Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 15 November 2019

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is only as good as the people behind it

Rather than driving us all out of jobs, artificial intelligence could enhance human capital and innovation

While the automation of tasks may accelerate and the processing of data may grow exponentially, the focus of teaching for the future knowledge workers is making sense of problems and situations according to Kay Firth-Butterfield. Isaac Lawrence / AFP
While the automation of tasks may accelerate and the processing of data may grow exponentially, the focus of teaching for the future knowledge workers is making sense of problems and situations according to Kay Firth-Butterfield. Isaac Lawrence / AFP

As we teeter on the edge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an era of automation, artificial intelligence and connectivity that promises to transform the way we live and work, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future of jobs. Unlike previous industrial revolutions, the pace of change is happening at a much faster rate. A study by management consultancy firm McKinsey and Company suggests that by 2030, one in seven of the global workforce will need to be prepared for a technological future. With two-thirds of a country’s GDP linked to human capability or capital, according to the World Bank, companies and governments are racing to put in place upskilling programmes to help their workforces transition into new or adapted roles.

In the Arab world, two-thirds of the population are below the age of 30. We are currently experiencing a high unemployment rate and a situation where a number of countries in the region host large numbers of refugees. Yet rather than adding to those numbers, an age of automation does not mean human capital will be rendered obsolete.

On a recent trip to a refugee camp in Jordan, my driver told me the country did not have any natural resources. It occurred to me that he had overlooked the power of human resources. Jordan has the third largest refugee population in the world. The number of refugees globally stood at 68.5 million last year, the highest figure on record and one that is expected to grow. Yet many countries prohibit or limit the ability of refugees to work or contribute to the economy or social development of the country where they settle. The book Refugee Economies, co-authored by four Oxford University academics, states that when refugees are allowed to engage in entrepreneurial activities, they boost the economies of their host countries by increasing purchasing power and creating businesses and jobs.

It is all too easy to view technology as a force for evil driving up unemployment figures but in the case of refugees, many of whom had qualifications in their native countries but were forced to flee with no documentation, it could actually have a beneficial purpose. With the use of technologies that are available today, such as facial recognition software, the problem of lost documentation could be resolved.

There needs to be a change in mindset and a transition from the expectation of having a job for life, to a realisation of the need to create new jobs

Technology is playing an important role in improving the livelihoods of many across the globe. There are many “tech for good” organisations which use new technologies in their operations to end poverty, fight injustice and help provide better access to health care. I was fortunate to be able to attend a pitch event hosted by the Mohammed bin Rashid Initiative for Global Prosperity in Abu Dhabi, where 16 entrepreneurs were shortlisted in a competition to find innovative ways to reduce inequalities through transformative solutions. The finalists’ drive to make the world a better place was admirable; I hope they also keep in mind the social and environmental impact of their businesses. One of the most promising projects was Ada Health, a platform which is AI-supported and uses chatbots to communicate with the user and provide personalised health care.

Omar Al Olama, Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, at the opening of the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
Omar Al Olama, Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, at the opening of the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National

There needs to be a change in mindset and a transition from the expectation of having a job for life, to a realisation of the need to create new jobs. I recently had the honour of meeting Tareq Al Dandachi, the son of a dear friend and mentor of mine, who is currently studying at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has won numerous awards for his innovations. A two-hour conversation with him really opened my eyes. Contrary to the depiction of an AI-enabled future in movies such as The Terminator or I, Robot, his view was that artificial intelligence could generate ideas we have never considered and contribute to helping humanity. This young innovator is one of the leading lights for the Arab world as we embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Our morality and ethics are being challenged more than ever before. Artificial intelligence was created to mimic human behaviour to improve efficiency and productivity, and to reduce or erase human error. It makes decisions using the information that it is fed. However, the risk arises when it is given false or biased information. Humans are emotional beings. How many times have we misinterpreted a text message, for example, when we might not have reacted in the same way if we had been speaking to that person directly? Then there is our ability to forgive flaws and give others another chance, something machines might not have factored into their algorithms.

As with many things in our world today, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is only as good as the people behind it. As we begin to embrace this wave of change, we need to think, now more than ever, about the collective good of technology. Japan has one of the biggest ageing populations in the world, yet aims to create a “super-smart” environment by incorporating robotics and technology across every field, from infrastructure to health care, with its Society 5.0 strategy. An important strand of this scheme is looking at how technology might impact society and happiness levels.

The key to surviving the Fourth Industrial Revolution is to become lifelong learners, as we move towards an inevitable technological future.

Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan is chief executive officer of Alliances for Global Sustainability

Updated: May 28, 2019 11:52 AM

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