“Beware of the robots! No office job is safe” – or so reads the headline of yet another article about why emerging technologies spell doom for today’s worker. While using such phrases to describe artificial intelligence (AI) and automation can cause anxiety around the potential of such technology to cause widespread unemployment, are they justified?
As with the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century, and the rise of personal computers in the 1980s, some jobs will disappear but new opportunities will be created as we uncover new uses for emerging technologies in the enterprise.
Fears around the rise of technologies such as AI and automation are no different; however, instead of dreading it, we need to recognise that a workforce with the right skills will always find a way to thrive with new technologies.
Giving youth the right skills
Building the right skillset needs to begin at a young age. However, our current education systems haven’t kept up with the pace of technological change, which means businesses can’t just expect graduates who have already mastered cutting-edge technologies.
The World Economic Forum predicts that 65% of children currently entering primary schools will eventually be placed in jobs that don’t even exist today. Yet, even as more students pursue technical careers, the skills they learn will largely be obsolete by the time they start working.
With rapid urbanisation across the continent resulting in an increasing demand for infrastructure, healthcare, education, and other public services, the African Union has called for investment in education and training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to be a priority.
The AU is also working with the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), a pan-African network of centres of excellence for postgraduate education, research and outreach in mathematical sciences, to strengthen the teaching and learning of STEM subjects on the continent.
Providing hands-on experience
Building on this, programs led by IT companies have the advantage of giving students hands-on experiences with new technologies. One such programme being the Bloodhound SSC Project, which aims to break to the world land speed record at a dry lakebed in South Africa, while also generating interest from students in STEM.
As Bloodhound’s cloud partner, Oracle will collect and analyse data from over 500 sensors on the Bloodhound Supersonic Car (SSC), and broadcast it to students across the world to demonstrate how technology can be used to break the boundaries of human ingenuity.
More than 6000 schools use Bloodhound technical content in the classroom and over two million students have learned about robotics, computer programming, and aerodynamics through the program.
Initiatives like Bloodhound are instrumental in showing students how innovation comes together behind the scenes. Many of the technologies and services we interact with today are the brainchild of scientists, engineers and programmers, and young people need to see first-hand how people in these roles contribute to society.
Increasing accessibility to STEM education
Inclusion and diversity continue to be a major problem in technical fields. The forward march of automation and AI is indifferent to a person’s creed, gender or colour and, as the job market increasingly demands coding and IT literacy, every young person needs to be on equal footing to succeed.
Young women, in particular, need more encouragement to study STEM subjects and pursue technical careers, and programmes such as StemKenya, initiated by UNESCO, supports Kenya’s efforts to reduce the gender gap in STEM by mentoring secondary school girls through scientific Camps of Excellence.
They have strong role models like Juliana Rotich, venture partner in Africa Technology Ventures and co-founder of Ushahidi; Judith Owigar, CEO and founder of JuaKali on-demand app for skilled manual labour and co-founder of mentorship and outreach group Akirachix; and Martha Chumo, founder of The Dev School, which equips youth with programming skills – to look up to, and it will be up to teachers, their parents and society as a whole to hold these examples up as inspiration if we are to get over today’s perception gap.
The future of work
It is not inaccurate to say that our workforce is under threat – some jobs will indeed be taken over by robots and intelligent software. However, this simply marks the next step in human productivity and resourcefulness. A major reason for today’s media frenzy around this issue is that the job market is evolving more quickly than ever, which means we have little time to adjust.
This is not the first time people have been tested, nor will it be the last. If governments, businesses, and educators work together to reshape the job force as they have many times before, the rise of AI and automation will be a boon instead of the curse many have predicted.
Corine Mbiaketcha Nana, Managing Director Kenya Hub covering East, Central and West Africa at Oracle