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The human skills Ireland needs to lead in artificial intelligence

We must secure our place in the next wave of AI innovators through training

AI will affect all white collar workers.

AI will affect all white collar workers.

 

When artificial intelligence comes up for discussion the conversation normally centres on what the technology can do and the skills it can replace rather than the skills required to develop it. But if Ireland is to secure its place in the next wave of AI innovators those skills will be very much in demand.

According to Skillnet Ireland chief technologist Mark Jordan, the technical skills required are reasonably well known. “These are the skills need for the management and configuration of AI applications and programmes,” he explains. “Skills are needed in areas such as application programming interfaces, deep neural networks, advanced analytics and data science. From a programming perspective, there is a lot of demand for Python. There is also demand for AI specific training in areas like user experience and user interface design.”

Moving away from these purely technical skills, Jordan explains that business analytics, business process engineering, and vendor selection skills among others will also be required. “There is also a demand for people who are data literate and have experience in governance, ethics, IP rights management, and cybersecurity,” says Jordan.

And then there the transversal business skills required of the leaders who will be running the organisations. “When we think about businesses adopting AI, we think about their leaders having a strong strategy in place,” he adds. “They need data to drive the machine learning and AI outputs. And they need to understand the value of the data assets at their fingertips. They also need to be able to collaborate and partner with other domain experts.”

What is AI?

Mark James of the UCD Professional Academy explains that what is being seen with AI at the moment has parallels with the arrival of PCs in offices 30 years ago or more. “Essentially, it’s the same as what happened back then,” he says. “They were complicated, and computer science skills were needed to build the software for them. But they became commoditised and easier and easier to use. The manufacturers began to build in the software needed to use them. The skills needed now are the ones to use the software.”

The UCD Professional Academy is offering a Professional Diploma in Artificial Intelligence programme commencing on August 17th next. “The course will give participants an understanding of what AI is and what the business needs for it are,” says James.

He points to automation as an example. “You can automate a lot of back office tasks. Robotic process automation (RPA) systems are just software running software. It learns how to do something like invoice processing and then does it. You can buy it off the shelf and you don’t have to programme it.

“But you have to think about the implications,” James adds. “Maybe some processes shouldn’t be automated. You need some kind of governance. And what happens if it gets hacked? Natural language processing software interacts with customers and employees. Are you losing something there in terms of business capability?”

He points out that AI will affect all white collar workers and the most important skills for people are how they can you integrate it into their work. “It either scales you or replaces you. That’s the real purpose of the course. Participants will understand how they can guide the introduction of AI so that it scales them rather than replaces them. They will understand the business need and be able to use AI to improve its processes and not damage what the organisation already has.”

Niche businesses

He agrees with Jordan that the skills required stretch beyond the technical aspects of AI. “You need a broader skillset to make full use of the technology.”

Those business skills can open up opportunities for Irish firms, he adds. “We are seeing small innovative Irish companies starting up with very specific use cases for AI,” he notes. “For example, a Cork company is using AI to monitor honey bees. There are openings for Ireland to innovate in niches like that. You can buy software packages and then apply them in unique ways.”

According to Alessandra Sala, director of AI and data science with Shutterstock, AI is a field where learning and practice need to come together with a well-orchestrated plan. “The application of theoretical knowledge to practical problems finds new nuances as every dataset has its own unique properties and peculiarities,” she says. Therefore, the practice element in the education journey is essential to build solid AI systems.”

Training

Shutterstock offers employee a number of programmes which address both theory and practice. “For instance, rotations are essential for employees to grow their technical knowledge and experience by collaborating with other teams,” says Sala. “Furthermore, Shutterstock has developed a very effective internship program which enables junior students to practice with three to six months of hands-on experience on a number of different projects. This practical experience provides students with an opportunity to learn the processes and tools required for further career development.

“The Shutterstock internship programme has been extremely effective resulting in hiring several talented interns from Irish universities. Shutterstock also provides free access to a rich library of online courses which offer a variety of upskilling opportunities.”

Companies can also go to Skillnet Ireland to have their AI skills gaps addressed. “Key to what we are doing with businesses is talking to them to understand what their transformation endgame is,” says Jordan. “We are looking at what they are doing to deploy AI and at their skills requirements. We work with partners to create programmes to meet their needs. And we can adapt programmes and create new ones to meet the needs of individual companies.

“For example, we developed a two year Masters programme in AI. That’s a big commitment for a company,” he adds. “We realised that companies want shorter programmes, so we broke it down into modules of between six and nine weeks in duration. Anyone interested can get short, certified modules which can build to a Masters qualification if they want. We can deliver programmes for small SMEs all the way up to transformation programmes for major multinationals.”