Taking the lead on digital and AI

Tom Gray, group CTO, Kainos, discusses the real dangers of ignoring the AI skills gap

From TED Talk speakers, to a futurologist’s keynote at an event, those who make predictions about the future usually live safe in the knowledge they won’t retrospectively be pulled up on forecasts that don’t come to pass. The picture is very different for those in government, who must ensure citizens and businesses are adequately prepared for challenges. Government predictions must convert to real-world planning that puts building blocks for future success and prosperity in place – it can’t be a ‘finger in the air’.

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Education is at the foundations of preparation. Governments and educators must identify trends early enough to update curriculums, develop the right courses, and equip people with skills that put us in a strong position to compete on the world stage. To do this, those setting policy and using public money need a solid body of evidence before they can ask for investment. Delays can cause real problems; when policy fails to keep pace with change, the education system falls short and skills gaps will widen. So how can educators and governments really know what the future holds and make the best decisions?

The need to address the skills gap

The CBI says two thirds of companies in the UK today can’t fill digital roles, costing the economy £63bn a year. This shortfall makes it difficult for the IT sector to lead from the front and create new technologies; at a broader level, businesses in industries from manufacturing to medicine lack the foundational digital skills they require. Closely linked is the AI ‘arms race’, which will soon determine the global economy’s winners and losers. Google predicts AI will become more important than fire and electricity, and while research shows more than nine in ten businesses view AI as a priority and have AI projects, more than half don’t have the skills available to make them happen.

If the UK cannot close the core digital skills gap, it will fail to rise to emerging digital and AI opportunities. We need to address this problem with urgency.

The UK is short on people who can contribute to the creation of AI-based solutions, and lacks people with the ability to implement AI in businesses. This includes building a case for investment, managing rollout, judging workforce impact, and knowing how to deploy employees in roles that make best use of human skills. There is strong economic demand and social opportunity, but if the UK cannot close the core digital skills gap, it will fail to rise to emerging digital and AI opportunities. We need to address this problem with urgency.

The government’s investment

The government is tasking higher education (HE) with plugging skills gaps, announcing an £18.5m investment in AI training and data science, with £13.5m to fund AI and data science master’s conversion courses to allow adults to retrain. An excellent start, but also a drop in the ocean compared to the strides taken in other countries, such as Finland’s ambitious programme to train its population in AI. Where the UK plans to develop 2,500 specialists, Finland has a clear drive to give everybody in the country a basic, but useful, appreciation of AI, with more than 170,000 students enrolled on Finland’s Elements of AI course, signalling a wider ambition that we should look to emulate.

Although a degree is often the minimum entry requirement for many UK jobs, policy makers must realise that HE isn’t the silver bullet when it comes to digital and AI skills. Today, universities are becoming the default vehicle for skills initiatives, such as the £40 million Institute of Coding programme. In practice, industry-led initiatives could provide better results; universities often develop programmes the wrong way around, creating courses before presenting to industry for input, rather than soliciting the industry’s ‘user need’ from the outset.

Universities often develop programmes the wrong way around, creating courses before presenting to industry for input, rather than soliciting the industry’s ‘user need’ from the outset.

Digital inclusion, not digital exclusion

Rather than reserving AI and digital skills for people at degree level and higher, we must ensure it is integrated into all levels of the education system. Everybody must have the opportunity to understand everything from a foundational awareness of the potential of digitisation, to how to create basic AI technology. Alarmingly, basic UK computer literacy education has declined in recent decades. Once we were world leaders, with innovations like the BBC Computer bringing basic programming to school children, now we are teaching people to consume, rather than build, technology – ie we’re teaching how to read, but not how to write.

This will have a wider impact on our economy and society – the next generation will not be prepared with the basic skills they need, making it difficult for them to participate in dialogue, communicate a point, or make an impact on the world. A lack of general knowledge about AI is particularly dangerous. The education system must produce citizens who are aware of how AI technology can be misused, so they can identify when they’re being misguided or manipulated. They also need to know how AI can add value to their personal and working lives, AI’s limitations, and how human skills can complement automation.

Educators must push for collaboration with government and business

Fortunately, the UK has a large body of industry knowledge and talent who are keen to help the next generation. To date, industry has been highly enthusiastic and engaged in education, but only on a company by company, and often school by school basis. While it may seem easier to deal with a specific school or class, the only way to reach every pupil is via a systemic intervention that ensures the entire education system can enjoy the benefits of working closely with industry.

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Educators can play an important part in making sure this happens, but only if they are given the opportunity to give policymakers and industry a better appreciation of the dynamics and constraints of the education system. As The Royal Society states, countless people have inspirational teachers to thank for setting them on the path to a great discovery or learning, and educators have it within their power to have this kind of effect when tackling the UK’s skills gap. However that can only happen if they are given the chance to engage on a cross-industry scale, working with bodies like the CBI that bring everyone together. If educators, business and government can work together to create a coherent national strategy, the UK will be positioned to effect meaningful systemic change around digital and AI skills. The cost of failing to do this is significant, and will seriously damage the prospects of the next generation.