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Education has a key role to play in unlocking the potential of AI

Artificial intelligence will disrupt the working world – how should it affect students’ course selection?

For many people, artificial intelligence (AI) has been something typically confined to science-fiction films – but more and more it is creeping into our homes, universities and workplaces. So how will AI will disrupt the working world and what advice do academics have in terms of course selection at this early stage in the technology?

Dr Oisin Cawley, a lecturer and researcher in computing at South East Technological University (SETU), makes the point that AI has actually been around in one guise or another for some time already.

“If we consider the car industry, for example, automated assembly lines have been manufacturing the cars for years,” he says. “Is that not AI?

“Much of modern AI is far more low-key and is rapidly sneaking into many aspects of our lives. This low-key AI has been around for a while and I think that is where much of the disruption will be felt.”


Artificial intelligence is “excellent” at automating routine and mundane tasks such as data entry, customer support in the form of chatbots and other administrative tasks, says Cawley.

“AI is in heaven when it is asked to analyse data – lots of data,” he adds. “It can churn data inside out and upside down to find interesting patterns and make future predictions. It can do this in a fraction of the time a human can and in fact can find patterns that humans would not.

“Have a guess how many students are trying to use AI to make stock-market predictions.”

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All these tasks were previously performed by people. So, what happens to these people? Certainly, fewer people are needed in these roles, which is good for business. Or is it?

“Conventional wisdom would suggest that as AI starts to take over these more repetitive tasks, people are freed up to concentrate on those tasks which require higher-level thinking and creativity,” says Cawley.

“I would suggest that most jobs have repetitive, mundane tasks that will be affected by AI in this way. Take software developers, for example. They write the code that runs our apps. In many cases code can be reused. But AI is very good at learning coding patterns and already there are AI assistants that can write code for you. The software developer role has the potential to change to one where coding, creativity, user experience, and AI are all harnessed together.”

I don’t think undergraduates should worry too much about AI-specific courses unless they specifically want to focus on AI as a subject. I think AI will have a role in almost all subjects

—  Dr Oisin Cawley

Cawley points out that even in more artistic roles such as graphic design, AI has made huge strides.

“Check out OpenAI’s DALL-E application which can create images from a text description given by the user,” he says. “You can easily see the potential for this to be extended into areas such as design and architecture.”

So how does all this change the landscape for students and teachers?

“It is a very interesting time when it comes to education,” says Cawley. “As educators, we need to be cognisant of the potential of AI, both in terms of how it may disrupt the working world but also what skills people should have to exploit this potential.”

This is relevant not just to someone looking to start third-level education, but also for people already in employment.

“In the area of computing at SETU, we have been focusing on building the AI skills of our undergraduate students on both software development and computer-games degree courses,” says Cawley.

“Our aim is to give them enough knowledge to know how to use AI to solve problems which will hopefully translate to the workplace. Employers are aware of the growing importance of AI and so they like to see graduates with some level of knowledge and skill in this area.

“To serve more mature students we run a Master of Science in Applied Artificial Intelligence and a Master of Science in Data Science which caters for people who are looking to upskill into these specific areas.

“So, I don’t think undergraduates should worry too much about AI-specific courses unless they specifically want to focus on AI as a subject. I think AI will have a role in almost all subjects.”

Jack Kennedy, an economist at jobs website Indeed, says advances in AI can help not only with improving business performance but in wider areas such as vaccine development.

“There’s no doubt it will bring transformative developments to the way we work in the future,” he says. “There are benefits of working in tandem with AI. We’ve already seen how other technical advancements have impacted the way we work.

“For instance, think of how software like Excel changed the way accountants work but didn’t replace the need for accountants themselves. Often AI can help automate the admin or tasks that are time consuming, allowing people to concentrate on other areas of their job.”

For anyone concerned about the potential impact of AI on their career path, Kennedy has several pointers.

“Remaining flexible is key; with technological and social changes advancing rapidly, it’s important to remain open about career changes or opportunities,” he says.

“Change is inevitable, so rather than fighting it, figure out how you can use it as an opportunity for career advancement. This might mean upskilling or altering your career path.

“People skills or emotional intelligence is an area that AI will not be able to replicate in the same way a person can. Developing skills like communication, negotiation and navigating conflict can help future-proof your career against technological changes.”

TU Dublin lecturer Dr Rajesh Jaiswal teaches a Masters in Computing in Human-Centred AI; he says students should always have one eye on the future when selecting their courses.

“AI technology and related technologies are part of the latest wave of the information revolution and could be worth up to €125 billion by 2025,” he says.

“In the last two decades AI has rapidly advanced and transformed many industries, including education, healthcare, finance, transportation and entertainment. It will only continue to grow as these technologies become more advanced and widespread.”

Jaiswal says there is a skills gap in Ireland and internationally for data scientists with computing and business-intelligence skills.

TU Dublin has a four-year degree course, BSc (Hons) in Computing with Machine Learning/AI, designed in consultation with big IT companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, SAP and IBM, which develops a mix of computing, business intelligence and data-science skills.

“The rise of big data and cloud computing has made it easier to process large data sets and train complex AI models,” says Jaiswal. “AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants have become more sophisticated, enabling businesses to automate customer service and improve user experiences. AI is also being used in healthcare to assist with diagnoses and drug discovery, and in finance to detect fraud and manage risks.”

As the application of AI is so wide, Jaiswal recommends that “all potential students” should consider gaining skills that are increasingly important to many industries.

“An AI product manager, for example, is less of a scientist and more of a marketing role – but they have to understand working with cross-functional teams to bring an AI product to market,” he says.

PwC director of people and organisation consulting Laoise Mullane says there are many courses that will help people get started in the AI space.

“Some colleges have specific AI courses but other areas such as data science, computer science, mathematics and statistics all provide a good grounding for a career in AI,” she says. “As AI becomes more mainstream, we expect to see AI modules becoming a common feature of a variety of college courses such as business, law and HR.”

Dr Valerie Mc Taggart, the head of the department of social sciences ATU Sligo, has conducted research that focuses on the impact of digital technology to organisations and society.

AIs will often present incorrect information as truth with 100 per cent certainty ... Humans will still have to be in the mix to ensure the information quality is high

—  Robert O'Connor

“Like previous digital developments, these disrupters have the potential to alter a marketplace at an alarming pace,” she says. “We have seen several high-profile examples of the impact of the digital revolution on industries that did not capitalise on these digital developments.

“As for the need for academic lecturing staff, suggestions have abounded that their role will become significantly reduced. Indeed, how can one person compete with all the information available to Chat GPT?”

Robert O’Connor, a lecturer in computing at SETU, says advances in AI make him feel “simultaneously giddy and horrified”.

“I suspect one area where AI is likely to have an immediate impact is in automating repetitive office tasks,” he says.

Manual data entry, document formatting, move A into B and so on are examples of the kind of work AI tools can handle with ease.

“However, AIs aren’t perfect,” says O’Connor. “They will often present incorrect information as truth with 100 per cent certainty and they also generate a significant number of ‘hallucinations’, which is where an AI will just make stuff up.

“Humans will still have to be in the mix to ensure the information quality is high. It’s likely that some jobs may go – but others may take their place. We’re already seeing job listings for ‘prompt engineer’, which is someone who can create high-value input for an AI tool.”

In terms of advice for students in terms of course selection at this early stage in the technology, O’Connor says they should not be looking at courses with respect to what will be affected by AI.

“If a person chooses a broad area in which they’re genuinely interested – be it computer science, nursing, English, whatever – then it doesn’t really matter about AI,” he says. “These tools are going to affect pretty much everyone. If you’re in an area that you like and have a passion for, you’ll adapt.

“The main skill third-level students need to develop is how to critically assess the quality of information presented and then make decisions based on that.

“Students can do this by getting a foundation in their chosen discipline, understanding its general concepts and staying on top of current trends. Then, if an AI enters the mix, they can make an informed determination of the quality of the information it produces.”

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson is an Irish Times reporter