In an AI-centric future, skill sets must change

With AI poised to deliver unprecedented economic and social benefits, non-adoption can have a critical impact.

IT IS safe to say - and probably common knowledge - that artificial intelligence (AI) will increasingly influence various aspects of our lives and fundamentally change the way we work and live.

Many definitions of AI exist, but it generally refers to a machine's capability to imitate intelligent human behavior. To be considered AI, the system needs to demonstrate behaviours associated with human intelligence, such as problem-solving, reasoning, learning and self-correction.

Though AI had its beginnings in the 1950s, it is only in recent years that AI research and application has taken off, fuelled by increased computing power, big data and breakthroughs in machine learning.

With AI widely seen as a key driver of business competition, job creation and economic prosperity, countries are racing to claim pole position in the AI race.

The United States, China and many others, including Singapore, have AI on their list of national strategic priorities and are making huge investments in AI research and capabilities development to establish strong foundations for AI ecosystems.

Businesses, too, are optimistic about the digital future powered by AI and are increasingly embarking on projects to harness its benefits. A recent report by Accenture predicts that AI can help to reverse declining profit growth of businesses in Singapore.

Businesses that successfully apply AI could create up to US$215 billion in gross value added (GVA) in Singapore by 2035. GVA is a close estimate of gross domestic product, which accounts for the value of goods and services produced.

THE WORKPLACE OF THE FUTURE

Although AI evokes images of rogue, super-intelligent robots or computer systems looking to wipe out the human race, AI as we know it today is a lot less menacing, often working silently in the background to augment human capabilities and productivity.

For instance, it is used in speech recognition, search engines, email filtering and the personalisation of online services.

A workplace where AI and humans co-exist and work together is much closer than we think. Aside from replacing low-level routine work, AI is also expected to impact more advanced, higher-level jobs.

According to Gartner, one in five workers engaged in mostly non-routine tasks will rely on AI to do their jobs by 2022. AI will boost the productivity tools that these workers use, bringing them to another level of power and accuracy.

Google and Microsoft recently demonstrated new AI technologies that have workplace-of-the-future applications. Google's Duplex is a technology for conducting natural conversations to carry out tasks over the phone, such as scheduling certain types of appointments.

Microsoft's intelligent meeting room technology automatically identifies people in the room, transcribes things said in real time with multiple simultaneous translations, and automatically converts promises made into action items in the meeting minutes.

These AI technologies, though considered cutting-edge today, are just the tip of the AI iceberg.

In the factory of the future, automated equipment will be able to make intelligent decisions autonomously instead of relying on humans to make decisions. Cognitive robots will usher in more judgment-based automation and enable heightened levels of accuracy and productivity.

Not only does this reallocate human labour to more skillful and intelligent processes, it also reduces variability, a core focus in manufacturing.

For example, Jabil is investigating the application of AI in the automated optical inspection (AOI) of components. Presently, traditional computer-based systems with hard-coded algorithms are used to identify a good component versus a defective one.

These traditional systems do not have the ability to learn or adapt, resulting in a high percentage of false positives, or components wrongly flagged as defective. When this happens, a human operator is required to manually inspect the component to confirm the diagnosis.

Tests have revealed that deep neural networks are more accurate than humans at image classification tasks and can process them exponentially faster (40 images per second), helping to ensure that only truly defective components undergo inspection by the human operator.

Leveraging AI will also let operators focus on value-added tasks that machines cannot perform.

The feedback from operators can also be fed back into the system to allow it to learn and perfect its accuracy.

AI can also help to manage increasingly complex supply chains, allow rapid adjustments to shifts in demand and geography, and help to mitigate the risk of unforeseen incidents, such as natural disasters.

Ultimately, AI will lower operational costs and capital investments while increasing market share and improving time-to-market.

As machines become smarter, the need for human intervention will be reduced. The role of human workers will change, shifting from an active worker to a supervisory role.

Humans will have more time to perform value-added tasks that require more complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity. With intelligent machines that work round the clock, productivity will skyrocket and we will achieve more in less time.

The benefits of AI also extend into social infrastructures such as healthcare. Today, many developed countries, including Singapore, are facing stresses on their healthcare systems due to ageing populations and the rising incidence of chronic diseases.

Furthermore, doctors take years to train and are in short supply, while drug research and development take time and numerous trials before they can be approved for prescription.

AI has the potential to completely redesign healthcare and medicine - from disease diagnosis and drug prescription to patient monitoring and follow up. For instance, AI programs can be trained to identify and detect diseases as well as (if not better than) doctors.

In the future, AI-powered, self-service diagnostic tools could replace the routine work of primary-care doctors.

Healthcare providers will only need to verify the results on the tool and prescribe treatment plans. The need for patients to consult doctors will be reduced, scarce healthcare resources will be put to better use, and patients will be empowered to play more active roles in managing their own health.

Importantly, AI has the potential to drive the shift from reactive to predictive healthcare. Combined with predictive analytics, AI can identify people at risk of certain medical conditions. They can then participate in early intervention programmes to better manage their conditions and avoid adverse outcomes.

In the future, AI will not only reduce the workloads of healthcare professionals and allow them to focus on more critical, and human aspects of healthcare delivery, but will also offer patients improved outcomes and better quality of life.

THE AI-CENTRIC FUTURE

With AI poised to deliver unprecedented economic and social benefits, non-adoption can have a critical impact on businesses and countries. Businesses could lose significant market share and become obsolete, while countries may lose their competitiveness and fall behind.

AI and the changing needs of businesses will necessitate the evolution of jobs and skillsets needed. There will be structural changes across industries, resulting in fewer routine, entry-level functions and the birth of roles that are more focused on creative thinking and analysis.

Businesses must help to equip their employees with skills to manage and work with AI. By the same token, employees will need to embrace continuous skills development to remain competitive and relevant.

As the division of tasks between humans and machines changes, the type of knowledge and skills to be imparted to future generations will need to be re-evaluated. Presently, education focuses on teaching people to use machines - this will need to change as machines learn from humans and vice-versa.

As with any technological shift, AI will be subject to much scrutiny and debate. Concerns about the widening economic divide, privacy, ethics and even technological singularity are not unfounded, but the positive impact of AI cannot be dismissed.

Done right, AI will work alongside the human workforce to deliver far superior outcomes that neither can produce alone. And it will be humans that will benefit the most from its adoption.

  • The writer is the general manager of Jabil Singapore.