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Five ways to prepare the workforce for an AI future

There’s no better way to divide the opinion of those involved in the tech industry than to ask what they think about cognitive / AI and the future of the world’s workforce.

A number of world figures have expressed an opinion and just recently two tech authors argued the toss over whether or not robots would create more jobs than they destroy - without, it has to be said, coming to any kind of meaningful conclusion.

Oxford Professor of AI Sir Nigel Shadbolt, on the other hand, believes that any fears are overblown, and that we have more to gain than to lose from intelligent computers.

Of course, the debate itself is nothing new; as far back as the Luddites, with their very physical protests against power looms and spinning frames, people have taken technical developments in the workplace as a direct threat to their livelihoods. But the sheer pace and scale of technological development over the past few years has given even the most positive advocates pause for thought over exactly what the ramifications are for mankind.

One thing we can be sure of is that the way we work with technology will have to change – and those prepared to make that change will reap the benefits of a new, computer-assisted industrial landscape. Here are five fundamental changes which have to take place to ensure that today’s workforce is ready for tomorrow’s technology:

Developers will become trainers rather than coders/programmers

The new wave of ‘learning’ computers such as IBM Watson do not require programming in the traditional way. Rather, they ‘learn’ to use data from a knowledge base, which can be anything from huge databases to training manuals to blog posts and social interactions.

The role of the developer (and end user) will be to train the computer to give the best response in any situation, by giving examples or by responding positively or negatively to its outputs. Natural language processing – ie the ability to understand how humans speak – provides an intuitive and simple way to educate what is effectively a four year old child, albeit a very gifted one.

Everyone will have to get used to computers working with them instead of for them

Until recently, computers have done what we as users and developers have told them to – the output has depended entirely on input, with no deviation from a rigid framework of performance.

They are tools that we use to get the job done – put in a question and out comes an answer which we accept as right, no debate or discussion. With cognitive and AI, users will achieve the best results if they enter into an ‘ask’ rather than ‘tell’ dialogue with the technology – one which improves the quality and accuracy of the outcomes with each use.

This involves evolving out of a de facto master/servant role into something more symbiotic – working with the technology to achieve the most desirable outcome.

We will have to accept that machines will handle more of the mundane tasks which can now be mechanised

Progress in any walk of life necessarily involves moving on from outdated, inefficient ways of doing things, even if we are nostalgically or, indeed , financially attached to them. It’s why most of us don’t use steam trains, fax machines and Internet Explorer any more.

The development of more intelligent machines will undoubtedly mean that mundane, repetitive tasks will become automated – it has already happened in the manufacturing industry and will soon be part of helpdesk/customer enquiry services, data input and other areas where computers can be ‘taught’ to quickly analyse information to provide accurate content to users.

We will have to consciously develop soft, ‘human’ skills which will become vital for the services which computers can’t provide

The erosion of human involvement in simpler tasks will lead to the development of a whole new industry focused on providing the soft skills which computers can’t provide. They may be able to intelligently analyse billions of datapoints, but they are not (and are unlikely to ever be) able to understand nuance, tone, body language and all of the other psychological facets which make us human.

New roles will become available based on the provision of a warm, caring, human experience as a counterpoint to the mechanised elements facilitating our day-to-day lives.

Technical competence among the workforce will be as important as English and maths

The government has already recognised the importance of computer literacy with the introduction of an education programme designed to equip students with the skills they need to compete in an increasingly technical workplace.

As use of cognitive / AI grows, prospective employees will be expected to have a reasonable level of technical literacy as a matter of course – it will be on a par with English and maths as a core competency. ‘I don’t do computers’ will immediately rule you out, even if you have finely-honed ‘soft’ skills.

We have to trust that the overarching aim of those involved in the development of cognitive computing and AI is to further the progress of mankind, because it is inevitable that it will become part of our working lives.

The sooner we embrace it and adjust to it, the sooner we will reap its benefits in the workplace.

Dan Hartveld, CTO at Red Ant