WHAT skills will be needed to survive and thrive in the 21st century? Last month I spoke about this at a conference in London, at the end of which I booked an Uber to take me to the airport. With the Extinction Rebellion protest in full swing outside my hotel room window, causing a huge amount of traffic chaos, Uber informed me via the app that they would be adding a 50% surcharge to my fare. Faced with the alternative of hauling my luggage to the tube, I had little choice but to agree to pay it.
Uber is one of the giant technology companies that have embraced the use of big data, technology and artificial intelligence to grow and create value for its stakeholders and customers. The company uses dynamic pricing whereby computer algorithms, using big data and running on high performance computers, automatically impose surcharges on rides from areas with high customer demand. This way, the company can encourage more drivers to fulfil the demand and make more money in the process. This can have unfortunate effects; in both the Sydney terrorist attack in 2014 and the London terrorist attack in 2017, Uber started charging very high fees for rides from downtown Sydney and London, respectively. The algorithms were doing exactly what they were designed to do, obeying the supply and demand rule. In both of those cases, faced with a backlash from its customer base and the community at large, Uber was obliged to apologise.
In the two examples above, what was missing was human judgment. A human would have easily recognised that people fleeing a terrorist attack is totally different to usual supply/demand imbalance, and might, for example, have seized a promotional opportunity and offered free rides.
As we live in the age of Big Data, we need to understand how data is generated and how it can be used to serve society. Our activities generate data, every Facebook update, social media like, online payment, Google search or Waze-assisted journey creates data. Because the amount of data collected is huge, it is called big data. On its own, data is a nothing but a “raw material” and just like any other raw material, it needs to be further processed and refined by data scientists before it can become useful. The first step is to convert data into information, then using the information to create knowledge and hopefully transforming this knowledge into wisdom that can be used to enhance human judgment.
Increasingly, algorithms using big data are managing many aspects of our lives from our security, energy and sewage systems all the way to the stock market.
Recently, the Education Ministry indicated its intention to use algorithms to stream secondary school students into subject specialties. Algorithms that use big data are very efficient and they, most of the time, do a great job at making our lives better. However, these algorithms can have their own biases and weaknesses. In 2010, in what was dubbed the Flash Crash, algorithms buying and selling stocks (to each other) in what is called High Frequency Trading caused the stock market to lose US$1trillion (RM4.23trillion) within 36 minutes forcing market regulators to halt trading to allow for market recovery.
Equipping the data scientists with the skills and insights that will empower them to design, build and operate systems and algorithms that put the human interest at the heart of their performance, is of utmost importance and urgency.
More young people are seeking to study data analytics and artificial intelligence, realising that these skills are heavily sought after. But many of the degree programmes available to them are still stuck in the 20th century, rather than preparing them for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Besides issues of judgment, two of the main challenges faced by data science education today are policy and privacy. Graduates need to leave university well versed with issues of privacy, and able to develop solutions with privacy at their centre. How should we enable these graduates to navigate these and other policy-related matters, and advise policy makers on the best possible ways to harness the opportunities this data age is bringing while mitigating the challenges that accompany it?
I believe that the answer is through designing academic and professional programmes that equip graduates with a holistic set of capabilities. Not only do they need to master technical competencies, that will enable them to build failsafe and robust technical systems, but they also need human skills, such as humility and wisdom, so that they can question their algorithms and make sure that they are delivering what is needed in the 21st century.
At Heriot-Watt University Malaysia, we inculcate human skills in our students through our flagship EmPOWER Programme that develops them not only with academic and technical skillsets, but also with the necessary mindsets that will enable them to see data for what it is, raw material that needs to be developed to serve humanity.
Using big data to enable national development and benefit local communities is not inevitable. This requires the development of a generation of data professionals and policymakers who understand the importance of remaining human at a time when artificial intelligence and algorithms seem to be the way of the future. Human traits such as wisdom, judgment and emotional intelligence are even more important to ensure our success, prosperity and happiness in the 21st century, in the age of big data.
PROF MUSHTAK AL-ATABI
Provost and CEO
Heriot-Watt University Malaysia