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3 September 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 1:54pm

New skills and diversity can transform the future of work

Collaboration, skills, and diversity should underpin professional development.

By Lauren Kisser

The way we think about work, employment and skills is rapidly evolving in our digital-first world. Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are shaping the way we work, learn, shop, socialise and much more. There is a greater need for technical skills than ever before as technology continues to transform careers and every sector of our economy.

From agriculture to zoology, emerging technologies like AI have the potential to revolutionise our efficiency and productivity, improve outcomes, create entirely new jobs and free us up to focus our time and energy on higher impact, more valuable tasks and innovation.
A look at how the workforce has changed over time helps us understand the impact of technology on the labour market, underlining the need for both more technical skills and a “lifelong learning” mindset. Technical skills are a priority on the global stage: according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), around 123 million roles will be generated through data science and AI. The UK’s top-three emerging jobs are Artificial Intelligence Specialist, Data Protection Officer and Robotics Engineer according to LinkedIn’s Emerging Jobs report for 2020.

This shows how the UK’s economy can unlock the potential of emergent technologies with a healthy pipeline of employees possessing relevant technical skills, knowledge and a hunger to learn.

To understand the transformative nature of AI and ML, let’s look at an example from the world of agriculture. They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away. If you apply AI and ML tools to create a “smart” orchard with automated and optimised processes, a farmer can ensure their customers are supplied with the freshest, crispiest British apples. In turn, the farmer has more time to focus on other areas of their business.

On our “smart” orchard, the farmer receives automated and real-time updates on the state of their crop. They are notified when the crop is at the optimal ripeness and can deploy an automated picker at just the right time to harvest the crop and send it on to market. The apples then arrive at an automated sorting centre, which grades the fruit using ML algorithms to check for colour and freshness, before preparing the apples for distribution. Meanwhile at home, you or I order the fruit to be delivered to our doorstep.

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This simple example highlights how AI can transform our productivity in many different sectors, while also creating new demand for skills and new jobs at each stage of the process – in fact data science and AI alone could create 58 million net new jobs according to WEF.

The farmer and the sorting centre will need workers who understand the data and can repair the machines, while the grocery store needs ordering applications, sophisticated technology and automated logistics. Likewise, in the office, automation can shift time away from repetitive tasks to higher-value, creative work that maximises people’s potential. Less time spent filing paperwork or entering data to more time spent designing innovative products and learning. In healthcare, automation can give frontline nurses and doctors more time working directly with patients. Ultimately this puts us back in touch with why we love what we do.

While these technologies can be a powerful tool to create new opportunities, as well as societal good, we must also be realistic about the risks. Building bias into technology, for example, would further the digital divide and impact parts of society that aren’t represented in building these technologies. All companies must be mindful of these risks, and be responsible and inclusive as we build and implement AI and ML to ensure that we’re not leaving anyone behind.

At Amazon, we believe that cross-industry collaboration, alongside diversity and inclusion, are vitally important as these technologies shape the way we work and think about work. Businesses, policymakers, and researchers must work to build a talent pipeline that reflects the society we’re all trying to serve. For example, Amazon, Google/DeepMind, IBM, BBC, The Alan Turing Institute and Microsoft are already working together on AIPartnership , a global programme which aims to develop and share best practices, provide an open platform for discussion and engagement, and to identify and foster aspirational efforts in AI for socially beneficial purposes.

We need to keep working to build a diverse talent pipeline. We’ve launched initiatives such as Amazon Amplify, AWS Get IT, AWS re/Start, and even our own online Machine Learning University programme to help find tomorrow’s data and AI specialists. Launched in the UK last year, Amazon Future Engineer is our comprehensive childhood-to-career programme to inspire, educate and enable children and young adults from lower-income backgrounds to try computer science.

We believe that innovation and diversity have a powerful relationship. A diverse workforce gives us a better understanding of our customers’ needs and is key to unlocking new ideas. Despite the potential for these technologies to drive economic growth and to create new opportunities for employees from all walks of life, evidence suggests a global skills shortage. In the UK, research from STEM Learning has shown that STEM roles are expected to double in ten years – yet 89 per cent of businesses are struggling to recruit for STEM roles.
We cannot rely solely on business, educational institutes or governments to close this gap by working in isolation – instead we must work together. Amazon’s apprenticeship programme in the UK is just one example of such a partnership: last year we announced 1,000 new positions, currently being delivered across 19 apprenticeship standards – providing the participants with diverse work experience.

These apprentices are combining theoretical learning with hands-on training, enabling participants to obtain vocational qualifications and in many cases degrees – while earning annual salaries of up to £30,000 a year at the same time. Our apprentices work across the company – in corporate sites such as our London HQ and Cambridge Development Centre.

At Amazon, I’m proud of our work to find and develop talent from all backgrounds. We are motivated by the opportunity to help build the jobs, skills and opportunities of the future in an economy that is as diverse as our customers. As an organisation, we want to use our credentials in research, development and innovation to enrich the debate on ethical, responsible and socially valuable applications of emergent technology. These initiatives, working in concert with governments, our external stakeholders and partners, can result in a diverse, technically skilled workforce that will help to build the future. When AI and ML live up to their promise, we can create a better world that works for all of us.

Lauren Kisser is director of AI at Amazon’s development centre in Cambridge.