Five key takeaways from The Future of Work

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on July 9, 2019.
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KUALA LUMPUR: Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, big data and more technology jargons have been lobbed around for a long time as we move into the disruptive technology era.

Companies, to compete in future, have also often been told they cannot ignore the aforementioned. However, what do companies really need to know concerning adopting these solutions? Also, what about job prospects for the current labour force? Will there still be jobs for them?

Here are five key takeaways from industry leaders and experts featured at The Future of Work conference on Saturday, organised and curated by the Alumni Alliance Association.

The Alumni Alliance Association is a collaborative platform for alumni associations of distinguished business schools around the world, including Columbia Business School, Harvard Business School, the London Business School, MIT, Stanford Graduate School of Business, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the Asia School of Business (Malaysia), Chicago Booth, Cornell, IE Business School, INSEAD and Kellogg. Its 1,500 members are from the corporate and public sectors in Malaysia.

 

AI is not to be feared

There have been widespread concerns about job losses since AI was introduced. Khazanah Nasional Bhd deputy managing director and head of investment Tengku Datuk Seri Azmil Zahruddin said the world is changing and that short-term job cuts are definite.

“However, new jobs are being created, requiring different skills. Certainly, other jobs will become obsolete or not used so much anymore, that’s why as a country we have to be adaptable and do different things,” said Azmil.

He noted the workforce needs to be upskilled or reskilled to suit future work requirements. “Today, you have many companies facing this problem where you don’t have enough people doing certain things, and too many people doing something we don’t really need anymore,” Azmil said.

The issue is not whether to fear or embrace AI, but to use it wisely, according to Azmil. “It’s just like fire — if we harness it, it can be very useful and enhance the quality of life,” he said.

“But it can also be very dangerous if misused. So, it is up to us to make sure it is used for the right things.”

Malaysia Venture Capital Management Bhd (Mavcap) senior vice president Shahril Anas Hasan Aziz said he understands why people fear AI.

“Fear is ingrained in humans; [so] it is okay to be fearful. But again ... don’t be too paranoid. AI is equivalent to machine learning, and who is it from? It’s from us, humans. It’s just they seldom make the same mistakes that we make. But ... sometimes imperfection is actually perfection,” Shahril said.

 

Data is king

Data analytics is becoming more important, with developed countries ahead by leaps and bounds in collecting and using data, particularly in helping to make decisions and provide important insights, said Azmil.

“More needs to be done in Malaysia. In Malaysia ... very few [businesses] are using data analytics. We are just beginning to scratch the surface on how data and data analytics can be used,” he added.

To increase data usage, there must be people with the right skills, and the country has to invest in this sector, as well as create an enabling and supportive environment, said Azmil.

“Data is king!” said Shahril, noting if a business does not have data analytics as part of a business plan, “it is basically looking at failure in future.”

This is because when creating solutions, Shahril said a company must know what it is actually trying to solve.

“If you look at your smartphone itself, there are about 30 to 50 apps [that you keep], but there are millions of apps in the Google Play Store or Apple’s App Store,” said Shahril, noting this indicates many app developers are not hitting the spot when creating an app that people want or need, that provides a solution to an issue.

The challenge, he said, is for companies to learn how to monetise the data that they have to make good profits.

 

Ask the right questions

With so much data collected, companies are probably confused about the data to use.

“Data can give us many answers; it’s really just that we don’t know what questions to ask. You don’t know the sort of data you need until you know the questions you want to ask,” Azmil said.

To identify the data needed for a particular company, Azmil said it will be an iterative and a learning process for many, unless they have decided what they really want from the data. “It is quite a long process before you get there (the goal), but you have to start [on it] first,” Azmil added.

To do so, Azmil suggested that companies use data from elsewhere, or even from other countries, as a starting point, assuming the behaviours of Malaysians and a particular country are similar.

However, he cautioned that while data is often abundant, it is also usually “dirty”, as the data is not kept in consistent formats or scattered over numerous systems. Thus, much cleaning up must be done.

 

Make better use of your data

While AI or data analytics give companies an advantage in increasing efficiency, Asia School of Business Associate dean Professor Loredana Padurean said companies need a smarter approach in using the data they had obtained.

“Use data to increase intimacy [with your customers]. What I mean ... is that I think a company is great when it gives customers what they want exactly, how and when they want it, and at a price they want it for,” said Padurean.

Most companies, she said, are just sitting on data, instead of better using it. As an example, she shared her disappointing experience with a bank.

“I’m so fed up with the bank that I have gone to for four and a half years, because it still asks me the same questions ... They still don’t have a smart profile on my behaviour. Customers are now more willing to give data, and since you already took it from us, do something smart with it.”

 

People still have an edge over AI

A computer is most likely better than humans in critical decision-making that abides by certain rules or parameters. However, it may not be very good at stepping out of the box in providing a new solution or idea.

“AI and data usage are definitely very good at solving very specific problems. But what they are not so good at ... is to be human, or excel in anything to do with human-to-human interactions,” said Azmil.

He also concurred with Padurean, who said jobs that lasted since the Roman empire are those requiring creativity.

“People are already getting AI to write music. But if you listen to one written by a computer and another by a human ... you can tell the difference,” said Azmil.

In this sense, humans will always have an edge over AI in doing things relating to humans.”