Will artificial intelligence (AI) eventually claim your job?
In many cases the answer is 'yes' – and change won't be confined to any particular industry or profession.
Hundreds of New Zealand companies including small start-ups, big commercial corporates, professional services, research and education institutions and government departments are already investing in, working with or thinking about introducing AI in the workplace.
University of Waikato lecturer in philosophy, Dr Dan Weijers, says students must now re-assess their tertiary training options with AI firmly in mind.
"I think lots of New Zealanders would be very surprised at the extent of AI already. As soon as someone makes a breakthrough and it creates efficiencies, that technology spreads very quickly. Many people will be blindsided by AI and lose their job because of it."
Profession-orientated degrees have always been regarded as a 'safe bet' but will no longer guarantee employment and a well-paid job, says Weijers.
"Domains which are governed by a set of rules can be mastered by AI very easily. Once systems are set up, they will quickly out-perform people because they're faster, don't make mistakes and can work 24/7."
However, humans will always have the upper hand when it comes to situations where the end goal is ill-defined, where the rules aren't clear or the problem keeps evolving in unexpected ways.
"All AI systems, even the more advanced ones, still have certain constraints. The big question is, what should those constraints be? If you try and programme an AI system to act ethically while also making a profit, you'll need to define what it means to act ethically. There's not an agreed answer to that question. Across different cultures there are always different answers."
It's in these situations that Weijers believes an arts degree is about to come into its own: "Arts and social sciences teach you 'AI-proof thinking skills' – these are critical, creative and holistic thinking skills that you'll need in tomorrow's workforce.
"The philosophy we teach at Waikato, for example, is very focused on critical thinking and how we apply that skill to those important and ill-defined problems."
Weijers says critical thinking involves challenging assumptions and the status quo while demanding substantial evidence and compelling reasons. This will be key in assessing what kind of rules and goals are appropriate to govern the future use of AI technology.
"One big question for the future is should AI systems have rights? And if so, what should those rights be?"
Creative thinking (or the ability to think outside the box) and holistic thinking (which looks at the big picture and possible flow-on effects) will also remain critical in the workplace.
"An arts and social science degree is ideal preparation for all of the interesting jobs of the future where problems are ill-defined and continually evolving. Creating our social, environmental and economic public policy will be a big area, along with management roles, as will setting the parameters around big data and AI systems.
"Critical thinking is an attempt to know more, do better, be better people and lead better lives. Anyone who takes the time to develop those skills and is not afraid to challenge the status quo, they are the ones who should be running the show."
Weijers says today's employers are actively searching for critical thinkers with soft skills such as flexibility, a positive attitude, being a team player, communication and creativity rather than people who excel at mastering content.
"Anyone can go online and learn all the latest findings, research or facts in a particular domain. That's why I think our teaching in New Zealand should be skills rather than content-focused."
Weijers co-edits the International Journal of Wellbeing and says subjects which get students to practise AI-proof skills, while also investigating questions about morals and how society functions, have the added benefit of helping students lead better lives.
"Psychology research on wellbeing shows that losing a job, whether that's being fired or made redundant, has a big impact on happiness. That impact doesn't fully go away when you get a new job.
"So having a stable job – not one where you're anxious about losing it to a machine – is an important part of enjoying your life."
Despite our consumer culture, Weijers believes a growing number of people now take 'wellbeing' into account when choosing a future career path.
"I wish we would all think about wellbeing as an ultimate goal in life, alongside being a morally good person. Work is very important for wellbeing so students should make sure they do some arts, social sciences or humanities study and develop those AI-proof skills."