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AI for everyone

Navigating our way towards an AI-ready future for Singapore

Kevin Wo
Kevin Wo: Reimagining the labour market for the 21st century becomes an enormous task. Success requires a new mindset of lifelong learning and ongoing skill development to match advancing technology

The Future Computed
Microsoft’s book, The Future Computed: Artificial Intelligence and its Impact on Society, offers three conclusions on AI and its impact on work and jobs

IN MY discussions with business leaders, there is an optimistic consensus that 2018 will be the year artificial intelligence (AI) comes to the fore and begins to drive real impact in a truly ubiquitous and meaningful way. Already, IDC is predicting that worldwide spending on cognitive and AI systems will reach US$19 billion in 2018, an increase of 54.2 per cent over the amount spent in 2017.

The advent of broadly available AI in 2018 has brought about a new wave of benefits across different levels in our societies. Not only does AI offer businesses the prospect of increased productivity and accelerated innovation, AI also empowers us with the ability to solve some of the world’s toughest and most persistent challenges.

For example, leading global container shipping company OOCL reported that applying AI to their business has allowed them to save US$10 million annually. On the other side of the world in Seattle, Singaporean data scientist Wee Hyong Tok is leading an elite global research team for AI for Earth – a five-year, US$50 million Microsoft initiative that aims to tackle some of the world’s most intractable sustainability challenges by harnessing the power of AI, machine learning and the cloud.

While there is little doubt that governments and businesses around the world are accelerating their investments in AI, new technology inevitably raises complex questions and broad societal concerns. How do we ensure that AI is designed and used responsibly? How do we establish ethical principles to protect people? How should we govern its use? And how will AI impact employment and jobs?

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These are important issues that require conversations with not just those of us who create the technology, but also people in government, academia, business, civil society and other stakeholders. We hope to add to this discussion with the ideas in our book, The Future Computed: Artificial Intelligence and its Impact on Society.

In particular, we must pay attention to AI’s impact on workers. What jobs will AI eliminate? What jobs will it create? If there has been one constant over 250 years of technological change, it has been the ongoing impact of technology on jobs – the creation of new jobs, the elimination of existing jobs and the evolution of job tasks and content. This too is certain to continue.

As digital technologies such as AI are changing the nature of work and Singapore’s economy, Microsoft is making it our priority to help people and businesses navigate the threats that surface while realising the potential of AI on the economy and society.

Understanding the evolution of jobs in the AI-shaped future

In the Unlocking the Economic Impact of Digital Transformation in Asia Pacific study conducted by Microsoft in partnership with IDC Asia/Pacific with 100 business decision-makers in mid- and large-sized organisations in Singapore earlier this year, respondents were frank in sharing that they felt 93 per cent of jobs will be transformed in the next three years due to digital transformation.

Of these, 62 per cent of the jobs in the market today will be redeployed to higher value roles or reskilled to meet the needs of the digital age. However, what was encouraging was that 83 per cent of respondents were confident that Singapore’s young professionals have future-ready skills that can help them to transition to new roles that are being created in the jobs market.

While the future is not all gloom and doom for workers young and old, the government and employers still have much work to do to help our workers reskill and upskill, because continual learning will be important in ensuring a successful workforce transformation for the digital age.

Bringing AI to the masses

AI holds the key to a new era of innovation. To unlock the economic and societal benefits of AI, we believe that the AI building blocks that Microsoft is developing today such as computer vision, speech and knowledge recognition should be made accessible to everyone, every day and everywhere.

It is with this intention that we collaborated with AI Singapore (AISG), on AI for Everyone (AI4E), an initiative that aims to introduce AI to Singaporeans from all walks of life, ranging from secondary school students to working adults to equip them with the knowledge and understanding of how AI can be used to improve the way one lives, works and plays.

With AI4E, Microsoft will provide content and hands-on sessions that will reach out to 10,000 Singaporeans through free courses conducted by AISG through its community and partners, including schools, polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs).

Empowering our workforce to embrace AI

Singapore’s ability to nurture a future-ready workforce will also be key to thriving in the digital economy, one where digital products and services will make up 60 per cent of our economy. To enable our workforce to thrive in today’s economy and prepare for tomorrow’s, we must help them gain skills that are relevant in the changing workplace. And that today is AI.

In a second collaboration with AISG, the AI for Industry (AI4I) initiative aims to equip technically inclined industry professionals with basic AI competencies to enhance their competitiveness in the digital economy. AI4I will reach out to 2,000 skilled professionals, with Microsoft as one of the partners who will contribute content for the three-month online-offline hybrid curriculum to help professionals understand, apply and develop AI applications.

While the launch of AI4E and AI4I will not solve all the job-related challenges that our society will face with AI, these initiatives represent a positive move by the industry as a whole to progressively address the challenges that we will face in the future.

Apart from these industry-led initiatives, resources are also widely available for people who wish to learn about AI. At Microsoft, we have an AI school – an online, self-service portal that offers online courses on AI for everyone. These initiatives work together to enable us to further our aspiration to foster future-ready talents in Singapore, so that everyone can benefit from the promise of AI.

Addressing the skills gaps of displaced professionals

While respondents to the Microsoft study are optimistic that 62 per cent of the jobs in the market today will be redeployed to higher value roles, they also felt that 31 per cent of existing jobs may potentially be displaced.

While these jobs are being reshaped by technology, the reality is that new job roles are being left vacant in parallel due to what is potentially a widening skills gap. It is difficult to be optimistic when you consider that this gap exists also within infocomm professionals.

Hence, reimagining the labour market for the 21st century becomes an enormous task. Success requires a new mindset of lifelong learning and ongoing skill development to match advancing technology.

That is why Microsoft is partnering with public and private sector organisations, including AISG to identify, train and place 150 professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) who are displaced or underserved through the AI Immersion initiative.

Through the initiative, these professionals will embark on a hybrid training journey that leverages the Microsoft Professional Programme (MPP) in AI, which will provide them with job-ready skills and real-world experience. Microsoft will also work on placing these professionals in real AI projects by collaborating with our wider ecosystem of business partners and customers.

Building a better future together, with AI

For government and business leaders who are still navigating their way through this AI conundrum, I strongly encourage you to read The Future Computed: Artificial Intelligence and its Impact on Society. The book offers three conclusions on AI and its impact on work and jobs:

  • First, the organisations and countries that will fare best in the AI race will be the early adopters. The reason is straightforward: AI will be useful wherever intelligence is needed, and it helps us to be more productive in nearly every field of human endeavour, which can lead to economic growth. Put simply, new jobs and economic progress will favour those that embrace the technology, not those that resist it. In this respect, Singapore is well positioned to capture the opportunities that AI will bring by being quick to harness its power and associated benefits.
     
  • Second, while we believe that AI will improve daily life in many ways and help solve big societal problems, we need to be critical when we examine the issues that it can bring. Beyond AI deployment, what’s equally important is to prepare our society and workforce for the impending changes that AI will catalyse by addressing the need for strong ethical principles, the evolution of laws and the importance of training for new skills. These aspects must all come together if we are going to make the most of this new technology. On this note, I am happy to have my colleague, Andreas Ebert, Worldwide National Technology Officer, Microsoft Corporation, contribute to building a trusted AI ecosystem in Singapore through his participation in the Singapore Advisory Council on the Ethical Use of AI and Data.
     
  • Third, to fully realise the benefits of AI, and to minimise the negative outcomes, technology companies, private and public organisations need to come together with a sense of shared responsibility. In part this is because AI technology won’t be created by the tech sector alone. At Microsoft we’re working to “democratise AI” in a manner that’s similar to the way we have “democratised the PC”. We’re making AI building blocks available to every individual and organisation to build their own AI-based solutions.

While disruption due to AI is imminent, our ability to adapt to disruptions is what defines all of us as a human race. As we move forward into an AI-shaped future, all parties – from workers to organisations to the government – will need to spend more time listening to each other, collaborating and learning new skills in order to collectively navigate our way through the rapidly evolving digital future.

The writer is the Managing Director of Microsoft Singapore

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