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From the invention of the printing press and the steam engine to the birth of the internet, we have countless examples of how technology can reshape our lives. And now another ground-breaking innovation has arrived – and its impact could be greater than anything we’ve seen before. This is, of course, artificial intelligence.
As questions arise around the use of AI, bridging the AI skills gap becomes more important. Governments are betting big on AI for future economic growth and prosperity, with Rishi Sunak recently announcing his ambitious plan for the UK to become the centre of AI regulation internationally. If we are to realise that ambition, businesses should be armed with the knowledge to use AI safely and to the best of its ability.
The framework for AI success
We are at a very sensitive point on AI’s growth curve. Forging ahead with its deployment without an adequately prepared workforce could stifle its potential and limit what business – and therefore society – can achieve with it. At the same time, it could have a huge impact on people’s jobs and ignoring the shortfall in digital skills might derail the UK’s ambition to become the frontrunner in AI innovation.
We need a framework to guard against these risks and free the UK’s excellent universities, research institutions and tech start-ups to grasp the opportunities in play. Such a framework involves regulation, of course, but also training, reskilling and early AI education to prepare current and future generations to live with and use the technology as it becomes more ubiquitous. Thankfully, universities across the UK have already begun to do this, drawing up a set of guiding principles to ensure that students and staff are AI literate. Important initiatives are also emerging from industry, as with the global group of AI experts which published a voluntary framework for developing AI products safely, including 84 questions for developers to consider at the start of an AI project.
More, however, must be done.
To start with, there needs to be broader social education work done to familiarise people with what AI is. We certainly don’t need everyone to achieve a high level of technical understanding, but we should teach people to understand key concepts that underpin AI, such as probability and risk. If the public is also clued up on what AI can and can’t do – and the different types of AI – then the workforce will be more comfortable and informed when working alongside the tech in their day-to-day. Similarly, business leaders will be better placed to implement the right technologies for their business when they come to the process of choosing solutions.
Within that broad knowledge base creation, the need to re-skill workers is even more urgent. Training must be provided to employees already working in technical fields, especially those within software development, data science and engineering. Employers
must look to provide upskilling and development opportunities which instil a culture of continuous learning and equips employees to adapt to the rapid advance of AI and other technologies.
Companies can also partner with universities and research institutions to set up AI innovation labs. Doing so would not only allow the UK to drive AI innovation but would also enable businesses to tap into emerging talent and provide specialised training early in the careers of those going into AI-driven fields.
We should also make a concerted effort to encourage underrepresented groups into STEM. This will not only bolster technological innovation, but it will also address the current AI talent shortage. And this work can start at a grass-roots level, with increased investment into basic digital skills programmes and venues, such as libraries, that provide access to technology. Basic accessibility to tech needs to be improved if we are to encourage more people from a young age into STEM and engage untapped pools of talent.
A paradigmatic leap forward
While it can be hard to parse much of the debate swirling around AI right now, its potential can’t really be overstated. Just as the internet changed the way we live, work, and see the world, AI can be a real leap forward for humanity.
But if it is to be so, closing the AI skills gap and broadening public knowledge is critical. The UK is well positioned for this, with its world-leading universities and highly innovative tech sector, and it can take a leadership role in preparing the world’s workforces for what comes next. Training, reskilling, education, regulation and incentivisation are all part of that.
We’ve come a long way since the invention of the printing press. It’s exciting to be around for another step change in how the world works