had, and will continue to have a massive impact on jobs, across sectors. For India, this poses a special challenge. 38% of India is under the age of 19, getting into the job market. Do they have the skills to cope with a world where AI is going to take over most of the jobs that exist? Do we know what those skills are?

Across the world, the job threats posed by AI, and robotics have been taken seriously. Leading economists from both the left and the right have begun talking about the prospect of a universal basic income, the amount paid to each adult as income. Bill Gates has spoken about the need for robot tax, that will not only slow down the rate of jobs disappearing, but also pay for jobs and training in new areas – caring for children, caring for senior citizens, are two examples that he states. While these may somewhat slowdown the march of AI and robotics, it is not going to stand in the way of repetitive functions being automated. While Amazon has rolled out self-service stores, there is a Silicon Valley robot that has learned to make burgers.   Even predictive jobs, those that look at past data and predict future outcomes, will be taken over by the machines, sooner rather than later. Therefore, the question is, what kind of jobs will exist in the future. Governments across the world have begun setting up cross disciplinary committees to understand the impact on their economies, to be able to prepare for this future. In India, this is the need of the hour, the focus on skills, training and retraining, that will create a flexible workforce that is mostly in demand.

While AI, today can perform increasingly complex tasks, one aspect of humanity eludes it. Boundless curiosity. The evolution of human civilisation has been about questioning commonly held beliefs of that era. It is asking how can things be better. And this arises out of observing the world, and how things work. unless you know how things work, and how people interact with them, you are not going to be able to make things better. So two sets of abilities and skills that educators have to focus on will be getting students to ask “Why is this so”, and “How can this be made better”. Every aspect of education has to get geared so that students learn to not only question, but find a systematic solution to the question.  For the Indian education system, that has for long learned by rote, it has to be a paradigm shift in terms of not only the methodology of teaching, but also the way outcomes are evaluated. Perfect reproduction of the text book in an answer paper, will no longer be sufficient; being able to think out of the box, will be the key. Teaching students to think without boundaries, needs to be the way forward – because the moment they think within the box, a robot will replace them.