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AI education: Are we doing enough to meet the next generation’s skills gap?

The artificial intelligence skills gap is a widely recognised phenomenon, particularly in countries such as the UK that are positioning themselves as AI powerhouses. But is the next generation better prepared? Lucy Ingham asks experts in the field about the state of AI education.

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that artificial intelligence struggles with a skills gap. But if nothing changes, the problem is going to be far worse in the future.

According to PwC, AI will create the same number of jobs as it destroys over the next two decades, but skill demands will shift dramatically, with 16% more jobs in professional, scientific and technical services while other fields, such as manufacturing, transport and public administration, will see deep cuts to their personnel.

This means that much of the current workforce will need to retrain to meet the needs of the employers of tomorrow, but it also means that school leavers will need to have different skills from previous generations.“I've always believed that if you look 20 years from now every business is, in essence, a software business, because consumers will interact with it in a digital way, so it is impossible not to be a software platform,” says Pepijn Rijvers, CMO of Booking.com.“That in itself requires such a different educational orientation from how we groom people now.”

Is UK AI education fit for purpose?

The UK is keen to position itself as a powerhouse of artificial intelligence, particularly as Brexit looms. However, in order to maintain its – arguable – position as a leader in AI, it will need a strong crop of home-grown talent.

The UK Government has attempted to respond to this need with an updated national curriculum, which sees computer science treated as a core skill from primary school.“

Coding as part of the national curriculum for primary school children, [which was] only recently introduced in the past few years, I think that's critical in terms of driving out the next wave,” says Matt Armstrong Barnes, chief technologist at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE).

However, experts do not believe that the UK is yet at a point where it is adequately preparing school children for the world that awaits them in terms of technology skills.

I think our teachers do good to do a good job of explaining the dangers of the internet, but not how technology is a part of that future for them."

“I think it does need to go further,” says Armstrong Barnes. “Some of the things that are happening around core computer science, of which AI is a fundamental part, as well as mathematics, some of the computer science aspects aren't necessarily building that in.”

For Alex McMullan, CTO of EMEA at Pure Storage, it needs to go further still. Instead of simply teaching more, he argues there needs to be a change in thinking around AI and wider technology to reflect the fundamental impact it now has on our lives.

“I think at a primary or secondary level we don't instil enough of the world view in terms of how much technology is part of your existence and your future too, and how you have to be either a part of that or a passenger wondering what on earth is going on around you,” he says.

“So that doesn't mean you have to teach an eight year old Java programming, it just means you have to be aware of the world, the internet. I think our teachers do good to do a good job of explaining the dangers of the internet, for example, but not how technology is a part of that future for them.”

STEM and the brain drain

Of course, a core part of any AI education is STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), which has increasingly been considered part of the UK’s focus on digital skills. But McMullan fears that a weak focus on STEM is leading to a brain drain in the UK.

“STEM is something I don't think we invest enough in. So it is a brain-drain concern of mine,” he says.“My daughter is saying the same thing: Dad, I want to go to university in the States because they're doing more things than we are. And I can't say no because I'm sitting there observing the same thing from the other side.

“So I don't want that brain drain to pick up speed, but I do want us to be technology leaders as we were in the forties and fifties.“If you think about the things we did from jet engines to steam catapults to telecoms, television, all those things came from us here but I think we've become complacent. I wish we did spend more on STEM generally.”

The role of companies in AI education

While the government mandates the UK’s educational strategy, companies do have their own role to play. And here Armstrong Barnes argues that companies need to do more.

“I think that it's great that organisations like HPE are allowed to get involved in the academic institutions and driving AI adoption at a university level,” he says.“But really it needs to start at a grassroots level and make sure that it's happening in primary school, it needs to happen in secondary school, it needs to be pushed right the way through the higher education system.”

Different stories: a changing focus for parents

While effective schooling is vital for successful AI education, there is also the matter of parenting and the wider role of media in raising children. And here, Rijvers argues, there is room for change.

“I'm trying to teach my children, I've got three, to be interested in coding, to be interested in what technology can do, but they're not,” he says. “It's actually really hard for a child how technology can be meaningful for them: what is the potential? We can talk about it in the form of an inventor, but being an inventor is almost some Disney character – a specific thing – and it's hard for people to correlate this.

“So I think we need to start telling our children different stories, different examples in order to pivot more people towards communication, behavioural science and computer science, because that's where it will be.”

Lucy Ingham is the editor of Verdict AI magazine, where this article was originally published. 

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