As an increasing amount of technological advances are made every day, it’s becoming more apparent that many jobs are in danger of being replaced by automation. How then, do we best prepare ourselves for this radical change and future-proof our careers?
To educate myself on this outwardly complex subject, I recently had the opportunity to attend an insightful panel discussion with our Head of Digital Technology, Sean Burke-Gaffney, who spoke about the challenges many of us are facing or will soon face, while expounding some of the solutions that could be used to ameliorate the problems of tomorrow.
Many of us are looking at Artificial Intelligence with sceptical lenses, while others are very excited about the opportunities it can unlock. Which camp are you in?
I’m definitely in the camp of the optimistic. Not only am I optimistic but I am also hopeful. If you look at the history of civilisation and cultural history of this region, you will see many examples of revolutionary change and in spite of this — perhaps even because of this — people have managed to adapt; all societies do this and need to continue doing so. I think it’s incumbent upon us all to try and get ahead of any potentially negative effects of this transitional period in which advanced technology becomes mainstream.
Yet I’m hugely excited. I think we, our children, and their children are going to have opportunities that were unimaginable 20, 30 years ago. We will be given opportunities to improve ourselves and our world, and this will be enabled by technology.
If we are looking ahead to the future, what kind of core skills do we need to develop?
Firstly, people need to be trained to understand how programming or code is implemented and how machines work. This does not mean everyone must be a programmer or a coder. In the same way we understand about cars, you don’t need to know how an internal combustion engine works, but you do need to know how to drive one.
Secondly, there are some soft skills that need to be nurtured. One of them is how to co-exist with advanced computing machines. Cooperation with these machines is going to be required in order for us to successfully navigate the changes that advanced technology like AI will bring to us. You can’t be fearful of advanced machines and ostracise them. If we do that, we will find that it is us who are actually ostracised and miss the benefits that technology can bestow. We need to embrace AI and advanced robotics, and integrate them properly into our culture and our lives.
Finally, I want to make a point about education, which has many aspects but I think an important one is that educational institutions must teach our young people differently. Education should be appraised from a new perspective. We need quickly to imagine how we educate people who have already passed through traditional learning streams, and show them how to reinvent their careers and facilitate the formation of new skills and new orientations.
Speaking of education, is the classic school system that we have today still going to work in 20, 30 years?
I believe that a classical education should always remain critical; physics, chemistry, mathematics, literature, language, and sociology are foundations of a learning mind. People also need to have a general arts background.
In technology, we often talk about teaching people to be T-Shaped; that is to know a lot about one thing and only a little about generalities. At PALO IT, I try to encourage people to be Y-Shaped; that is to know a fair amount about a few things, a little about many things and then have some deep expertise on one or two things.
This period of advanced technological change tends to be worrisome and even stressful for people, so another key attitude we need to inculcate in our children now is the acceptance of impermanence or ambiguity. What I mean by this is that it is now the norm that your focus today will not be your focus tomorrow, and this is okay. Not only does that need to be okay, we also need to be people to be nimble-minded to accept and take advantage of massive change. I can’t begin to guess what our education system will be teaching years from now, but I can confidently predict that it will be assisted by AI.
Likewise, how can we best prepare for this career challenge?
I have always lived by a mantra and I preach this mantra to the people I work with: Go with your passion. Trust your heart and it will always guide you to the right place; use your head to keep you focused and in movement.
If you find yourself dissatisfied with the skills that you have or are in a position where you think your job has reached a dead end, look for something that excites you and then vigorously pursue the learning opportunities around it. Opening doors lead to opening doors.
Secondly, the notion of lifelong learning is one that I have espoused both personally and professionally. It is my belief that if you are not constantly learning things, then you become static and that’s the career kiss of death.
That being said, most people underestimate the pace of change and don’t take the opportunities offered to them until they really need them. How can we address this?
It’s a job for the leaders among us to impress on people the need to avail themselves of opportunity. At PALO IT, we’re pretty vocal about encouraging people to educate themselves. What I find is that many don’t feel like they have the time. We need to talk about making time and taking time, and less about the training itself. I look at leadership as the place where this activity begins.
There’s an interesting story that I would like to tell about technology change. It involves something we all use without thinking every day — ice.
In the very early days we had Ice 1.0. It was only available in the northern hemisphere where the weather was always cold and to the people who lived near rivers (and not the ocean). It could not be made as it could only be harvested, and storing or transporting it required a particular set of skills, tools and machines unique to these communities.
Next we had Ice 2.0. The invention of refrigeration as a technology made ice available to people in areas where it was warm. As a technology, it was quite large in scale. We had vast warehouses where ice was made and this gave rise to a new kind of job — the iceman. He travelled in a wagon filled with huge blocks of ice and carried these blocks of ice to people’s homes who then kept them in a new invention called an icebox, which allowed us to keep our food stored for longer periods.
Now we have Ice 3.0 — enabled by the invention of the portable refrigerator. With miniaturisation, optimised refrigeration methods, and a connection to indoor plumbing sometime later, we now think nothing of having ice cubes coming out of our fridge automatically.
Now think about the kinds of jobs that have existed and disappeared, have arisen and disappeared again, and arisen anew only to begin disappearing yet again all around a simple commodity like ice. This is a metaphor for how we should treat the coming of AI.