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Artificial intelligence and automation technologies are already starting to affect our work and daily lives. AI is present in everyday objects and processes such as virtual assistants, supermarket checkouts, driverless cars and detecting fraud in credit card transactions.
Disruption is inevitable but it is often deeply feared. The current wave of change, fuelled by technological advancement, is no different. However, like generations before us, we must learn to transcend the disruption and thrive in new times. Changing how we view education is essential to humanity’s ability to achieve the best from new technologies.
I recently spoke to graduating students at the University of Queensland in Australia and their excitement was tinged with trepidation about the future. I made three points to them: first, AI — and the resulting automation of industrial and business processes — will affect us all and is here to stay; second, it is in its infancy and there is an immense opportunity to transcend the disruption; third, as AI develops, this disruption will be repeated again and again. The only certain strategy in our world is for us all to become life-long learners.
We are still far from the “society of mind” that Marvin Minsky wrote about in the 1980s, in which many sophisticated instruments of intelligence possessed with faculties of deduction and learning — as well as different ways of representing knowledge and reasoning about it — combine to deliver systems capable of complex, autonomous behaviours. Yet many business leaders already consider AI integral to the future. A recent survey of 1,600 global enterprises by Infosys found that 71 per cent of their leaders feel the adoption of AI in business and society is inevitable; more than three quarters feel AI adoption will deliver positive, wider economic change; a quarter have already fully deployed at least one AI technology.
But I believe humans will not do well if they merely endure such disruptions. Rather, we can play an active part in shaping our collective future and changing our world in a meaningful and purposeful way. Technology can be a great enabling force that amplifies and empowers people, improves the quality of life for all and opens up opportunities for the underprivileged.
For example, at the start of the 20th century 38 per cent of Americans worked on farms. Since then, mechanisation has increased production while reducing the number of employees. Today hired farm workers constitute less than 1 per cent of the US workforce and yet overall employment has soared. Farming jobs have been replaced with new industries — telecoms, health, manufacturing, financial services and more. We work in areas unimaginable to a farmer in the 1900s.
In the same way, AI will affect how we work, the jobs we do and the activities we take part in, both for work and in our free time. It will provide humans with opportunities to create new kinds of experiences and jobs that are unimaginable today, but that have the potential to create trillions of dollars of new value. While intelligent systems may eventually surpass humans in performing well-defined cognitive tasks (such as problem solving), it takes human creativity and ingenuity to “see” the opportunity (such as recognising a problem technology can solve in the first place).
AI can enable us to overcome the limitations of our minds and senses. As my co-chair at the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on AI and Robotics, Professor Missy Cummings of Duke University, says, we are still in the early stages of understanding how intelligent systems can work with people more seamlessly. This would enable both the sharing of work and achieving shared meaning and perspectives. It is not a question of man or machine, but of man and machine. Such collaboration is critical to establishing shared meaning as we have seen in human collaboration for generations.
Breakthroughs can only be achieved if man and machine work together on a set of shared goals. When we achieve such a symbiosis, the potential for our species will be immense.
This story of disruption and transcendence has played out over millennia. But the pace of change is accelerating, necessitating an ever-faster rate of adaptation.
The time has come to rethink education and to recast it as a life-long process. That means we need to move away from rewarding memorisation and instead prize curiosity and experimentation — the building blocks of discovering and understanding the things we do not yet know. Curriculums should be modernised to encourage creative problem finding and solving, and learning through doing, with mandatory computer science learning as the bedrock for enabling digital literacy. Organisations also need to make life-long learning resources available for employees to enhance skills development. Indeed, they should be required to dedicate a percentage of their annual revenue to reskilling staff.
Humans have adapted in part because we have evolved our education systems alongside our technologies: we advanced our capacities to understand our tools. As with reading and writing, being digitally literate is a fundamental need and every child should study computer science.
Today’s rapid changes call for a new perspective on education by states and companies. Infosys is rethinking its training infrastructure and augmenting it with, for example, short courses (or “nanodegrees”) to help drive the rapid acquisition of new skills, including AI techniques, at scale. We are also introducing company-wide training to help employees reassess the way they approach challenges and identify problems, and to be more creative and bring innovation to everything we do.
These are small starts and governments and businesses need to help develop an approach to life-long learning that will create a more level playing field for people everywhere.
If we can do this, I believe the only limit to our human potential will be the capacity of our imaginations. The AIs of our creation will help us to become more human.
The writer is chief executive of Infosys