Taking the driver’s seat in the age of robotic vehicles? Education and the AI revolution

Alan Turing, widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence (AI), said that “once the machine thinking method had started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers”, and that we should “expect the machines to take control”. The world has changed dramatically in the decades since Alan Turing left us, but voices portending a dystopian future sparked by the proliferation of artificial intelligence technologies have grown louder. 

We hear reports that AI chatbots have become sentient, and the ethics of machine learning and robotics are dominating civil society discourse around the world. But we live in an era where AI isn’t confined to the world of science fiction or a tour of Silicon Valley – it is permeating so much of our daily lives. From predictive search on the internet, chatbots that help us book everything from restaurants to COVID vaccines, smart devices in our home, and virtual assistants telling us how long the drive to the office will be – AI is here to stay.   

Market research forecasts that the global AI industry will grow exponentially at an annual rate of 33.6% from 2021 to 2028. We are in fact standing on the brink of the AI-driven Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

As AI technologies evolve, there will be a significant shift in the composition of our workforce. According to a 2020 report unveiled at the World Economic Forum, automation and workplace digitisation will disrupt 85 million jobs globally across industries. Another forecast by the World Intelligence Congress in 2021 also pointed to AI potentially replacing 70% of an average human manager’s workload in less than three years. 

The alarm bells against human workers being eaten up by technology are sounding once again.  

But this is nothing new to us. 

For centuries, humans have worried that advances in technology would create a world without work. However, this has never proven true. Human labour has time after time survived the existential crisis brought by technology. What is true is that as AI eliminates some human roles in the workplace, new ones are likely to be created. This is how the world evolves. Years ago, job titles which are now ubiquitous such as app developer, blockchain analyst, cloud architect, or drone operator would have sounded fanciful, but today they are some of the hottest jobs in demand. 

Notwithstanding all the uncertainty and anxiety produced by the next wave of AI technologies, we should not overlook the opportunities that AI represents. The World Economic Forum forecasts that close to 100 million new roles will be created across an extensive range of industries. While roles in areas such as data entry, accounting and administrative support will be the subject of increased automation, other areas across the digital economy are set to grow. 

More importantly, the opportunity for us mere mortals is to contemplate and think about the fundamental, defining characteristics that make us different from, and therefore less likely to be replaced by a robot. This demands us to think harder about lifelong learning and how we constantly refresh our skills in a rapidly changing world. 

This also requires us to think differently about how we reinforce core human skills such as creating, managing, decision-making and communicating, as well as acquire new skills for handling technology. The soft skills, the emotional intelligence, and the ability of critical thinking will be even more important in the era of automation. 

But beyond reskilling and equipping ourselves with soft skills, our whole planet needs to learn how to work with and alongside machines. 

So how to do this? The answer lies in future-proofing younger generations through scaling up education in AI. Hong Kong has unique advantages here and is already leading the way. The territory is home to five top global 100 universities with its university system the cradle of AI icons such as SenseTime, SmartMore and DJI. 

With a declining population and a pressing need to transform its economy, Hong Kong has a once in a generation opportunity to harness AI as a driver of its future prosperity. Imagine if every school student in Hong Kong finished their education with an awareness about the background, development, advancements and societal impact of AI. What if students graduated with a knowledge of the building blocks of AI theory and hands-on experience of AI in practice? How do we make students aware of the ethical and societal challenges associated with AI so that in addition to being tech savvy, students are armed with an awareness of the challenges as well? 

The reality of the 21st century tells us that AI will become so ubiquitous in our lives and will dominate so much economic activity that we would be doing a disservice to our society if we were to do anything otherwise. Why shouldn’t AI sit alongside mathematics, science, literature, Chinese and English as an essential component of the school curriculum? 

The good news is that Hong Kong is making an impressive leap in this direction. In an ambitious programme supported by over $150 million of generous funding from The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Faculties of Engineering and Education are going to work with 238 schools and aiming to train the majority of all school students across the city in AI fundamentals based on the University’s world leading AI research credentials. Balancing technology education with ethical issues in AI, such as transparency, justice and fairness, beneficence, responsibility and privacy, the programme is designed to fuse technological know-how with key principles on how to use AI to benefit society. 

Humans are faced with a stark choice. AI will potentially be to the workforce what the motor vehicle was to the horse drawn carriage. Through education, we have the opportunity to make sure that future generations can be in the driver’s seat and thrive in this critical phase of 21st century industrialisation. 

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