Facing the Robot Revolution

How to prepare for an Artificially Intelligent future

Fourth industrial revolution by Honoris Staff Writer

We are now in an era of accelerated technological progress, with cutting-edge science such as artificial intelligence (AI), set to cause an abrupt change in society. Africa faces an enormous challenge, but this radically unsettling world is also an opportunity for students to develop the skills not only necessary to survive in, but to thrive in this challenging and rapidly evolving world.

“A degree is not enough. Students need the theory, but they need to be able to put that theory into practice. They need to be great readers, researchers and lifelong learners. They need to be flexible, dynamic and entrepreneurial,” says Richard Shewry, Manager of the REGENT Business School’s specialist employability unit, iLeadLab.

To future-proof themselves, students need to be agile. In a world of rapidly developing technology and change, people are required to reinvent themselves professionally throughout their working lives. A mindset that embraces adaptability will allow individuals to forge their future in an unstable and unpredictable world.

Students already have open access to the world and how the world deals with the challenges ahead: the internet. “Take it upon yourself to research things online; don’t just blindly take your teachers at their word, do your own reading, your own trouble-shooting.”

Shewry also recommends that students travel. He believes that getting out of one’s comfort zone is stimulating and inspiring, develops self-confidence and open-mindedness to new ideas. Cultural agility is another key skill for the robot-revolution future.

Educational institutions have a huge role to play in preparing Africa’s youth for this new world.

“Facing our Fourth Industrial Revolution future is intimidating. In Africa, we’re not exposed from a young age to digital platforms and services that the rest of the world has been using for years. In many parts of the continent, mention crowdfunding or Airbnb and you get blank looks. Exposing young people to how money is being made internationally is a crucial first step.”

Providing students with knowledge of their discipline is the most basic of requirements. In Africa, where, for example, South Africa faces a youth unemployment rate of more than 50%, educational institutions need to develop students’ real-life skills and an attitude of innovation. At the REGENT Business School iLeadLAB in Durban, for example, students are taught 3D design and laser cutting so they can design and create products, around which they can develop a business.

“We need to show students how simple it is to start your own enterprise. As commerce goes more digital in the platform economy, people around the world are starting businesses in their garages. All you need are the basic concepts,” says Shewry. “In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the jobs that will be safest will be those that require creativity and imagination.”

AI is unable to compete with humans when it comes to creativity and imagination, two skills that are the hallmark of the unique human mind. These skills demand a level of cognitive functioning, which exceeds the current capacity of AI, making them two of the most in-demand skills in the future job market. Educational institutions need to develop students’ soft skills and complex cognitive abilities, including critical thinking and problem-solving aptitudes.

Educators also need to avoid teaching in silos, rather pointing out to students how disciplines overlap and what the relevance of the theory is in practice.

“In schools, for example, teachers rarely explain that basic mathematics – addition, multiplication, fractions, and so on – will be invaluable later in coding. Teachers at school and university need to constantly relate the material to real-world application.”

As technology continues to advance, universities will be required to bring in specialists, for example blockchain, VR, AI, Coding; to keep students at the forefront of their field. REGENT Business School, an Honoris Universities member institution, is now, for example, redesigning their BCom degree and Higher Certificate in Entrepreneurship, to reflect current requirements of AI and other cutting-edge technologies.

“I envisage a future of on-demand facilitators, with many other jobs going that way too- job-by-job, or task-based employment, in platform economy models,” says Shewry.

AI can also be used within the classroom. Currently, limited amount of technologies are available to boost learning. ROSS, for example, is an online legal research service powered by AI that speeds up case research.

“ROSS helps paralegals find references of previous cases,” says Shewry. “There have been instances of the AI coming up with the answer even before the paralegal has finished writing the question.”

But Shewry warns against simplistically embracing AI in the classroom and beyond: “They can be incredible tools but you need to understand how they work, and explain this to students. There are many pros to using them, but there have been occasions when AI has been accused of racism. An AI has no emotional intelligence, it handles data with no sensitivity to social or political nuances,” he says.

Our artificially intelligent future is a challenge – both within the classroom and without. Through harnessing new technology that possess the unique skills of the human mind, Africa has the opportunity to forge its own strong and sustainable future.