Students, workers unprepared for age of robots: Experts

Employer adjustments necessary to usher in next revolution
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/08/2019
Robot
Children react to a security robot patrolling inside a residential compound in Hohhot, Mongolia, on Jan. 18. REUTERS/Stringer

With more robots taking on employment tasks around the world, it’s high time for employers and government leaders to make adjustments to ensure Canada remains on the cutting edge of technology, according to experts.

“We are at an inflection point where robots will be the next big industrial revolution,” said Jean-Baptiste Passot, vice-president of platform and AI (artificial intelligence) at Brain Corp, a software company in San Diego, Calif.

“Like all other industrial revolutions, yes, there will be an impact on jobs,” he said. “Is it going to reduce jobs? At the end of the day, I don’t believe it’s going to… but there will be job displacement.”

Robots and AI are now in the same position personal computing was in the early 1980s, said Passot, speaking as part of an expert panel at the AI World Forum in Toronto on March 5.

As the technology matures in the next three to four years, the rate at which startups are able to develop products will also increase, affecting manufacturing machines first, he said, as employers attempt to remain competitive despite a labour shortage and aging population.

Job displacement

Specifically, in repetitive tasks, replacement of human employees is inevitable as robots have proven to be much more efficient, said Manir Al-Faisal, product applications engineer with Shelley Automation in Toronto.

“A lot of tasks considered dull or repetitive by operators out on the floor — we are trying to figure out ways to eliminate them by introducing… technology,” he said.

An abundance of “low-end jobs” with repetitive actions are being replaced, with quality control in manufactured products simultaneously increasing, said Al-Faisal.

A radical shift in the training of individual employees is inevitable, he said, as those involved in mechanical and physical labour will transition to high-tech roles to maintain and oversee technology systems.

Employers should try to ensure smooth transitions are a focus — especially amongst blue-collar workers — to eliminate any fears of the future, said Passot.

Collaboration is needed between employers and robot creators to ensure new technology is not autonomous, but rather serves as tools to aid workers in productivity and safety, he said.

“It cannot be a really strong transition. You need to enable those people who are going to be displaced.”

As advancements continue unabated across industries, fear is a natural reaction for workers, said Jason Braverman, chief technology officer at SkyX Systems in Markham, Ont.

It’s important to remember new jobs will be created as redundant positions are eliminated, he said.

“It’s sort of a trade-off. With any disruptive system that you introduce into something that society has been accustomed to for a very long time, there’s going to be fear.”

The world is still far way from the time when AI is autonomous, said Braverman.

“We’re still in the infancy stage of all of this,” he said. “We sort of have a pseudo-AI now, where computers can have a certain amount of logic that they understand, but they really can’t see things the way we see them.”

“You’re still going to need to work. Someone’s still going to need to build systems. And someone’s still going to need to integrate those systems.”

An expert panel speaks at the AI World Forum in Toronto, March 5. Photo courtesy Tongtong Xu

Education vital

Educational improvements in the field of computer science will be necessary going forward, according to Anjalee Narenthiren, founder and CEO of TechExplore in Toronto, and a 16-year-old student.

Canadian students are not prepared for the coming robotic age, she said.

“I’ve worked with a lot of kids and I’ve seen first-hand where our education system is right now.”

Though Narenthiren had external opportunities to learn coding by age 10, her experience with computer science in school included processes such as learning to use Microsoft Excel. That’s simply not enough to satisfy the creativity of eager students, she said.

While governments need to take note, employers can also act to move the needle, said Narenthiren.

It is inconceivable that youths are able to easily land a job at McDonald’s, yet struggle to earn a tech internship due to hiring policy and rules around age, she said.

Taking steps to hire more young interns would be an excellent start for proactive Canadian employers — especially if Toronto wants to remain a tech talent hotbed, said Narenthiren.

“It only makes sense that companies start hiring young,” she said. “The tech industry is very different than any other because the rate at which things develop is just so fast compared to anything else.”

Changes to the education system are necessary, said Al-Faisal.

“From what’s going on right now, it’s not very much in alignment with the radical changes that have been going on, technology-wise,” he said.

The current focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) has to be provided to the youngest of students, according to Braverman.

“It’s desperately needed,” he said. “We are rushing forward on the industrial side and our children are kind of having to play catch-up.”

“We shouldn’t have to wait until university to figure these things out. These are things that should be taught in early grade school.”

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