Illustration: Craig Stephens
Rocky S. Tuan
Rocky S. Tuan

In the age of artificial intelligence, human skills are needed more than ever

  • With AI rapidly changing the world of work, humans must focus on how we can work alongside, and set ourselves apart from, robots
  • This means refining education to ensure young people leave school equipped with soft skills, the ability to think critically, and a practical knowledge of AI

Alan Turing, widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, reportedly 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 Turing left us, and the voices portending a dystopian future proliferated by artificial intelligence technologies have grown louder.

We live in an era where AI isn’t confined to the world of science fiction or even a tour of Silicon Valley; it permeates much of our daily lives. Whether in the form of predictive internet search engines, chatbots that help us book everything from restaurants to Covid-19 vaccines, smart devices in our homes, or virtual assistants telling us how long the drive to the office will be – AI is everywhere.

Market research forecasts that the global AI industry will grow at an annual rate of 33.6 per cent from 2021 to 2028. We are 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. Another forecast by the World Intelligence Congress also points to AI potentially replacing nearly 70 per cent of an average human manager’s workload by 2024.

The alarm bells of human workers being displaced by technology are sounding once again.

A nurse programmes a robot to deliver items to patients at a hospital in Guangzhou, China, on September 26, 2021. Photo: Simon Song

But this is nothing new. For centuries, humans have worried that advances in technology would create a world without work. This is yet to be proven true. Human labour has time after time survived the existential crisis brought on 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 in high demand such as app developer, blockchain analyst, cloud architect, or drone operator would have sounded fanciful.

Notwithstanding the uncertainty produced by the new wave of AI technologies, we should not overlook the opportunities it brings. 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.

A visitor views digital artwork at the Digital Art Fair Xperience in Hong Kong on October 21. Photo: EPA-EFE

More importantly, there is an opportunity for us mere mortals to contemplate the fundamental 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 to constantly refresh our skills in a rapidly changing world.

In addition to acquiring new skills for handling technology, we must think about how we reinforce core human skills such as creating, managing, decision-making and communicating. Emotional intelligence and the ability to think critically 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.

How to do this? The answer lies in future-proofing younger generations through scaling up education in AI. In this process, Hong Kong is already leading the way. The city is home to five of the world’s top 100 universities, which have been the cradle of AI icons such as SenseTime, SmartMore and DJI.
A welcome message is displayed at the Hong Kong exchange after Chinese artificial intelligence start-up SenseTime listed on December 30, 2021. Photo: AFP

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 pupil in Hong Kong finished their education with an awareness of the background, development 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? How do we make students aware of the ethical and societal challenges associated with AI so that in addition to being tech savvy, they are armed with an awareness of the challenges as well?

The trends of this century tell us that AI will dominate so much economic activity that we would be doing a disservice to younger generations if we were to do 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 HK$150 million in funding from The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Faculties of Engineering and Education will work with 238 schools and aims to train most of the city’s school students in AI fundamentals.

Support for Hong Kong innovation must meet real industry needs

Balancing education in technology with ethical issues, such as transparency, justice and fairness, beneficence, responsibility and privacy, the programme is designed to fuse technological know-how with key principles on how AI can be used 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.

Professor Rocky S. Tuan is vice-chancellor and president of the Chinese University of Hong Kong