What Keeps Humanity Relevant in AI's World? Lifelong Learning
Before moving to Canada 15 years ago, I worked for the fantastic educational establishment that is the Open University in the UK, from which I also received my BSc in Computer Science and my MBA. The OU today still offers a hefty catalog of free online digital and computing courses.
So what does this have to do with the continual media hype of AI? I’m sure if you’re a radiologist or a lawyer or the like, you’re probably fed up with computer scientists and pundits telling you that your profession is dead and you are going to be replaced by Watson for reading X-rays or ChatGPT for writing legal opinions or whatever — and that it’s probably going to happen by the end of next month, or maybe within a decade, depending on who’s talking. As with any complex issue, it’s really not that simple; there is considerable nuance at play.
So despite the hype, there is a lot we can do to keep the Terminators at bay! No, seriously though — the application of AI is real, and there are many areas where natural language processing (NLP), machine vision (MV), large language models (LLM), machine learning (ML) and deep learning are already adding considerable business value, even before considering the latest OpenAI GPT4, ChatGPT, Google Bard and other offerings. But even as these are brought to bear, we have the advantage: we can continuously update our skills. We also have to acknowledge that we have not yet developed an Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) that is fully able to replace humans — and once again, depending on who you read, that remains a very long way off, or is simply never going to happen at all unless we come up with wholly new parallel processing technologies.
AI as it exists today can be “trained” to complete specific tasks, can “learn” from its errors and can adapt its approach to creating outputs — but not in the same way that people do. Still, specialist algorithms and processing techniques can process information at great scale, automating business processes — or at least elements of them — so they become more efficient than if they were completely manual, relying on human input. All right, then, AI is cool — but what does this have to do with lifelong learning?
Resilience Through Learning and Development
An organization can improve its resilience by providing learning and development opportunities for its employees and ensuring they are engaged in continuously updating their professional skills. Obviously, this holds for us as individuals, too: We can improve our value to our existing employer by ensuring we periodically update our knowledge and skills. Organizational resilience can take different forms; training people as fire wardens, first aiders or for other “noncore” tasks can be considered a part of this, as is training all employees to a certain level in cybersecurity. Of course, in regulated industries there might be a further list of skills that the regulator requires workers to keep fresh, such as SEC rules or anti-money laundering training. Although, generally speaking, people like to gain new knowledge and experience in their primary domain of expertise, no one is suggesting that the annual anti-money laundering training course is going to do wonders for employee engagement and retention!
There are many good reasons to support employees by providing additional opportunities for advancing their knowledge and skills. It’s proven to have a positive effect on both engagement and retention — but it’s good for the business too, and recent developments in technology bring us back full circle to the AI discussion.
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Internal AI teams need more data analysts and data scientists. Recruiting fresh graduates straight from universities cannot keep up with demand, and so upskilling and retraining existing talent helps both individuals and businesses. Automating large scale processes with robotic process automation (RPA) technologies can free up people from the “grunt work” they would have done as part of these process, but that is a good thing, because RPA is susceptible to “garbage in, garbage out” considerations, so freeing up people and developing their skills to do the upfront analysis work should improve data quality and prevent garbage being fed into the automated process.
Similarly, the citizen developer movement and the use of no code / low code tools attempt to address the known shortage of trained IT professionals. Such tools can be used to build specific business applications that access and use AI capabilities. So again, investing in the education and upskilling of employees can improve an organization’s resilience, continuing to develop focused business applications of the latest AI technologies while keeping employees engaged and improving retention of happy people.
AI is cool — overhyped, but cool nonetheless — and absolutely showing its business value on a day-to-day basis. Applying AI and RPA tools to automate business processes can actually free up employees to work on more meaningful tasks. Investing in educating and upskilling these employees can help keep them happy, and help you retain their talents — and that retention is critical, as there are just not enough trained and experienced IT people out there.
To make the most of AI, RPA and no code / low code solutions we still need people who are able to engage with these new technologies and capabilities. A similar situation exists with business specialists, too — so whether your employee is an experienced IT specialist or business specialist, if you can hang on to them and help them gain the necessary new skills, they will be worth their weight in gold when it comes to ensuring the resilience of your organization and its ability to absorb unforeseen changes (like, say, a sudden global pandemic). It might be a bit of an old cliché, but people really are our greatest and most important asset.
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About the Author
Jed Cawthorne is principal evangelist at Shinydocs, focusing on spreading the message of the benefits of good data and information management. Jed has over 20 years experience in information and knowledge management, and over 25 years in IT. Connect with Jed Cawthorne: