About 17 per cent of jobs will be taken by robots in OECD countries in the years to come Image Credit: Shutterstock

A good education remains the best armour today’s children may have against automation. New research by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that over 66 million people are at risk of being replaced by robots or machine functions in the near future.

One in seven jobs across the 32 study countries is likely to be affected. The Paris-based think tank found that low-skilled people and youth were the most likely to be at risk, and these were identified as people less likely to participate in formal education or distance learning. The number is less than previously forecast: in 2013, a US study had estimated that as many as 47 per cent of all jobs in that country were at risk in the coming years.

Many believe the frightening figures predict a world of work where common jobs are filled by robots instead of humans. As high-school students in the UAE plan their next steps and consider which career to opt for, GN Focus examines how these changes could impact jobs in the years to come.

“Even the drivers, financiers, and greatest beneficiaries of the tech boom today admit that they have essentially no idea what the best skill set to have will be 15 years from now. I understand why uncertainty of this kind is frightening. How are students supposed to prepare to enter an ever-more competitive job market, the nature of which cannot be forecast? But whatever the particular details of the increasingly automated future job landscape turn out to be, students can take steps in shaping their undergraduate education choices to develop a way of thinking and retain an intellectual adaptability that will survive in an increasingly automated professional landscape,” says Katherine Buoymaster (above), Managing Director of Hale Education Group, an education consultant in Dubai.


Careers in AI

One way to adapt is to simply grab the bull by the horns and embrace the change. The UAE is poised among the leaders in artificial intelligence (AI) and with the world’s first minister of state in the field, the sector could contribute up to 14 per cent of the nation’s GDP by 2030, PwC forecasts. Consequently, several universities in the UAE and elsewhere have launched degree programmes in AI.

“In order for automation to be implemented across the entire economy, we will need to build a lot of digital infrastructure. This work will not be carried out by automated machines, but by human experts in a process that will last decades,” says Debashis Guha (right). As Professor and Programme Director, Machine Learning at SP Jain School of Global Management, he is at the centre of the debate in his job, Guha examines the economic and financial applications of data analysis and machine learning and believes humans will in fact be enablers in this new digital economy.

“Most studies suggest that although there would be job losses in some sectors, there would be strong job creation in advanced technology sectors such data science, machine learning, robotics, blockchain, augmented and virtual reality, biotechnology and materials science, as businesses will need to build a lot of capacity in these new technologies,” he says.

SP Jain itself is an example of just such infrastructure, offering training in these advanced technologies as insurance against technological disruption. “What we teach, how we teach and who teaches is all technology-driven,” Guha says, adding that students considering a technology-focused MBA can visit the institute’s stand at the Gulf Education and Training Exhibition (Getex) in Dubai this week.

In another example, reserachers from the American University of Sharjah’s College of Engineering last year won a prize of Dh1 million for creating a robot that can detect pipeline leaks. The university has recently focused strongly on building expertise in the research space as a way of arming students for the future; it will also be at Getex. Speaking at an event in December, AUS chancellor Dr Björn Kjerfve said the university intends to be at the forefront of research and innovation in science and technology and an incubator for ideas, solutions, and commercialisation. “We intend to help Sharjah reap the benefits of our research and scholarship, to grow and be successful in achieving its goals, by focusing on regionally relevant research with a global impact,” he said.


Careers beyond AI

Not all those outside AI-related fields need to contemplate scary robot takeover scenarios. In fact, a majority of jobs will still require a human touch, says Elena Agaragimova, a career consultant at the The University of Manchester Middle East Centre in Dubai. “I don’t believe we should fear automation, and I would suggest that people need to be more curious and more aware of which technologies might affect their industries and roles, and how, in the near future.”

She sees humans and machines coexisting. In healthcare, for example, some aspects of service can be automated but patients still expect a human interaction, while in construction, humans will bring creativity to designs and projects. “There are some human elements of work that perhaps cannot be replaced — not yet at least — by robots, including empathy, emotional intelligence, and leadership skills,” Agaragimova says. “At our recent annual careers networking event in Dubai, recruitment experts talked about the continued vital importance of soft skills — such as leadership, influencing, creativity, team work and collaboration — and emotional intelligence; the discussion was around how to develop transferable skills, keep them refreshed through ongoing training and development, build networks and find a mentor.”

Citing work by McKinsey and Company, Agaragimova lists IT and cyber security, health care and renewable energy as among the industries that will continue to develop, and therefore among the careers to look for.

Amol Vaidya, Director of Operations at Global Indian International School UAE (right), says artificial intelligence thrives on replicating standard tasks but lacks problem solving skills and will still require competent decision makers that are able to think on their feet. He has some practical advice for students seeking careers in the field: “It would be prudent to choose careers that have three characteristics. Firstly, the work should have tremendous scope of application of analytical thinking where problem-solving is an inherent part of the work. Secondly, if the work requires dealing with people, then automation can only be an auxiliary part of the functioning and would require personnel to keep the boat afloat. Lastly, any job that requires soft skills will always need people.”

Vaidya believes the time to develop an entrepreneurial mindset is now. “All courses that let you work outside the structured job market like an education in entrepreneurship or a course that helps you become a freelancer will be advisable as we enter the age of automation, he advises. “The focus should be on getting a more generalised training as opposed to specialised training as the latter will only bear fruit if you are the absolute authority in the chosen field.”