Preparing for our artificially intelligent future

One of Africa’s top AI experts is helping to equip Honoris students for the Fourth Industrial Revolution
Tunis – September 23rd 2019

Professor Khaled Ghedira, AI Lab Executive Director at Université Centrale, Tunisia, and artificial intelligence expert, is setting up the country’s first specialised AI lab, to be used by Honoris students and faculty across the continent. In this interview, he calls on educators to prepare students for the upcoming AI explosion so they are ready to face a high-tech future.

Prof. Khaled Ghedira is the AI Lab Executive Director at Université Centrale, Tunisia. He has a PhD in Artificial Intelligence (AI) from École Nationale Supérieure d’Aeronautique et de l’Espace ISAE Supaero in France and has written four books, co-authoring 15, on AI. He is the former general managing director of the Tunisian State organisation, the Agence Nationale de la Promotion de la Recherche Scientifique, and is the founder and president of the Association Tunisienne d’Intelligence Artificielle. He is now setting up an AI research lab with Honoris, which will be the first completely specialised lab of its kind in Tunisia.

Prof. Ghedira gives insight into the lab, and the impact of AI on education and employability.

Please tell us more about the Honoris AI lab and what we can expect.

It’s still very much in progress and we are working out the details, but it will be the first lab entirely focused on AI in Tunisia. It will be open to students across the Honoris network, not only Université Centrale. It’s really important to educate students and teachers, at least through introductory courses, about artificial intelligence, and for engineering students to be able to excel in it. When I was in Morocco for the Honoris Academic Council meeting in June, many peers were interested in collaborating – people are starting to see how crucial AI is, and it will only become bigger in the future.

How would you define AI?

There are many definitions of AI. As I have an engineering background, I will give you an empirical meaning: AI is developing models, methods, and algorithms to deal with complex problems inspired by know-how, experience and human intelligence, and also the neuronal functioning of the human brain.

There is a lot of hype around AI these days – is it as revolutionary as some people suggest?

No, I don’t think so. The AI discipline has gone through ups and downs since its official launch in 1956 in New Hampshire, USA. This evolution is linked to technological advancements and environmental, socio-economic and even political developments. Right now, what has brought AI back to the top is big data and high computing performance.

It’s not AI that is new, but the huge amount of data in the world, which increases every second, minute and hour. Computers have also evolved and this extra power has given new life to AI. The problem is how to extract the most important data from out of the mass of data. We do this through machine learning using algorithms – many of these algorithms have existed for a while but now we are working on algorithms that can deal better with the huge amount of data. This applies to different sectors, including medicine, banking, insurance and many others.

Is AI a subject to be taught as a separate course or is it applicable to any field of knowledge?

Both. AI has a history and fundamentals that can be taught separately and globally. Then it can be taught as several sub-disciplines according to the targeted field of knowledge.

How will AI impact across verticals, such as health, engineering, or business?

There is AI for AI, and AI for other sectors, whether in terms of application or theory. AI can be applied in health, engineering or business, and the theory can help to better interpret the research results.

In health, impacts include the prediction and early detection of the dysfunctions of the human body, such as tumours, the prevention of certain diseases, personalised monitoring and care of the patient, and better interpretation of medical imaging.

In engineering, it is essential, and related to technology such as speech recognition, facial recognition, and the mixing of virtual worlds and physics, better known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Moreover, we now have new professions, such as AI engineers, and cognitive engineers.

In business, AI is especially relevant in banking, finance such as the stock market, human resource recruiting, and much more.

Will AI skills be beneficial for the 21st-century job market?

Of course, and especially for high-skilled and competitive jobs. Engineers, radiologists, video game designers, film editing technicians, cybersecurity experts and anyone working with operating systems for computers and smartphones, are just some examples of when AI will be crucial.

But beyond these careers, students should have at least one foundational course in AI. Revolution 4.0 essentially uses AI, so if our students have no knowledge of AI, they will have problems integrating in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. They will have the knowledge from their studies, but without AI they will be able to do nothing with it.

Are teachers able to benefit from AI in the classroom?

Yes. More intelligent tutorial systems are being developed for classroom application.

Do today’s students need to think about a future when certain jobs will be replaced by AI? How do they futureproof themselves against this?

Students should think about the new jobs that will be created and modified following the explosion of AI, rather than focus on those that may disappear because there is no certainty about this. This follows the argument by the famous Austrian economist, Shumpeter, that AI is a creative destruction and it will make some jobs disappear but will create others.

It is important to realise that it is up to us, as teachers, to prepare students for Revolution 4.0 through awareness sessions and studies.