Preparing for the AI era

Tellervo Kylä-Harakka-Ruonala,
Vice-President of the Employers’ Group,
European Economic and Social Committee

The rapid progress in digitalisation and AI is challenging countries and regions to ensure that they are equipped to succeed in the global race of meeting and shaping the future. Developing businesses and improving people’s skills and competencies play a key role in preparing for the AI era.

Investing in innovation, education and infrastructure lays the foundations for success in the AI era. While the public sector has a significant role to play in terms of investment, considerable private investment is needed to generate adequate progress in both the development and uptake of AI in several sectors – be it transport, health, finance or manufacturing.

As AI is primarily based on data, ensuring the quality, accessibility, interoperability and smooth flow of data is pivotal for development, together with proper data protection and cybersecurity. An efficient market for data is increasingly important, as it is closely linked to the markets in goods, capital and services.

Business ecosystems, comprised of companies of different sizes and from different sectors and different parts of value chains, are necessary for the development and uptake of AI. This also highlights the importance of cross-border partnerships and networks, as well as broad-based cooperation between businesses, the public sector and other stakeholders.

Enterprises are preparing for the AI era through innovation and business development, but they also need a favourable policy environment that helps them harness the potential of AI. It is not a matter of “picking winners” but rather identifying challenges to be tackled. The goal should be to create and maintain the right conditions – covering taxation, regulation and the allocation of public funding – to exploit the opportunities of and minimise the risks inherent in AI.

Competencies and skills play a significant role as enablers of innovation and AI-related business development. There is a demand not only for specific “AI skills” but also for the skills to apply AI in specific businesses. While mathematical, scientific and technical competencies are most important, it is also becoming increasingly necessary to be able to combine different fields of competencies.

In addition to high-level talent, the AI era calls for a broad base of educated and skilled people. We need common AI knowledge for everyone to capitalise fully on society’s overall potential and to keep everyone on board. This requires awareness, knowledge and understanding, as well as competencies and skills.

It seems that people are generally unaware of how AI can be useful, whereas there are many concerns regarding control over the machine. Awareness-raising is therefore needed about the opportunities presented by AI for society at large.

More knowledge and understanding of the nature and functioning of AI is also necessary to enhance people’s trust based on their own critical thinking. This applies to entrepreneurs, workers, consumers and policymakers. Trustworthiness and competitiveness are closely interlinked: trust can yield a competitive advantage for businesses, while only competitive businesses can provide society with trustworthy products and services.

In the short run, the development of skills is to a considerable extent driven by the skills mismatch identified in the labour market. In the long run however, it will be more and more difficult to anticipate future professions – or even every-day life – with any accuracy.

It is therefore important to invest in the competencies and skills that will always be useful: skills that provide added value over machines or skills that we need to retain. These include such basic skills as logical reasoning, critical thinking, creativity and interaction skills and, most importantly, the ability to learn.

The needs of the AI era must be considered in the formal education system at all levels, from primary schools to universities. However, it might be even more crucial to adjust the overall approach to learning and teaching. Upskilling, reskilling and life-long learning have been on the agenda for a long time but the AI era makes them even more important.

Besides being continuous, learning for the future must be seen to be centred on learners. This calls for “learning design” based on the needs of individuals. At the same time, supply and opportunities for learning must be developed accordingly. An essential part of this development is the fact that learning takes place more and more outside the formal education system – and not least in the context of work.

Fortunately, AI itself can be used in teaching and learning. It can assist in anticipating changes in education and training needs, as well as provide content and tools for learning. While creating new requirements, AI also assists us in preparing for the future.

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