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Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI), notably Chat GPT, has already clinched the Oscar for Best Technological Trend of 2023, said Filippo Chiarello, University of Pisa. And thus another big-time topic leads to more “polarisation” in our already divided society, pitting optimistic “advocates” against “the resistance” and its fears, noted Tom Wambeke, ITCILO.

For all the hubbub about AI these days, debates at a conference of leading researchers from Europe and neighbouring countries convened by the European Training Foundation (ETF) seemed remarkably balanced. While some participants worried about AI spinning “out of control” or perhaps exacerbating the North-South divide, almost everyone dismissed dystopian predictions as not relevant. Francesca Rosso, ETF, seemed to sum up the consensus when she rejected the notion of blindly following technology wherever it may lead in favour of making “a fair transition by design.”

Called Skills ®Evolution: Understanding and Developing Skills for a Digital Era, the two-day confab launched yesterday in Turin, Italy, has gathered 100 members of the ETF Skills Lab Network of Experts from around 40 countries, mostly from the European neighbourhood, nations to the south and east of European Union countries. Other participants included representatives of EU countries and international organisations. Started two years ago, the network already boasts 277 members and dozens of on-going projects.

The network has risen to prominence in line with the EU’s Digital Decade. As Europe tries to forge a third path between a business-led model and state-command, “There has been a Tsunami of EU policy initiatives that aim to take a more ethical, human-centred and value-based approach,” said Pilvi Torsti, ETF Director.

Today’s fear of AI might in retrospect resemble the 1988 protests by math teachers in the US against the classroom use of calculators, said Maha Gmira, Expert of Artificial Intelligence Strategies and Gender at the United Nations for Development, Morocco. She quickly pivoted to note the significance of the recent Hollywood screenwriters strike “as the first protest against a machine.” While the original 19th century Luddites might take umbrage with that characterisation, other speakers echoed the importance of the writers strike. Technological advances have always shaken up skill profiles, but AI “could potentially affect journalists, researchers, and actors – people who are generally articulate,” said Terence Hogarth, University of Warwick. He added, “We need skills systems that can adapt to the changes over the next 10-15 years.”

With the advent of Chat GPT, AI seems to have snuck up on us. But it already has sundry business and consumer uses, including in those smart phones we all carry around. Gmira provided context by harkening back to 1950 and the Turing Test. Developed by British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing, it states that a machine can be said to exhibit intelligent behaviour if a human interacting with it cannot distinguish it from another human.

Nearly half-a century later, IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue held its own but ultimately lost a series of chess matches to then-champion Garry Kasparov. A chart depicted in one of Gmira’s slides appeared to show exponential growth in the advancement on AI in recent years. Over 500 scholarly papers about AI and Chat GPT and education (just education) have been published in reputable journals this year, said Chiarello.

There are five key elements that must be considered in the analysis of an AI system, according to Gmira:

  1. Alignment – its ability to trace the intentions of users and follow their leads
  2. Hallucinations – factual errors
  3. Steerability – its capacity to moderate behaviour based on the needs of users
  4. Adherence to guardrails – avoid offensive behaviours such as racism and sexism
  5. Multi-modular – the ability to use images or audio in addition to text, for example

Almost everyone believes that AI will be disruptive, but assessments of its economic effects land all over the map. Gmira recalled a study that predicted billions of dollars of lost economic output by 2030 without sufficient investment in technological training. A report by the World Economic Forum cited during group discussions said that nearly half of business executives believe that AI will create more jobs than it destroys. But, finally, spotlight was put on a report by the investment bank Goldman Sachs that suggests that AI could soon replace some 300 million jobs. Referring to this report, “It just shows the ability of AI to create work for forecasters,” quipped Hogarth. Turning serious, he added, “Technological change has always been employment and skills enhancing. Why not just expect more of the same in the future?”

Several speakers mentioned ways that AI and digital technologies are, or can be, coaxed into contributing to helping solve societal ills such as exclusion and income disparities. For example:

  • Egypt, Nigeria, and Morocco have joined forces to use AI to address questions of “sovereignty in agriculture,” water shortages, and renewable energy, according to Gmira;
  • Gmira also discussed the issue of women in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), and called attention to a program of bootcamps for girls in Morocco;
  • AI should be brought into the classroom, argued Chiarello;
  • Game-based learning should be adopted, said Faton Deshishku, TVET expert (Kosovo), because it boosts engagement and critical thinking and encourages people to become lifelong learners;
  • Selim El Mekdessi, Lebanese University (Lebanon), described a series of partnerships designed to “bridge the gap between businesses and the educational sector” to address “skills not provided in the classical system”.
Site Visit: CIM 4.0 Competence Centre

A busload of participants headed to the CIM4.0 Competence Centre. CIM stands for competence, industry, and manufacturing, explained Eleonora Marino of its innovation & venture lab. The 4.0 is a reference to Industry 4.0, which many experts hail as the future of manufacturing. “The goal is to help companies, especially small businesses, adopt technologies,” she said.

Both a non-profit and a public-private partnership, its members include three public agencies, 22 heavyweight corporations (including multinationals), and two business associations. An additional 10 established businesses have signed on as “activity partners.” The centre is one of eight in Italy, each with its own specialisation. Turin`s history as an industrial hub helps explain why it was chosen for manufacturing.

CIM4.0 offers a myriad of training courses, customarily working with companies to recruit students. It also features two pilot production lines: one for digital technology and the other for additive manufacturing.

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