Why Botswana youth hold the key to developing ethical Artificial Intelligence

As many as 56% of young people wrongly believe that artificial intelligence (AI) isn’t a job option for them. Some don’t think they’ll have the right educational qualifications, or that they’re smart enough. Others say they’d prefer a more creative career.

But what if I told you that the success of AI depends on input from artists, creative writers, and linguists? That you don’t need vast technical knowledge or to be a math whizz to pursue a career in the biggest technology to shape our world today? That it’s the softer “human” skills that will make you successful?

Young people are misinformed about the opportunities, possibilities and, indeed, their responsibility in creating ethical AI that will benefit a diverse user base, including different genders and people from different races, religions, and cultures. We need to educate them about what the future of working in tech really means. And in doing that, we need to dispel common myths about how they can thrive in an unknown, uncertain, and unpredictable future.

These are three of the biggest myths:

1.    Coding is crucial

There’s a misperception that you have to know how to code if you want a career in AI. Yes, you need coding knowledge if you want to build the AI engines. But the success of AI depends heavily on the data we feed it, how we train it, and what problems we apply it to. This requires creativity, critical thinking, and empathy.

Writers, artists – even social workers – can collaborate on AI projects that could address societal problems, like alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, and poverty among the youth. Perhaps in future, fewer people will code and people will spend more time on designing training for AI.

Don’t get me wrong: coding is an extremely valuable skill, not because you need coding knowledge to build apps and programs, but because, in learning coding, you gain far more valuable skills. Skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and persistence. Coding fosters creativity, curiosity, and innovation through storytelling and imagination; it encourages empathy, communication, and listening – skills that are often overlooked in education today. 

These ‘soft skills’ are what children will need to be successful in the future. Why? Because, soon, the majority of coding work will be automated. With a more creative skill set, children will be exposed to a wider range of opportunities.

That’s not to say schools shouldn’t teach coding – they absolutely should. But it should be framed in a way that makes them think about how to apply coding to challenges. Initiatives like FutureMakers aim to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist, even if they have no coding experience.

Speaking of jobs…

2.    AI is taking all the jobs

Yes, many jobs that exist today won’t be around in future and any repetitive work will probably be automated. But, according to Gartner, while AI will eliminate 1.8 million jobs by 2020, it will also create 2.3 million new jobs. And we have no idea what jobs will emerge in five to 10 years.

Rather than reminding children of their uncertain future, we should be encouraging them to create their own futures. Since they have no boundaries to work within and no final destination to work towards, they’re in an enviable position of being able to think about problems that bug them in entirely new ways. It’s a whole new ballgame and there are no rules yet. This is when it’s exciting. This is when they should be given the freedom to experiment and decide what their role in the future will be.

We can’t adequately prepare children for jobs that don’t exist, but we can educate them about the important role they will have to play in developing ethical AI. We need to inspire them to devise creative solutions to the world’s most pressing problems using AI, and help them develop those ideas. The world is their oyster and we can’t let fear or doubt hold them back.

3.    What happens in the future is out of their hands

Young people are the future. We’re depending on them to develop solutions to the world’s problems. AI will only be as good as its creators and will reflect the bias of those building it. But since AI will play a role in almost every aspect of our lives, it has to properly reflect the diversity of all needs.

Young people aren’t just beneficiaries in the AI future – they’re the essential actors that will use it to drive change in society. We need to engage them in discussions about AI and tap into their energy and perspectives on what an ethical AI future looks like.

All of society is going to be affected by AI. The sooner children feel empowered to shape it, the better. It’s crucial that young people understand how important their skills will be and how to direct their skills towards work that they’ll enjoy in the future.

By Joanne van der Walt, Director, Sage Foundation

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