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Are Singaporeans ready for AI?

SINGAPORE has gained a reputation for being a leader in emerging technology, with its government firmly establishing this at the Smart Nation launch in 2014. The vision is one of a nation where people live meaningful and fulfilled lives, enabled seamlessly by technology, offering exciting opportunities for all.

But is Singapore ready? Recent research covering six South-East Asian countries suggests that despite its highly skilled workforce, Singapore could have the biggest mismatch between skills and jobs over the next decade.

The government, educational institutions and companies have recognised this, and Singapore has taken steps to ensure that its workforce is prepared for the disruption artificial intelligence (AI) will cause. Singapore's SkillsFuture initiative helps companies reskill and redeploy its at-risk workers into new roles. Additionally, local leading educational institutions have launched (or are in the process of launching) AI or other intelligent technologies courses.

Companies, too, are ramping up efforts to develop necessary skills to integrate into the technology-driven workforce of the future. Globally, Accenture, for example, has reskilled 250,000 employees in the past three years.

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Such reskilling is imperative given that as technologies such as AI continue to permeate the workplace at a faster rate, the nature of jobs will evolve, and therefore new types of jobs will be created.

To prepare for AI, Singapore needs more talent in the digital and technology space - data scientists, software engineers and technology architects to name a few.

What is equally important to realise is that there are also significant opportunities for job creation in the gap where humans and machines interact. This is where the concept of "the missing middle" comes into play - a dynamic and diverse space in which humans and machines collaborate to attain orders-of-magnitude increases in business performance.

New jobs will be created based on the need for human and machine interaction, ensuring successful AI implementation in companies. Recent research by MIT shows three types of new roles will be required:

Trainers, who will form the core of the machine learning process by teaching AI systems how they should perform, minimising errors made, and working with AI algorithms to mimic human behaviours;

Explainers, who are able to bridge the knowledge gap, "translating" the tech solutions produced by data scientists into digestible explanations for the rest of the business to then act upon; and

Sustainers, who will ensure that AI systems are operating as designed - functioning properly as tools that exist to serve us, making our work and lives easier.

The key takeaway here is that there will be an ever-growing space for individuals with softer skill sets, to bridge the gap between humans and machines - between intelligent technologies and business functions. Skills will be focused on making AI explainable, understandable, and implementable to reap the full benefits of the technology to drive growth and productivity.

As such, leaders need to place the need for successful human and AI integration at the core. They can achieve this by moving reskilling efforts beyond just developing specific technical skills towards educating people on how humans and machines can best work together.

Reskilling and the acquisition of new talent must address the missing middle. The ability to do so effectively, and scale, can be a game changer for companies and Singapore as a whole. This is the silver lining amid fears of job displacement.

The outlook for Singapore is potentially very promising. According to a Smart Nation Workforce study, Singaporeans have an optimistic outlook of AI in the workplace, with less than half (49 per cent) of Singapore respondents expecting emerging technologies to result in job losses, while 41 per cent are in organisations that are already using emerging technologies to improve or support the work of staff.

The same study also found a large percentage of respondents expecting AI to improve job satisfaction (78 per cent) and free the workforce to provide more valuable and personalised services (81 per cent).

Singapore is in an advantageous position - steps we take now as a country will determine if we are able to succeed in the age of digital disruption - as it raises the bar in equipping its citizens with the necessary skills to meet the demands of this new way of working.

The age of digital disruption is here and how quickly nations, companies and individuals adapt and cope with new technologies will determine the extent of their success. For individuals, this means continually equipping ourselves with skills that will enable us to work alongside machines. We need to see AI as augmenting our own capabilities, not as a threat to us. This collaboration is what will drive growth in the smart cities or nations of the future.

  • The writer is managing director, Accenture Applied Intelligence, Asean.