How to Prepare for the Age of AI

Artificial intelligence will upend our world. We need to reform our education system to survive.

The age of intelligent machines is here. Artificial intelligence, big data and deep learning systems now inhabit all corners of the business ecosystem.

Enterprises have been quick to adopt artificial intelligence systems. Assembly lines are now automated, stock markets use AI analyses, and about 570,000 surgeries have been performed by robots in 2015. With AI playing a bigger role in industry, the effect on human jobs has become a matter of significant concern and debate.

Estimates reveal that 45% of day-to-day activities performed by humans can be automated. The World Economic Forum estimates artificial intelligence and robotics taking over as many as five million jobs by 2020.

The ripple effects of artificial intelligence and automation are visible in the core of the Indian industrial sector as well. The Indian IT industry which enjoyed tremendous growth for two decades, is slowly declining. In an ecosystem dominated by service-based companies, the growth via the employee scale is sliding down.

Vishal Sikka, CEO of Infosys, as part of his 2017 New Year message wrote that unless everyone innovates, they’d be rendered obsolete by a tidal wave of automation and technology-fuelled transformation.

Estimates indicate that AI will improve the mid and high-skill sector, but they also spell disaster for entry-level jobs in IT.

Preparing for the onslaught

Firstly, it is important to cast aside the doom-and-gloom perspective of artificial intelligence. When computers first appeared, they were expensive and limited to large businesses and government agencies. As computers became cheaper, commercial adoption became widespread. The ubiquity of computers has not only resulted in economic growth worldwide but has in fact augmented IT to reach unprecedented levels.

On the other hand, India’s foray into IT, though profitable, was delayed significantly. At a time when IT began flourishing worldwide, India lagged years behind in IT education, resulting in the trend reaching our country a decade later than Silicon Valley. Regardless, India found a strong entry point and leveraged good talent that was far less expensive.

With artificial intelligence, however, India cannot delay. While we are still behind in terms of AI technologies, the industry seems cognizant of the implications. The huge investments pouring into AI start-ups imply that India has enough critical mass to adapt to a business ecosystem dominated by AI. However, there is still the problem of suitable education.

The education problem

India mass-produces engineers. The engineering cadre, however, puts little emphasis on research and innovation, choosing to focus on existing technologies and outdated curriculum.

The problem lies in how engineers are taught in engineering colleges. Their pedagogical framework is based more on theory than on practical applications, so much so that every new batch of engineers has to be given massive retraining by the companies that hire them. Employers bore this burden through the golden age of IT, but their incentives and behaviour may be different in the age of AI. Engineers will no longer be able to thrive in spite of their education.

Advancements in AI will drive growth in the fields of robotics, engineering consulting and algorithm specialisations, all of which require specialised education. The time is therefore ripe to introduce Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) curricula in schools. The experiential learning of STEM subjects can make learning both useful and fun. An upgraded STEM curriculum in professional courses will make fresh graduates employable.

With Massive Open Online Courses, aspiring individuals have access to engaging content and curriculum. It is imperative that colleges adopt similar models. This way, graduates from professional courses might find that their education actually helps them get employment. We have a shockingly low employable percentage, and an enhanced curriculum would be the first step in setting that right.

AI in the workforce

In the corporate sector, AI may cause companies to undergo massive restructuring. AI is upending business processes worldwide, and abrupt changes in the workforce can destabilise businesses. It is important for companies to plan areas where AI can be leveraged as a productivity lever, and restructure and re-educate existing employees gradually.

One of the main facets of adopting AI in the workforce is the automation of repetitive tasks and creation of new roles which require human reasoning and cognitive abilities. The onus will also be on existing employees to undertake re-education proactively. From a technical standpoint, it is vital that working professionals identify roles vulnerable to AI and utilise re-education opportunities appropriately. A major challenge of reskilling and re-education initiatives will be to figure out how to incorporate continuous learning as part of the conventional educational paradigm. Education should not end with getting a degree.

There is significant push for AI in India already with investment in AI related startups reaching an all-time high. A strong educational and reskilling transition can transform the Indian IT sector, an industry highly dependent on western innovations.

With a bright engineering services industry, a proper educational structure can put India at the forefront of the technology sector. As the world is grappling with policies of artificial intelligence, India is in a pivotal position to leapfrog to the top of the technological food chain. The time for reskilling is now. India should not be like the lone guy selling horse carts in the age when mechanical cars took over.

About the author

Ganesh Chakravarthi

Ganesh Chakravarthi is the Web Editor at the Takshashila Institution. He is also the editor of Indian National Interest, Takshashila's blogging platform. Ganesh's research interests include Artificial Intelligence, Transhumanism and Cultural Anthropology.