OPINION: Prove you're not a bot

Science-fiction writers have mined this plot for years: what happens when robots become as “smart” as humans? One of the more popular examples is the 1982 film Blade Runner where intelligent robots called “replicants” are so much like humans that sophisticated tests must be administered to determine who's human and who's not.

Today, the autonomous robot archetype is a child-sized human-shaped battery-powered thing, invariably porcelain white with enormous Hello Kitty eyes. These creatures are usually found in their native habitat: trade shows. What purpose they serve is unclear—they're hardly like the industrial robots swiveling and welding in automobile assembly lines, for example. The latter aren't cute, but they're useful. Perhaps we could call the trade show things “PR robots.”

It seems that we humans will always anthropomorphize things to boost our confidence—that's a long word which means “to make something appear more human.” We give names to our pets and treat them as part of the family. We give names to tools and vehicles. We even create eyes and other facial features as decoration for food-plates, boxed lunches, airplanes...you name it, we'll anthropomorphize it. Stroll any Hong Kong neighborhood right now and check out the New Year decorations—every pig has a cute smile and eyes-in-front like a human.

The replicants of Blade Runner have morphed into doughy rubberized mannequins-in-motion, often presented as “duplicates” of their creator (typically a serious-looking Japanese science guru). In the physical world, our attempts at recreating humans are clumsy at best.

Then again, we “live” online at least part of the time. And chatbots don't have big googly eyes or need batteries. These peppy auto-answer drones may or may not represent “AI” depending on the definition thereof, but they're certainly advanced automation. And they're changing online experiences.

AI understanding?
During a recent interview in Hong Kong, Robert Wickham, Regional VP for platform & emerging technologies, Asia Pacific, Salesforce, said that AI enjoys “broad awareness but little understanding, and that [affects] the trust factor.”

Wickham cited research that was conducted by YouGov, commissioned by Salesforce, and covers seven Asian markets. Among other findings, the research says that “55% of Hong Kong consumers think AI will enable them to do a better or more interesting job in the future and only 29% think AI will put them out of a job.” However, “only 45% expressed a desire to upskill themselves for jobs of the future.”

The last statistic is puzzling. With few natural resources, Hong Kong's strength has always been its skilled and industrious workforce. And as Dr Winnie Tang, Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Architecture, University of Hong Kong, says: AI upskilling is critical to Hong Kong's workforce.

“The World Economic Forum has advised us that the 4th Industrial Revolution [will be] driven by AI and big data will bring tremendous changes to the world,” she says. “To survive this chaotic transition, individuals, governments and business sector must develop and upskill the workforce for the jobs of the future.”

Tang says that Hong Kong people have become more aware of AI in particular during the last few years. “The last 18 months have seen a 50% increase of people searching for 'artificial intelligence' in both Chinese and English websites in Hong Kong,” she says. “According to a [joint] survey by KPMG and the Smart City Consortium released last year, 83% out of 1,022 citizens and 98% out of 536 business executives named 'technology and innovation culture' as the most important area for Hong Kong’s continued success in the next 10 years.”

Career options
“AI has the potential to provide the productivity gains in the 4th industrial revolution that steam and electricity provided in the first industrial revolution,” says Wickham. “What does AI mean for the future of jobs in Hong Kong? We can learn from history: every industrial revolution has replaced jobs but also created new jobs that we would not have imagined at the time. Jobs will be broken into components with some being automated and done by AI, while others are retained by humans.”

“The challenge today is how enterprises can bring AI into their organizations and business in the same way we are already seeing AI enter our personal lives with consumer devices: intelligent assistants, smartphones, cameras, etc,” he says. “The average person today interacts with AI-powered apps and they don’t even know it most of the time—it's transforming and improving lives in managing finance, interact with friends, the way you receive recommendations.”

Tang from the UHK says that “to develop and upskill for the jobs of the future, training requires three elements:

  • Computer programming (or coding)
  • STEM
  • Problem-solving and interpersonal skills

“With the world becoming increasingly digital, computer programming is as vital as language and mathematics in both the arts and science disciplines,” says Tang. “Whether a student wants to become a AI scientist or not, coding is something that will help him/her do more in whatever field they choose.” She says she believes that “a basic computer programming course is required at the secondary school level, if not primary school.”

“However, unlike South Korea, Israel and lots of European countries, coding is not yet included in the regular curriculum in Hong Kong and STEM education activities in school are not conducted in a coordinated manner,” says Tang. “No wonder Hong Kong’s education policy ranked 22nd out of 35 economies in the Worldwide Educating for the Future Index (September 2017) by the Economist Intelligence Unit which assessed how well education systems prepare people aged 15-24 for the future.”

AI as a job skill
Predicting skills for future-proof careers is no easy task. A decade ago, few experts said that “data scientist” would be a hot job title in 2019. Tang is right: basic computer programming courses should be part of required curriculum in Hong Kong skills.

Or as Wickham puts it: “On jobs of the future, it's all about preparing for various possible scenarios rather than specific jobs.”

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