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Will a robot take my job?

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Recent research has found that AI has the potential to double the growth rate of the South African economy. Even though this is great news, it is worrying for many employees as they begin to wonder if they will be replaced by a robot, says ROB JARDINE, Head, Research and Solutions at the NeuroLeadership Institute South Africa.

Last year, research by Accenture and the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) posited that artificial intelligence (AI) had the potential to double the growth rate of the South African economy and boost rates of profitability by an average of 38 percent by 2035. This is great news for South African businesses of course, but an AI-dominated landscape brings with it multiple ethical and social issues, including the problem of a labour force that feels redundant and whose skills may be no longer needed.

AI will undoubtedly change the world of work, just as the Industrial Revolution did in the 1700s and 1800s. Certain jobs will become obsolete, as intelligent machines will be able to complete tasks quicker and more accurately than humans. New roles will also be created – jobs that we haven’t even thought about yet. AI will be the biggest disruptor the business world has seen in over two centuries. It is little wonder, then, that people are already starting to get jittery about the possibility of being replaced by, or working with, a robot in the near future.

Why we see AI as a threat

Neuroscience, which focuses on how the brain works, has some valuable insights into precisely why AI is perceived as such a threat by the workforce. As social animals, our desire to be part of a herd – in this case a company – is hardwired into our brains, an evolutionary remnant of when physical survival depended on safety in numbers. Any sense of social exclusion, therefore, is felt as a danger to our very existence, and our brain is consequently sensitive to this trigger in our social environments.

Feeling excluded is one of the five social triggers that is interpreted by the brain as a result of its central organising principal: to minimize danger and maximise reward. These triggers can put our brains into a threat or reward state that has an effect on our capacity to solve problems, make decisions and collaborate. AI is particularly threatening because it can be triggered by all five areas of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness (SCARF ®).

AI threatens an employee’s Status, as their value in the workplace and as a productive member of society comes into question. Certainty is no longer guaranteed, as the future is unpredictable and employees wonder whether they will even have a job in the next five years. With AI encroaching on the workplace, employees feel as though they are losing their Autonomy because they cease to feel in control and think that they may not have options. Their Relatedness is threatened as they believe that they don’t belong anymore and are not sure which group they may belong to in the future. Finally, a sense of Fairness is triggered in employees as they feel as though they may not be treated equally.

One of the worst effects of being in a threatened state is that people are not open to change because the brain has less access to long-term memory and its capacity to think rationally and make decisions is reduced. This is because the brain is in a flight-or-flight survival mode, and so does not prioritise these actions. People are consequently also unable to see AI as something that could allow them the space to be more innovative, explore a new career, or give them more free time.

This brain state also affects the control of self-defeating behaviour; for example, an employee in a threatened state could stop being collaborative with their colleagues, procrastinate in their work, and have lower capacity to solve problems. None of this behaviour is conducive to doing business or ensuring a productive workforce.

Cultivating a growth mindset in employees

As AI becomes more of a permanent fixture in companies, employers should start focusing on fostering a growth mindset in their employees, so that they welcome the change that AI will bring, rather than fearing it. This mindset, pioneered by the work of Dr Carol Dweck, is based on whether employees believe that their abilities are finite or if they can be developed. If they do believe that their ability can be developed, then they will be inspired by the change and look forward to it as an opportunity to grow.

We must also remember that, with the dawn of the age of AI, human qualities become far more valuable. AI machines cannot truly collaborate and adjust their behaviour in relation to others’ actions. They do not have the same degree of social intelligence, and cannot become leaders. AI machines also lack business acumen and are unable to transfer their ‘skills’ from one industry to another. All these qualities, even in the age of AI, will still be a vital aspect of ensuring a prosperous society and thriving economy.

Entrepreneurship provides a solution

It is undeniable, however, that many South African’s jobs will become obsolete or change as AI becomes more of a permanent fixture in the workplace. The significant portion of SA’s workforce that is unskilled or semi-skilled will most likely be the first to be replaced by machines that will be able to do the work more efficiently. This will place pressure on individuals to change how they approach work and possibly to seek work in other sectors. However, this is no different to how jobs have evolved in the past. The introduction of more efficient farming technology a few centuries ago, for example, meant fewer people were needed to farm the land and so more workers were able to take up roles in other industries where there were labour shortages.

But with every door that AI closes to the workforce, another one opens – in this case, entrepreneurship. AI will make entrepreneurship an even more sought-after skill in the SA economy, as it focuses on innovation, provides employment opportunities, and has significant social impact. Entrepreneurship also gives individuals a sense of belonging, as being productive members of society provides Status, Certainty, Autonomy, and a sense of Relatedness and Fairness. People are able to elevate their level of contribution, they have more certainty and autonomy in their own work in an entrepreneurial setting, and can develop a more individualised sense of belonging by being able to gain as much as they contribute. This sense of belonging means that people are performing at their best, as they do not feel threatened by a change that may seem out of their control.

Of course, in order to retain employees, it is not feasible to ask them to set up their own shops. However, as employers, we can look at the ways that we define and integrate current employment when the machines join us in the workforce. By allowing employees more autonomy and control in the way they do and view their work, we can put them in a better brain state, as it plays to their social drivers. In most industries where the impact of machines will become more prominent, this is already being done in the advancement of the gig economy.

In conclusion, then, AI is definitely set to change our workforce in the next few decades, but not all these changes will be threatening. It is up to employers to ensure that their employees realise this by playing to the social domains that trigger the brain, so that every individual can continue to perform optimally, learn new skills, and work towards their future roles in stimulating our economy. If we are able to do this, we will ensure our brains will be at their best to face and embrace this change.

In a world that is becoming more mechanistic, it is our ability to be aware of our social surroundings that both sets us apart, and allows us to never fear a robot taking our job.

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UN calls for electronics overhaul to beat e-waste

Seven UN entities have come together at the World Economic Forum to tackle the escalating scourge of electronic waste.

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Seven UN entities have come together, supported by the World Economic Forum, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) to call for an overhaul of the current electronics system, with the aim of supporting international efforts to address e-waste challenges. 

The report calls for a systematic collaboration with major brands, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), academia, trade unions, civil society and associations in a deliberative process to reorient the system and reduce the waste of resources each year with a value greater than the GDP of most countries. 

Each year, approximately 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) are discarded — the weight of more than all commercial airliners ever made. In terms of material value, this is worth 62.5 billion dollars– more than the GDP of most countries.  

Less than 20% of this is recycled formally. Informally, millions of people worldwide (over 600,000 in China alone) work to dispose of e-waste, much of it done in working conditions harmful to both health and the environment. 

The report, “A New Circular Vision for Electronics – Time for a Global Reboot,” launched in Davos 24 January, says technologies such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT), support gradual “dematerialization” of the electronics industry.  

Meanwhile, to capture the global value of materials in the e-waste and create global circular value chains, the report also points to the use of new technology to create service business models, better product tracking and manufacturer or retailer take-back programs.  

The report notes that material efficiency, recycling infrastructure and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials to meet the needs of electronics supply chains will all be essential for future production.  

And if the electronics sector is supported with the right policy mix and managed in the right way, it could lead to the creation of millions of decent jobs worldwide. 

The joint report calls for collaboration with multinationals, SMEs, entrepreneurs, academia, trade unions, civil society and associations to create a circular economy for electronics where waste is designed out, the environmental impact is reduced and decent work is created for millions. 

The new report supports the work of the E-waste Coalition, which includes: 

  • International Labour Organization (ILO); 
  • International Telecommunication Union (ITU); 
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment); 
  • United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO); 
  • United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR); 
  • United Nations University (UNU), and 
  • Secretariats of the Basel and Stockholm Conventions (BRS). 

The Coalition is supported by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the World Economic Forum and coordinated by the Secretariat of the Environment Management Group (EMG).  

Considerable work is being done on the ground. For example, in order to grasp the opportunity of the circular economy, today the Nigerian Government, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UN Environment announce a 2 million dollar investment to kick off the formal e-waste recycling industry in Nigeria. The new investment will leverage over 13 million dollars in additional financing from the private sector.   

According to the International Labour Organization, in Nigeria up 100,000 people work in the informal e-waste sector. This investment will help to create a system which formalizes these workers, giving them safe and decent employment while capturing the latent value in Nigeria’s 500,000 tonnes of e-waste. 

UNIDO collaborates with a large number of organizations on e-waste projects, including UNU, ILO, ITU, and WHO, as well as various other partners, such as Dell and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). In the Latin American and Caribbean region, a UNIDO e-waste project, co-funded by GEF, seeks to support sustainable economic and social growth in 13 countries. From upgrading e-waste recycling facilities, to helping to establish national e-waste management strategies, the initiative adopts a circular economy approach, whilst enhancing regional cooperation. 

Another Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) report launched today by the World Economic Forum, with support from Accenture Strategy, outlines a future in which Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies provide a tool to achieve a circular economy efficiently and effectively, and where all physical materials are accompanied by a digital dataset (like a passport or fingerprint for materials), creating an ‘internet of materials.’ PACE is a collaboration mechanism and project accelerator hosted by the World Economic Forum which brings together 50 leaders from business, government and international organizations to collaborate in moving towards the circular economy. 

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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