In the age of robots and AI, don’t forget about the soft skills

With the rapid advance of robotic technology and AI, experts are emphasizing the importance of “human” or “soft” skills, such as creativity and emotional intelligence, in the workplace of the future.

Which will matter more in the office of the future – humans or machines?

Artificial intelligence (AI) has arrived, and it’s changing the working environment at a dizzying speed. An international analysis of the potential long-term impact of automation published in 2018 by business consultants PwC, titled “Will robots really steal our jobs?”, found that 30% of jobs in finance and insurance in developed economies were at risk of automation by 2029. And in the same time frame, the report forecast that 50% of all clerical roles in those countries were at risk.

Furthermore, according to business research advisers Gartner, 25% of digital workers will be using an AI assistant in the next two years – think Alexa or Siri, but in the office.

While all this may sound like the machines are completely taking over, in fact it is becoming clear that, as AI advances, “soft” or “human” skills will become increasingly relevant.

“I believe we are at the cusp of a completely new era in business, which I call the Intelligence Revolution,” says Bernard Marr, the bestselling author of “Artificial Intelligence in Practice,” keynote speaker and strategic adviser to companies and governments.

“It will change the world more than anything else we have seen before, and has a massive impact on the kind of skills we will need in the future.”

Marr points to the growing importance of data literacy, and advises cultivating what he terms “general tech savviness,” by which he means having a basic understanding of other forms of technology, such as robotics, blockchain, the internet of things, and augmented reality.

But while we need to keep up our technical skills, he states, other attributes, such as our ability to think critically, are also crucial.

“In fact,” he says, “sometimes people almost overemphasize the importance of data literacy and technology savviness, and actually the skills that will really matter as we move forward are the softer skills.

“There’s a lot of misinformation and fake news floating around, so being able to think is vital. As individuals we also need to have adaptability and flexibility, as well as focusing on lifelong learning.” 

Marr also stresses the value of creativity and emotional intelligence. “In the future,” he says, “we will have to work alongside machines and AI, which means we need to possess the skills that those machines haven’t got. At the moment they haven’t got things like creativity, which is intrinsically human. As humans, we can imagine new worlds and dream up new ideas, and a better tomorrow. We also have emotional intelligence. Machines are making inroads really fast with this but, as humans, we are still much better at recognizing and controlling and expressing our emotions, and this is vitally important. And we have leadership skills – the ability to inspire and help others to become the best they can be.”

Better jobs in a transformed labor market

Like all the previous industrial revolutions, this one will eventually create new and better jobs, Marr argues.

“And hopefully jobs that are more suited for humans. We will be able to spend a bit more time thinking strategically, having interpersonal communication, focusing on emotional intelligence – all of these things that we are good at.

“In the short term there will be difficult transitions, some jobs will be augmented and certain job roles will disappear, but completely new jobs will be created. I believe that between 50% and 80% of the jobswe will have in 10 years’ time don’t exist yet.”

He’s not alone in his optimism. In their 2017 report on the international impact of automation, “Sizing the Prize,” PwC concluded that, despite widespread fears, the number of new jobs created due to the expansion of the economy as a result of automation would eventually be roughly equal to the number lost.

A year later, in 2018, they noted that, despite the expected disappearance of clerical jobs, “we do not believe, contrary to some predictions, that automation will lead to mass technological unemployment by the 2030s any more than it has done in the decades since the digital revolution began.”

Education to nurture our distinctly human skills

All of which means we need to look ahead in terms of our children, too. They will need very different skills than the traditional ones we relied on. Alibaba founder Jack Ma made some salient observations in his speech at the 2019 World Economic Forum at Davos.

“If we do not change the way we teach, in 30 years we’ll be in trouble,” Ma noted. “We teach our kids things from the past 200 years, it’s knowledge-based, and we cannot teach our kids to compete with machines, who’ll be smarter.

“We have to teach our kids something unique,” he continued, “so that a machine can never catch up with us: values, believing, independent thinking, teamwork, care for others – the soft skills – sports, music, painting, arts, to make sure humans are different from machines.”

So, how can we ensure our children’s education is designed to help them not just cope with this new AI future, but thrive?

As the father of three school-going children, and a governor of their school, Marr is very aware of this issue.

“We need to make schools really exciting places of exploration, where children can experiment and learn, and learn to have a passion for and understanding of lifelong learning,” he says.

“And we must give greater emphasis to working with each other – collaborating, interpersonal communication, creativity – and being able to coordinate our world with others and with machines. All these are absolutely vital.”

So, machines or humans? The answer, it seems, is both. But even in a high-tech future, where constant change is the norm, and robots roam free, being human may still be the most important thing. —  Cathy Dillon

Published: January 2020


Image: Andrea de Santis for Delivered.