We need to focus on skills to make AI technology usable – Mark Byrne

The Capture is a fictional drama of conspiracy theory and deepfakery in which the protagonists must decide whether AI’s counter-terrorism benefits outweigh its criminal manipulation. Doctor Who’s use of AI as a sci-fi cliffhanger has moved away from the cliched tropes of killer computers and robots. Nowadays viewers young and old understand that AI is now part of our world and beyond that can be a great enabler for good.

Yet for many there remains a gap between the (sometimes) intangible and abstract worlds of data and AI and people’s perception of how they can be used in their daily lives. How to close this gap, particularly among the young people the industry needs to become the next generation of designers and adopters of AI, was one of the topics discussed at this month’s DataFest, Scotland’s annual data innovation summit.

Trust is a critical issue. According to the latest Accenture Technology Vision report, only 35 percent of global consumers trust how organizations implement AI, and 77 percent believe organizations must be held accountable for any misuse of AI. Accenture’s Ali Shah, our Global Principal Director for Responsible AI, spoke of the need to demonstrate trustworthiness through trustworthy design of AI systems, strong governance and regulation – something that Accenture’s ongoing partnership with the Alan Turing Institute does in a practical way want to achieve.

A 3D rendering humanoid robot working with headset and monitor; Artificial intelligence offers a wide range of useful applications

But as DataFest has made clear, if we get humans to engage with it, AI has a multitude of useful applications. It could help boost Scotland’s thriving financial services and fintech industries, help local governments optimize their budgets and spending, and even decipher satellite photos to help conservationists understand the impact of climate change in the Highlands.

In business, smart technology isn’t just about efficiency. When aligned with human talent and good leadership, it also helps generate innovation, productivity gains, and growth for the organizations that employ it. How we encourage new talent to further develop and exploit this potential will then be decisive.

This brings me back to the perception of AI. We need to take advantage of the fact that AI is already part of young people’s minds and start building a workforce that can use AI as a force for good. In Scotland we have seen how technological skills can help shape new economic success stories. Dundee is now known as a European center for video game production, with Abertay University being the first to introduce a degree in video game design. Similarly, Edinburgh’s ambition to become Europe’s data capital is based on access to qualified talent.

But some, including the Scottish Government’s chief entrepreneur Mark Logan, have called for a change in the pace at which programming skills are taught in schools. In his tech sector review for Scottish ministers, he called for computer science to be taught to all pupils from the first year of secondary school and has since warned of an “educational emergency” if the number of computer scientists continues to fall.

Reversing this trend is vital and fortunately the tech ecosystem in Scotland is in a strong position to act. Organizations like Data Lab, CodeClan and ScotlandIS, and technology companies like Accenture are all working hard to support the development of data skills alongside world-leading data science courses at the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde.

This is imperative as the demand for talent in the technology industry is high. Accenture’s own Tech Talent Tracker shows that demand for technology professionals in Scotland has increased by more than 200 per cent in 12 months, with AI skill requirements up by 103 per cent. This shows that as Scotland becomes AI more mature and awareness of AI becomes ingrained in everyday life, there is a strong opportunity for Scotland to lead.

But to realize this potential, we must not only inspire the next generation to understand the role of AI in their lives, but also give them the understanding and skills to shape it.

Mark Byrne is Accenture’s Head of Applied Intelligence Scotland


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