The future has landed, it's time to embrace AI

Strategy

In 1983, I started in the technology industry, working with Burroughs for $9000 a year. That summer, I drove to work in the company car — a Datsun 200B — with all the windows down.

The year I turned 23 was to be technology’s turning point.

A fledgling company called Microsoft launched a typist’s dream called Word and the American Defence network ARPANET morphed into something called the Internet Protocol Suite. The World Wide Web was born.

Scientists were developing artificial intelligence, but in 1983 AI was as futuristic as a flying DeLorean.

Airborne cars are still a flight of fancy, but AI has landed.

This month, National Australia Bank announced 6000 jobs would be replaced by AI and robotic technologies. After years of talking about it, we are now at the inflexion point in Australia.

The threat of robots consuming jobs is fast becoming reality — and that’s just the start. Telstra is also replacing 1000 jobs with AI technology.

Big job cuts attract headlines. What’s sorely lacking is government policy to prepare Australia for an AI tsunami that, if left unchecked, will create an underclass of displaced workers.

Described as the “fourth industrial revolution”, AI is exponential: the longer the trend lasts, the faster it accelerates. Jobs losses from AI will multiply quicker than governments realise.

Companies, too, are lagging. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report describes the next few years as a critical transition. It says the fourth industrial revolution will demand workers adapt continuously and learn new skills.

The forum’s study of the world’s biggest employers found less than half of human resource managers were confident their organisation was prepared for the AI transition. That’s a scary scenario.

But AI is not just an issue for white-collar workers. Leading mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP have embraced robotics. Woodside Energy is using AI to make quantum leaps in scenario-planning.

In agriculture, aerial drones, robotic tractors and big data will transform crop planting and harvesting. Our farmers will deliver higher crop yields with fewer workers.

We cannot assume AI is an issue only for those at university.

In construction, Perth-based Fastbrick Robotics is developing the Hadrian X robot that builds the walls of an average-sized house in just two days.

Robots, of course, cannot do all jobs and I’m convinced that technology, over time, will create more jobs than it kills. But the adjustment will be ugly if governments do not act now.

Education is key. In Australia, 75 per cent of the highest-growth jobs require science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) skills. The State STEM Strategy panel is addressing the threats and opportunities presented by this change. The panel’s chairman, Professor Peter Klinken, says STEM fosters capabilities that are essential for the future: critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and rigorous evaluation.

Traditional approaches to education, curriculum design and delivery will have to change if we are to develop these skills in our students.

Greater investment in vocational education is also required. We cannot assume AI is an issue only for those at university. TAFE has a critical role to prepare workers in the trades and other vocations for AI.

In a move many corporates should follow, Rio Tinto is partnering with South Metropolitan TAFE and investing $2 million in the co-development of new courses in robotics, digital and analytics for the mines of the future.

Our universities, too, must extend AI teaching. Several deserve praise for launching data-analytics degrees. Others are expanding robotics and mechatronics majors and encouraging students to combine analytics with law, business and other degrees.

Still, it’s not enough to offer a raft of analytics degrees. Exposure to AI should be part of every course, as should core subjects in entrepreneurship and innovation.

If we do not embrace bolder thinking on the AI revolution, tens of thousands of West Australians will be left on the technology scrap heap.

John Barrington is founder of Barrington Consulting Group, Chairman Artes Global Ltd, Chair Perth International Arts Festival, Chairman Anglicare WA

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