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Artificial Intelligence-proof your career

LiveMint logoLiveMint 25-06-2017 Sonya Dutta Choudhury

Intelligent machines are taking over thousands of jobs, and being qualified is no longer enough to keep your job. Earlier this year, consulting firm McKinsey and Co. released a study that said 51% of all jobs could be automated in the next 20 years. Even specialized professions like medicine, law and banking are feeling the heat of Artificial Intelligence (AI). A few months ago, investment bank JP Morgan made the news by introducing intelligent machines to review financial deals that once kept employees busy for thousands of hours. Diagnostics and other decision-making skills previously thought of as the exclusive preserve of human beings, will soon be better handled by machines.

But Garry Kasparov has a different take on the issue. On 11 May 1997, Russian chess grandmaster Kasparov became the first world champion to be defeated by a machine. Yet in his new book Deep Thinking: Where Artificial Intelligence Ends And Human Creativity Begins, he is optimistic about the future of people with skills even as he concedes the inevitability of intelligent machines becoming more prominent. “The sensation of being challenged, surpassed and possibly replaced by automaton, or an invisible algorithm, is becoming a standard part of our society,” he writes. So while “smarter computers are one key to success, doing a smarter job of humans and machines working together is far more important”.

Is it possible to beat this threat of being displaced? There’s ample research and books on the subject, and here are some of the things they suggest you could do to robot-proof your career.

Build empathy 

Employers want people who are empathetic and collaborative, who can guide relationships and work in teams. Because empathy is something that even intelligent machines are incapable of. Recognizing the importance of this skill is Geoff Colvin in his book Humans Are Underrated : What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will. “The critical 21st century skill is empathy: we empathize to survive,” he says, pointing to the healthcare profession. So while machines may be superior with diagnostics, a patient still needs to have a conversation with an expert. An empathetic doctor can help the patient deal with his condition better and recover faster. This, in turn, leads to lower healthcare costs and fewer lawsuits, says Colvin.

Empathy is a skill that can be developed through learning how to study the thoughts and feelings of others, and then responding appropriately. This involves inviting people to speak about their worries and concerns, hearing them out and then reassuring them, says Colvin.

Be a good communicator

“A skill like communication is less easy to automate,” says Anu Madgavkar, partner with McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of McKinsey and Co., Mumbai. Intelligent machines cannot communicate the way human beings do. So people with better communication skills will be harder to replace with AI. The bigger message for professionals is that they should learn to communicate in a more compelling way, learn to work in teams, to excel at social interactions, says Madgavkar.

On 11 May 1997, Garry Kasparov (right) became the first world champion to be defeated by a machine, IBM’s Deep Blue computer. Photo: AFP

Become a lifelong learner

“Previously in history, even in the 20th century, life was divided into two main parts: in the first part, you mostly learned, acquired knowledge and skills, and built yourself a personal and a professional identity. In the second part, you mostly made use of those skills and those identities. The pace of change in the 21st century will be such that most of what you learn as a teenager will be completely irrelevant by the time you’re 40,” says Yuval Noah Harari, author of Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow, in a February interview with Time magazine, where he emphasized the necessity of life-long learning.

“The good news is that anytime, anywhere learning is a reality now. For instance, if you want to do a project on design thinking, you can go immediately to the massive open online courses at online platforms like edX and Coursera and do a course on it,” says Vijay Thadani, co-founder, NIIT.

Get those number skills

“Digital literacy should be taken as seriously as language literacy,” says Infosys chief executive Vishal Sikka, in an Infosys commissioned study on how to amplify human potential. “The most important academic subjects that decision-makers see as focus areas for future generations are computer sciences, business and management and mathematics,” says the study, which looked at the skills professionals need to acquire to integrate AI in a positive way into organizations and society.

Be constructive

Many perceive AI as a threat. Prominent among them are entrepreneur Elon Musk (“our biggest existential threat”) and scientist Stephen Hawking (“the development of full AI could spell the end of the human race”). From elevator operators to bank tellers and airplane pilots, history is full of examples of how technology has made jobs redundant.

But technology has also made life safer, easier and better. It’s better to accept AI as a part of development, and look at the avenues it opens up rather than see the situation as man versus machine, says Kasparov.

“Start to look at tasks hard to mechanize—anything that involves human creative energy, from photography and theatre, to baking, art, running, cooking classes, teaching—anything that’s not linear,” says Mumbai-based Gurprriet Siingh, senior client partner at consulting firm Korn Ferry Hay Group. He says skills like empathy, creativity, flexibility and the ability to communicate can never be automated, and so education today should emphasize development of those skills.

“Many of the most promising jobs today didn’t even exist 20 years ago,” says Kasparov, pointing to the demand for talent in new professions like app designers, 3D print engineers, drone pilots, social media managers and genetic counsellors. This is a trend that will accelerate as technology continues to create different professions .

Learn to work with machines 

The future of increased productivity and business success isn’t men or machines. It’s both, argue Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby in their book Only Humans Need Apply. Augment your skills, learn to work with machines, they say. The doctor who relies on diagnostic software, the lawyer who relies on research machines, the logistics manager who works with drones or the customer service manager who works with a chatbot, all of these professionals will be able to work better by complementing their human skills of empathy, of communication and creativity with machine intelligence. As the McKinsey report states, “Humans will still be needed in the workforce; the total productivity gains we estimate will only come if people work alongside machines.”

At wealth management firm ORO Wealth, for instance, the role of human portfolio advisers who work with intelligent machines is important. “Even though the investment recommendations are machine-based, we need humans beings to work alongside. Because only a human adviser can empathize, can sense hesitation or lack of enthusiasm for a particular investment on the clients part. In which case they will go back to the machine-based algorithm, which will recommend alternative products,” says Mumbai-based Vijay Kuppa, co-founder of ORO Wealth.

The skill and flexibility to work with a machine will help the workforce to become more productive. As Kasparov puts it, “Smart machines will free us all...taking over the more menial aspects of cognition and elevating our mental lives towards creativity, curiosity, beauty and joy. These are what truly make us human, not any particular activity or skill like swinging a hammer—or even playing chess.”

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