Glimpses of the Work Reimagined Conference: Emerging Technologies and Future of the Workforce

Original Image: Chris Montgomery - Unsplash | Altered by: MIT Technology Review Arabia

MIT Technology Review Arabia - a Majarra website - organized a virtual conference in English entitled: “Work Reimagined this past June 22, in which experts in technology and management, business leaders, and researchers representing the biggest companies and most distinguished educational institutions participated and spoke to an audience of more than 500 attendees. The conference was held with the participation of Mohammed bin Zayed University for Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI) as a main sponsor, considered the first university specialized as a dedicated AI university worldwide, headquartered in Abu Dhabi.

The sessions kicked off with a keynote delivered by Dia Haykal , Chief Editor of MIT Technology Review, in which she spoke about the major changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in our lives. Millions have been put out of work, and millions more have been moved to remote working , forcing us to find innovative solutions to adapt with a new reality. Today, business leaders intend to build better strategies for their workforce in preparation for the stage after the pandemic, and are asking questions about how to employ and maintain talents that will achieve growth and development in this period. They also wonder how they may make use of emerging technologies such as AI and robotics to assist companies to achieve their aims. Ms. Haykal clarified that there is a need to fundamentally reimagine the future of work, which is why 22 local and international experts shared their expertise and experiences regarding the subject.

Following Ms. Hayka, Doctor Eric Xing, President of MBZUAI, gave his keynote entitled: “Responsible AI for the Future of our Societies”. Dr. Xing stated that the new reality after the pandemic has required us to reinvent how we work, with new promising technologies and trends enabled by AI appearing to help shop online or work remotely and more. He highlighted the rapid development of AI, indicating the threefold increase of linguistic models, for example, over the last three years. Regarding environmental impact, Dr. Xing stated that there is currently a high cost to training a new AI model; an example of this was the training GT3, which required the electrical output of a small city hosting 150,000 houses.

In this regard, Dr. Xing sees that responsible AI use must be both secure and environmentally friendly, free for everyone to use in terms of access and cost. He also emphasized that the achievement of responsible AI systems requires that they be fair, ethical, trustworthy, and accountable.

Adoption of Emerging Technologies by Business Leaders and the Workforce

The first of the conference topics handled the recent rapid adoption of emerging technologies, and the guests discussed the trends that will establish the landmarks for the future of work, when these trends will take hold, and how we can ensure that they are successfully adopted by business leaders and the workforce.

Rachel Lipson, Director of the Project on Workforce at Harvard University, stated that technology can today perform 90% of what humans could do in 1900, and pointed out the reduction of manufacturing jobs in the last fifty years. This was due to the increased reliance on automation, and this has resulted in an increasing focus on technical and soft skills such as communication, team work, and problem solving. In turn, this has resulted in the increased investment by the private sector in updating employment systems with a special reliance on AI systems.

During a session entitled: “Preparing the next generation of leaders: upskilling, reskilling, training, and re-training”, Anand Chopra-McGowan, General Manager of Emeritus from the UK, felt that the workforce in the MENA region was optimistic about the future, and that there was a confirmation from them regarding a need to train, build, and develop skills for the future. He indicated that the surveys performed by PWC found that 7 of every 10 CEOs in the region considered that they had performed significant progress in the development of the skills of their employees, but only 23% of employees stated that they have had their skills developed, therefore a relationship between both parties must be developed. He saw that this responsibility falls on all of us - governments, companies, educational institutions - and underlined that education doesn’t end at graduation, but is a continuous process throughout our lifetimes.

From Top Right: Abdulaziz Al Malik, Laila Ziko), Anand Chopra-McGowan, and Nafez Dakkak

Mr. Chopra-McGowan set the four skills that leaders must hold in order to succeed in adapting in the post-COVID era:

  • Managing stress levels in an environment of rampant uncertainty
  • Awareness of the concept of resilience and its meaning in relation to their roles
  • Confirming that in times of crisis there are also opportunities to be found
  • Focusing on building trust and relationships between teams that will get more and more geographically distributed

Meanwhile, Nafez Dakkak, Executive Chairman of Edraak and CEO of the Queen Rania Foundation’s bureau in London, emphasized two major points: the first is the importance of focusing on learning and self development; the second is guaranteeing that your team has the infrastructure needed to develop their skills, which requires providing your human resources department the tools needed to achieve this infrastructure. He confirmed that the pandemic has highlighted the increasing importance of trust building, as it enables the effective shift to remote work, and ensures a sharing of values and objectives among employees. COVID-19 also demonstrated the importance of employing the appropriate personnel to your team.

Abdulaziz Al Malik, General Director for Research and Innovation Support at King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology (KACST), opined that technical and digital skills are currently the most important, and leaders would in fact be hard pressed to find the necessary experts, pointing out a study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) stating that most workers will need to be retrained for a period of six months by 2025. He also focused on the Saudi experience, as the Kingdom has put in place an ambitious plan to transform the nation into a digital transformation leader through the improvement of communication and other infrastructure in order to mitigate the repercussions of the current crisis. The Kingdom had also succeeded in providing continuous learning from home, telehealth systems, and private and public sector services online.

Mr. Malik felt that among the most important skills that a leader should currently have are crisis management skills for uncertain times, financial intelligence skills, as well as the flexibility to adapt to new situations and the courage to take decisions in the murky environment imposed by COVID-19.

During a session entitled: “Working from home is working”, Jose Barrero, Assistant Professor of Finance at the Independent Technology Academy of Mexico (ITAM) Business School, stated that working from home had increased in the US from 5% pre-COVID to 50% during the pandemic. In the period after the pandemic, remote working will remain at 20 - 25% according to a survey conducted by Mr. Barrero and his colleagues. He stated that companies such as Microsoft, Citigroup, and Apple are planning to adopt the hybrid work model where work from the office and at home will be spread as needed across the week. Their findings indicated that productivity increased by a rate of 5% when working remotely, while most of those surveyed said they would continue work from home after the pandemic.

Augmenting Intelligence

Autonomous AI is a concept of the past - Augmented Intelligence , accelerating the abilities and decision making of a human workforce and consumer through collaborative AI is the future. This session covered how this new vision of automation will unfold, and what groundwork must be laid for its success.

Rania Khalaf

In a session entitled: “Enabling Digital Transformation with Cloud & AI”, Rania Khalaf, Director of AI Engineering at IBM Research AI in the US, talked about objective-driven automation, clarifying that the process begins by extracting information and knowledge from documents by relying on text capture technologies reading pictures, understanding handwriting, and unifying learning to protect privacy and enable the sharing of data while improving the accuracy of artificial intelligence systems. This information is then absorbed and performance monitored, after which we move to process establishment and achieve automation on all levels. Ms. Khalaf emphasized the importance of using a human-centered approach, and explained the abilities of a hybrid workforce relying on human and machine cooperation, also heavily underlining that automation in this respect was intended to improve the performance of this hybrid workforce. She shared a study run by Harvard Business Review that found companies achieving the best performance improvement rates when they made human/machine interactions cooperative. To this effect, she revealed that her research team had cooperated with the IBM product development team to deliver a new platform named: Watson Orchestrate to facilitate the automation of workflow.

During a session entitled: “Transforming the Future Organisation through Workplace Automation”, Pierre Daher, Head of Account Management EMEA South & Emerging Markets at Google Dubai, UAE, presented his opinion that the work platform has advanced but people still play a central role, backing his claim with a statistic stating that 80% of the global workforce are frontline workers.

He stated that even before COVID-19 there was an enormous amount of information to be managed, and that an employee in the data field had to deal with around 120 programs and applications in order to accomplish his daily tasks, using each of these for around 2 minutes before transferring to another, affecting his productivity and focus. As a result, the employee spends 40% of their time performing secondary tasks. Once the pandemic broke out, a number of companies and teams were not prepared for the new reality, and he wondered if the workforce would return to their previous work models or will continue with the models adopted during the pandemic. He finally presented examples in which new technologies such as artificial intelligence and airplanes proved their worth in fields such as agriculture and healthcare, but emphasized that people still play an essential role in these fields.

From Top Right: Rami Darwish, Pierre Daher, and Babar Khan

Rami Darwish, Managing Director at Arrow Labs in Dubai, UAE, felt that automation and digital transformation will be incorporated across stages, and that we were still in the digitization stage. He clarified that the pandemic had demonstrated the importance of using technological tools to drive this process forward, and to include the frontline workers in this process. An example he mentioned was the use of Internet of Things (IoT) to monitor oil lines, process information, and present it to management. Mr. Darwish felt that technology would be an enabling factor for the workforce at all levels rather than a replacement, and that it would create many jobs.

In another session entitled “Leveraging Cloud to reach your Digital Potential”, Miriam Mclemore, Director of Enterprise Strategy at Amazon Web Services (AWS) covered business agility, as in the ability of companies to respond, take decisions, and adapt to change, while considering speed of execution. She presented the qualities of the companies that have achieved digital transformation, the most important of these are the focus on customer experience, ensuring that this quality guides performance and is led by data and monitored by performance evaluation methods relying on advanced technology. She indicated that companies are currently pouring their investments into automation fields at a great scale, and are working to transparently provide access to data to all while using AI for cybersecurity purposes. She confirmed that all successful companies put innovation at their core, striking an example of Formula One, Careem, and Alef, all of which use AWS to maximize the benefit of data in developing their businesses.

Jinha Lee during his keynote at the Work Reimagined Conference

During his keynote entitled: “VR/AR and the Future of Remote Work” Jinha Lee, Cofounder and Chief Product Officer at Spatial in New York explained that current interaction models with the digital world - through a mouse cursor and a keyboard - are not perfectly inline with human interactive methods. Indeed, current remote working and video conference models are highly limited, which is why he and his team at Spatial have been working to develop 3D interactive technologies using virtual and augmented reality that would result in the inclusion of more members of a work team, increasing their capabilities and cooperation, Further, he highlighted his innovation and brainstorming mechanism, stating that it often results from spontaneous interactions between team members, which makes it difficult to demand out of a video conference where ideas are previously prepared and drafted. Spatial aims to work around this by offering a 3D platform using augmented reality in which the team members are embodied and interact directly with each other.

On a panel entitled: “The impact of Intelligent Machines on the Workforce”, Samer Al Mobayed, CEO of Furhat Robotics in Stockholm, Sweden, said that the general public’s expectations from robotics are extremely high, but practically the field is still in its infancy and a far cry from what can be seen on science fiction. He clarified that there are fields where artificial intelligence has allowed for great advancement such as self-driving cars, but in other fields, progress is still at the beginning stages. He also discussed the ethical implications of this technology, comparing it to the discovery of fire or the invention of the knife. Every technology has its positives and negatives, he explained, it depends on how it will be used. He stated that time and resources must be invested to set ethical strategies that limit the negative impacts of technology, all while being transparent about the negatives, and providing the essential tools needed to ensure security and privacy.

From Top Right, Samer Al Mobayed, Cyril Kabbara, Loubna Bouarfa, and Tuka AlHanai

Loubna Bouarfa, CEO and Founder of OKRA in the US, emphasized the importance of thinking of the ethical requirements and placing them at the core of the design in AI system design. She strongly indicated the importance of drawing out the talents of the workforce in the fields where human ingenuity reigns supreme, while using automation in areas where AI and robotics can facilitate and expedite the mundane tasks on behalf of people. She also pointed out, however, the importance of focusing on various ethical and legal areas, such as compliance with data collection laws, dealing with implicit bias issues, and working to develop explainable AI algorithms.

Cyril Kabbara, Co-Founder of SHARK Robotics in France, believes that humans should always remain at the center of the decision making chain, even while considering that human-machine cooperation is the way of the future. An example of such cooperation that he provided was the reliance of firefighters on AI systems to guide them, using machine vision to help them complete their work and keep them safe.

In a fireside chat entitled: “Reimagining Philanthropy: Working for a Brighter Future for Refugees”, Houssam Chahine, Chief of Private Sector Partnerships for MENA at UNHCR, said the high commission is more prepared today to provide a lot of services online, allowing refugees to receive training and education through their computers. He clarified that the UN is cooperating with the private sector and governments to ensure that education continues, especially considering that 40% of refugees are younger than 18 years old, he revealed that work to develop scholarships and ensure they receive university education is also underway.

Houssam Chahine and Nadia Rouchdy

Mr. Chahine confirmed that work is ongoing to provide more and more refugee support initiatives online, especially considering the increased gap in financing caused by COVID-19, requiring a reimagining of philanthropy to bridge this gap. He praised the region’s gathering of energy and historical generosity, indicating that the application “ GiveZakat ” allows donors to track their donations, and see what impact it has had. The application has seen very positive results in its trial period during the last Holy Month of Ramadan.

Building a Cyber Resilient Organization

This topic covered how to safeguard data while keeping workers and users engaged as the race into a more automated future unfolds.

In the keynote entitled: “How AI can help build a more resilient, loyal, and engaged remote workforce”, Mark Esposito, Professor at Harvard and IE Business School and Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer at Nexus FrontierTech in the US touched on this historic period in which major changes in the nature of work were unfolding due to technological development. He emphasized the importance of understanding how AI enables the facilitation and rapid development of the future of work. He believes that companies should not think of AI as replacement for their human employees, but rather a tool that would redesign work tasks. In other words, AI should be deployed to improve task performance and widen the scope of work.

Mark Esposito.

With regards to fear of technological domination, he said that 50% of the jobs that existed in the US 100 years ago are still around today, and encouraged us to think effectively on how technology can reinforce our jobs and businesses instead of how machines will take over for people. He said replacing humans with machines in the years to come will depend on the nature of these jobs, and whether or not they require creativity or strategy development. He indicated that a great number of jobs in various sectors and countries will continue to be performed by humans, as employing them will be less costly than replacing them by machines and AI. He saw that the future of work will involve the merging of technology with human resources to improve the abilities of people and reinforce their potential.

For his keynote entitled: “Mitigating Workforce Risk” Ramses Gallego, International Chief Technology Officer of CyberRes in Barcelona, Spain, spoke about the resilience that is not only capable of facing risks, but also reduces it through predictions developed by interacting with the workforce, and understanding their feelings and emotions. He confirmed that this resilience requires understanding the workers, then developing endurance, recovery, and finally development and success. To this end, a crisis management program and plan must be put in place that keeps pace with the rapid changes in the world. He also affirmed that the use of technology is not limited to digital transformation, but also helps us face risks through a fundamentally innovative approach. He also emphasized the importance that a company’s culture, infrastructure, and strategy has on reducing risk for the workforce.

Ramses Gallego

The closing keynote was entitled: “Using Technology to Build Long-term Competitive Advantage” and saw Felix Oberholzer-Gee, Professor of Business Administration in the Strategy Unit at Harvard Business School, cover the importance of optimism when preparing strategies to reimagine work and the workforce, as well as its role for improving the financial position of companies. He strongly emphasized the importance of simplicity when drafting strategies, as well as the importance of not starting from the technological standpoint but rather making the objective creating better jobs. An example he gave was that 90% of American companies had teams working on blockchain technology ten years ago, but that number stands at 10% today. He also differentiated between two types of competition: “competitions based on value” which focuses on the needs of the employees, such as when GAP created an application allowing employees to switch shifts with their colleagues, improving their happiness and productivity; and “competition based on selection” such as Uber, which has twice the number of female drivers in comparison to similar companies because they offer security features and flexible working hours.