042 – Navigating the Future: Work and Skills in an AI-Influenced World

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
042 – Navigating the Future: Work and Skills in an AI-Influenced World


In this episode, Dr Lily Clements and David Stern discuss the evolving landscape of skills for a world shaped by AI. They delve into the transformation of different job roles and the education system, proposing a future where critique, creativity, and human connection become increasingly important. This conversation highlights the supportive role of AI – aiming to enhance rather than replace human capabilities – and the vibrant future of jobs centred around adding value to our lives and society.

[00:00:00] Lily: Hello and welcome to the IDEMS responsible AI podcast, our special series of the IDEMS podcast. I’m Lily Clements, a data scientist, and I’m here with David Stern, a founding director of IDEMS.

Hi, David.

[00:00:17] David: Hi, Lily. I’m looking forward to a discussion today. What’s it on?

[00:00:21] Lily: I thought today we could talk about the skills needed, well, I guess it’s a two part question. Number one is given that AI’s becoming a lot more involved in the world, and we’ve spoken in previous podcasts about the transformation of jobs that we’ll see and we spoke a little bit about the education system as well. So, given these transformations, it feels like we need a new set of skills. We spoke before I think in our education podcast, we spoke about how actually you’re not going to be assessed on your ability to write anymore, but instead, you should be assessed on your critiquing.

[00:01:04] David: It’s not necessarily you’re not going to be assessed on your ability to write, you know, if you’re going to write, you may well be using AI to do a first draft or to correct your writing and improve it or change the tone and this sort of thing. So the fact that AI as a tool can really support writing in all sorts of different ways means that it’s not necessarily as it was in the past, the ability to produce a document. That is a skill which, you know, you’d very rarely need to start with a blank sheet of paper anymore.

[00:01:38] Lily: Which I think is a good thing, and I’m sure you do too, as someone who is fairly dyslexic and work a lot better with…

[00:01:45] David: Well, as you know, I’m not very good with a blank piece of paper. But if you stick a draft in front of me, I can be really hypercritical and actually make it better. And that’s the skill which I hope is one which is going to be important. This ability to add value is one where I think, actually, that’s a really positive element. I hope that the skills that we’re going to need in the future are going to be the added value skills. And this is really exciting.

[00:02:19] Lily: So, well, my second part of the question was going to be, do I mean needed? I pondered over this. Do we mean needed? Maybe it’s developed.

[00:02:26] David: That’s exactly the point. Some people like to talk about the utopian futures where work will no longer be needed. And, you know, that would be an amazing achievement for us as a human society that people don’t need to work. Wow, what a pinnacle of society that would be. But that doesn’t mean people wouldn’t want to work.

[00:02:50] Lily: I was going to say, I don’t know what I’d do.

[00:02:52] David: It’s not just you, as you well know, my, my father is slightly past retirement age, and he doesn’t need to work.

[00:02:59] Lily: He’s retired before and then decided. I believe he’s retired before and then come back.

[00:03:06] David: Well, he sort of officially retired, but he never stopped working because the work that he does adds value to his life, and he adds value to the work. And it’s that element of actually going beyond need towards actually added value. I love the term added value. If the jobs of the future aren’t about what we need, but they are about added value, then that’s fantastic.

Let me give a really simple example.

[00:03:39] Lily: Sure.

[00:03:40] David: The theatre. In the past, historically, the theatre was sort of needed as a way to communicate storytelling in different ways to an audience. Quite a long time ago now, the idea of the movies came up and you don’t need the theatre because you can have storytelling in a film. You can have the same ability, and in fact you have extra things which you can do, which you couldn’t do in the theatre, which are possible in a movie. But that doesn’t mean that theatres shouldn’t exist, and it certainly hasn’t made them any less successful now. Theatres are extremely successful, and they remain extremely successful, not because they’re needed, but because they’re added value.

[00:04:35] Lily: Sure, okay, so you feel, even, maybe I’m going a bit too bold with this now, but even as, AI starts to transform things and we don’t need things as much like the theatre, well, we don’t know where things are gonna go, but actually we would still want that.

So, for example, I guess, maybe you disagree to this. No, you will.

[00:05:01] David: I’m happy to disagree.

[00:05:02] Lily: No, I know you’ll disagree because I already disagree. But, let’s say, there’s talk about having personal tutors. So we may not technically need teachers in the future, but we still want them.

[00:05:11] David: Absolutely.

[00:05:13] Lily: I feel maybe we don’t need them as well anyway.

[00:05:16] David: No, I think this is a really important point. The point is there’s already a lot of people who are homeschooled. So homeschooled people don’t have teachers in the same way. This isn’t big in the UK, but there are people, but in Canada, this is huge, homeschooling is huge. And it’s a wonderful thing. So imagine that if you think about the role that school plays, you don’t need to go to school. You can be home tutored as long as you go through and you do the work.

Imagine that actually going to school was all about the added value. Now, think about this for a second. For one, there’s all sorts of complications that spring to mind for this from a societal perspective. But, think about the fact that if you had your situation where your school was really considered added value for various different reasons and your teacher interaction wasn’t needed but was added value, I think teachers would enjoy that.

Imagine that you could as a teacher not worry about all the admin because that’s going to happen whether they come to school or not. Even spending time in the classroom or whatever it is, attendance, that’s okay, that’s all automated. You just need to put your efforts into the added stimulation and there’s already stimulation for them. So maybe you’re guiding them, you’re interacting with them. You’re giving them humanity. That’s your role as a teacher. Wow.

Now, I think we’re a long way away from imagining an education system where schooling isn’t needed. But yes, I absolutely agree. The idea that, to get an education you need school is a concept which we’ve built. But imagine we get to a future where that education can be achieved in many different ways.

One of our principles is options by context, and so homeschooling becomes a richer option. You can have small group schools, there could be other things. I don’t think the desire for schools will go down. On the contrary, I think schools will become a better and better place to be because the people who are there are there because it adds value, not because it’s needed.

And that is an incredible thought. And generally the skills, being skills of adding value, if your role as a teacher is just to add value, I bet you any teacher I know would be saying, wow, I’d love that. I hate it that I have to spend so much time on all these other things and I don’t get to spend enough time actually interacting with my students, adding value.

That’s what they want to do. That’s what motivates you to be a teacher. And that’s what, in terms of human interactions, that’s what’s so pleasurable in many ways. And teachers would get up in the morning and want to go to work because that’s what their role is.

[00:08:20] Lily: It reminds me of someone who I know who is a maths teacher, but she has no training in maths at all. She’s actually got a background in psychology and she’s a maths teacher to the lower sets. And she says it’s much more about psychology at that level than it is about maths, cause it’s about giving people that motivation.

[00:08:38] David: And imagine that that was her role, rather than her role to be, you know, actually also making people turn up, and so on, marking their work. All of those things are things which AI, not just AI as we currently have it, but the idea of AI in the future, could take on and could ease our work in ways that we as humans could focus on the added value.

I believe theatre is something where if you think about it as added value, I would love to see the fact that actually we could see small theatres growing all over the country, all over the world, because people actually have the time and the resource and the ability to prioritize that. That would be a fantastic outcome, if that was the outcome that happened. And a big part of that relates to the fact, it isn’t about AI. It is about what we have in terms of an economic system to stimulate jobs that people want to do.

And I think it’s a really interesting indicator. I wonder whether anyone’s done an analysis, if there’s any people interested in academia, who want to go out and do a study. I wonder about the number of local theatres as an indicator for societal progression. I know in the UK, there’s been a tendency for local theatres to shut recently. So I would argue that that maybe, if the hypothesis is correct, that means that actually as a society, we’re more stressed, we’re more stretched, we have other things taking our time, and so we’re not appreciating that coming together around a common experience, which is a very human experience.

And that could be seen as being, well, this is the internet shutting them down. But the simple truth is, people love the theatre, and if you can afford it, it is an experience that is enjoyed, and it is different from consuming things on your device, and so on. And so this idea of actually, I wonder whether there are places in the world where local theatres are sort of growing at this point in time. And I wonder whether that would be an interesting societal indicator. Because if you had more time, if you had the resources to be able to afford it, I think the theatre is an example of something where whatever else you have, going to the theatre is an experience that people would value.

Now, I have to confess, I’ve not been to the theatre in years. I’d love to, but you know, I’ve not had the time, the energy, the ability to prioritise that. It’s not that I’m really advocating for the theatre, but what I’m wanting to use is this as an example of this added value skills in the future.

I’ll take one more example of added value. Okay, the high street is dying. It’s a common thing you hear all over. And it’s dying, and this is very sad in all sorts of different ways. And one of the reasons it’s dying is because of internet shopping. If you want something, if you need something, you no longer go to the high street to get it. You’re generally going to go online.

Now, think about all the sales jobs and so on which are being lost because of that. Now, let’s imagine an alternative future of added value. A good salesman in the past, historically, actually got to know you, might have known you as a consumer and might have helped you with your decision-making. It might have become a personal relationship, where you went to a particular salesperson because they got to know you, they helped you to get the right things for you.

Imagine that future now, where actually you don’t need to go to the high street, but somehow the high street is set up as a way to give you those personal interactions, which give you added value. You don’t need to go there to get what you need, but you choose to go there because you get that personalised experience. Maybe you have people who you know, so this idea of that skill then which would come in. I don’t know what that skill, I’ve never had a shop assistant who’s ever really been able to be that useful to me in that way, and certainly not in some way that I know in that way.

But imagine a future where actually that’s the choices that people decide to make and the jobs that that would create. Wow, what a sales job that would be to get to know your customers, to go with them through life and to have those personal relationships and to nurture them. I wonder what that scenario and what that future could look like. The key point is these are positive jobs. These are jobs that people would want to do and they’re jobs you don’t need to do, but you are adding value.

And that’s what it all comes down to. And the key point to this added value is, well, of course it needs to be paid for. So you need to have people who have the ability to make the choices which create these jobs.

So a lot of this comes back down to, it’s not really about the AI itself, a lot of the things we’re talking about have nothing to do with real AI. Yes, you could replace these jobs by AI. And maybe when you replace them by AI, the consumer gets a better experience. But if the consumer’s getting a better experience through the AI, that’s because I think there’s always going to be an opportunity for somebody to say, well, I can add value. I can use what the AI can do and I can learn how to interpret it better and give you it in a way which will add value.

I believe in this ability to be able to gain skills, which actually enrich the human experience; added value. And I believe whatever jobs are lost because of AI, you can reimagine jobs that would add value to consumers based on that. And the big question to me is not really so much about whether those jobs could exist. It’s whether our economic systems are going to enable or exclude such jobs. Because I don’t currently know how such jobs could exist well within our economic systems. Our economic systems are about maximising profit away from that middle layer.

[00:15:42] Lily: Sure.

[00:15:43] David: And I think what we need to rethink in some ways is, well, what are the sort of ways where digital interventions in all areas of life could be enabling that middle human interlayer to add value.

That’s what I think we need to be looking at. And I’m not alone to be thinking about this. I know people who are thinking about this in other contexts, in other ways.

[00:16:08] Lily: Well, the discussion has taken such an interesting turn though, because we started at what skills do we need? Then, okay, no, are we going to develop or want? And then we went into, well, it depends how the jobs change because of AI. And actually, this discussion has gone a lot more in depth. Of course, I’m never going to get a checkbox list from you. Yeah, we’re going to need less writing, we’re going to need more critique, you know, it’s never going to be that simple.

[00:16:33] David: But it’s very simple. There’s only one thing to checkbox. The skills you’re going to need are going to be added value skills.

[00:16:40] Lily: Yes, great. So the skills about that human element, of interacting of not having to do those, I mean, I call them now robotic tasks. I wonder if we would have called them robotic tasks before but you know those monotonous tasks, I suppose, of admin checking things over. We can have AI take a bit more responsibility for that.

[00:17:03] David: Absolutely. And I think one of the simple questions, and this is really appealing to me, but it’s not clear that it’s the route that will happen. You know, there’s a real possibility that through AI, we maximise away the need for jobs, and that leaves us with a really dystopian future, where there are a few people who have jobs which are really well paid, based on controlling what everybody else has access to and does and how they satisfy their needs.

And that’s an optimal, in many ways, society. You know, it’s one extreme where you actually have removed the need for many of these jobs and therefore, a lot of them disappear, and therefore a lot of people don’t have jobs. That’s absolutely possible.

[00:18:00] Lily: Scarier.

[00:18:00] David: And the jobs that do exist in that dystopian future, these are your jobs, which I’m afraid there was the scandal around Facebook on creating these jobs in Kenya where somebody has to code up the illegal content so that the AI algorithm can identify it. You know, that’s not a great job.

[00:18:26] Lily: No, no, we need someone that can look at that human point of knowing this isn’t something that we want to be.

[00:18:36] David: Yes, coding up, actually the AI might identify this as something that they think is a problem and then somebody confirms, yes, you cannot share this, this has to be, whatever it is. We’ve given some examples of that in the past, but the one that always sticks in my mind is this Kenyan employee, who said the first thing that they had to watch was a video of somebody committing suicide while their toddler was playing at their feet as the toddler sort of reacted to this as well, just horrific. And, you know, just imagine that’s your job to watch horrific things and confirm to the AI, yes, this is horrific, this cannot be uploaded, this, this needs to be moderated.

[00:19:25] Lily: And there the skill that you need is quite different to that human, or added value. I mean, obviously still adding value by…

[00:19:39] David: Well, exactly. And this isn’t about adding value. This is just the, the nuts and bolts of making it work. I mean, AI systems are very human intensive.

[00:19:50] Lily: We have our dystopian future of the added value jobs and then the nuts and bolts jobs of…

[00:19:57] David: Sorry, the utopian future is we focus on the added value jobs and the dystopian future is you just have your two tier society, your nuts and bolts actually behind the scenes making things work so that other people can not worry about them and AI just deals with it.

[00:20:19] Lily: You’re an eternal optimist, though, as you’ve said many times.

[00:20:23] David: I am.

[00:20:26] Lily: And I think that things going down the route of the… There’s lots of different kind of future possibilities for us. And it will be very interesting to see what way things go, I suppose.

[00:20:43] David: Well, I suppose, to me, as the eternal optimist, a lot of this does come back to your original question. What are the skills we need in the future?

If you look at that dystopian future, we don’t need many skills. The whole point of that dystopian future is that it’s a future in which actually most of the jobs are menial jobs, which you don’t need many skills for. And the people who are on the lucky end of that dystopian future don’t need to have skills because the AI does most of it for them. So, in that particular context, in that particular scenario, I don’t believe we need many skills. There will be some high level jobs with high level skills, but you’re talking about such a minority of the population, is it to be negligible? And I guess as mathematicians, I would argue we are extremely fortunate to be well placed for that, and almost certainly we will be able to think our way through to those, to the positive side of that. These are skills which, if you are in that dystopian future I have to say, are skills in logic, in mathematics, in data, are likely to be putting us in good stead. But that, from a society perspective, isn’t viable.

[00:22:09] Lily: Sorry, but you like to think of the role and what we do at IDEMS, and I’m sorry to bring it out this way, but as supporting.

[00:22:16] David: Absolutely. So, again, mathematical skills are not positive or negative in this. I would absolutely argue that the financial crash of 2007, 2008 is almost entirely caused by mathematicians. Basically, they started employing maths PhDs in the financial institutions quite a bit before that, and the mathematicians just had fun behind the scenes, sort of optimising the problems, sort of making things happen faster and better in the background, until eventually the system crashed and the real world caught up with them.

You know, mathematical skills are not positive or negative in this. We have skills which are valued and in demand on both ends of the spectrum and can help towards either of these two futures. And if you want to make sure you’re likely to be on the right end of wherever you find your society in the future, of course the mathematical skills are going to stand you in good stead.

But the whole point is, and what makes IDEMS maybe different, certainly not unique, but different from mainstream on this, is that we don’t value the mathematical skills above the human skills. Actually, that future, that utopian future I envisage is one where, you notice I didn’t really talk about the mathematical skills, I talked about interpersonal, human skills.

[00:23:39] Lily: Yeah, no, absolutely.

[00:23:41] David: And this is something where as a mathematician these didn’t come naturally to me. This isn’t where I see myself as particularly strong. I like going to the theatre partly because I can’t possibly imagine how people can do that. This is so alien to me. They have skills that I can’t comprehend.

And so, actually, this idea that instead of, as mathematicians, of optimizing what comes to us, we try to optimize the benefit for society. A lot of that is about recognizing and valuing these human skills, these interpersonal skills, and actually building systems which don’t allow us to exploit others. And I would argue, unfortunately, that’s really what’s happened with a lot of the financial system approaches, a lot of that’s been getting people with good mathematical skills to be able to exploit others. And really getting it so that our role using those mathematical skills is to help society as a whole and value human skills.

So, added value skills are not necessarily, that aligned with the mathematical skills that I love and that I believe in, that I broadly have. But I do believe our role is to support a society which values those added value skills. And this is exactly where current systems are not built for that. Current systems are really optimized around maximizing, because that’s what mathematicians find really easy. It’s really easy to maximize, to find an optimal solution when you’ve just got a simple indicator like profit. Much harder to actually build something which is complex and has…

[00:25:41] Lily: Well, this is where we need Lucie, our, the anthropologist, to talk about humans and, and their randomness.

[00:25:51] David: Complications that come within them. But those are the skills that I want to see valued. They are the skills, which I believe if we build the right structures. And I think this is it. It’s not about one versus the other. I mean, certainly the mathematical skills are so important and so needed in a world that is data driven. But if we get it right, then instead of optimizing for ourselves, we’re able to build structures which actually support and value and enable these other skills at scale. That’s my optimism coming through and that’s the future I want to live in.

[00:26:32] Lily: Excellent. Well, thank you very much, David.

[00:26:35] David: Thank you. It’s been a, I think, a slightly different discussion from the one you imagined, but hey!

[00:26:39] Lily: Oh, absolutely.

[00:26:40] David: That’s the way things go.

[00:26:42] Lily: Yeah, yeah. I can’t be too surprised.