Data scientists are central to the new economy

Technological change means that leaders must constantly re-evaluate how to foster the right policy environment, writes Kent Walker

Kent Walker, senior vice president and general counsel at Google, at Majlis Mohamed bin Zayed. Mohamed Al Hammadi / Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi
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I grew up in Silicon Valley where my family settled generations ago and my grandfather worked on a farm and as a machinist. Today, at Google, I spend my workdays writing, speaking and meeting people. My grandfather would not recognise what I do as a job. For him, it would have been a holiday. We should ask ourselves: what will our grandchildren do that we will not recognise as jobs?

Two hundred years ago, 97 per cent of people worked in the fields. Then many moved to factories and then to offices. And change continues today with growing use of industrial automation and artificial intelligence. Just as industrialisation changed agriculture and industry, artificial intelligence and machine learning are starting to change office jobs and automating routine tasks.

Google’s approach to machine learning is driven by a belief that the benefits of technology should accrue to everyone.

The internet has been “the great equaliser”. It distributed access to technology and created a frictionless marketplace that empowered both consumers and new companies. With costs continuing to decline, more people around the world now have access to mobile phones than to decent sanitation. Today, a kid in Al Ain using a search engine has the same access to information as the chancellor of Germany or the president of France.

On a larger scale, cloud-based services have made advanced IT offerings easier to scale and purchase on demand – making information processing an affordable utility like water or electricity. Now Google is integrating artificial intelligence and machine learning into most of our products: whether you are using Search or YouTube or Translate or Maps you are benefiting from a wealth of machine learning.

This widespread access to internet connectivity plus essentially unlimited computing power have, with the acceleration of machine learning and artificial intelligence, led to profound business transformations shaping the future of work.

Already, we have jobs such as data scientists in fields that didn’t exist 20 years ago. It would be foolish to think that what we do today represents the end of the process. But it takes an act of imagination to envision the future.

With the advent of ATMs in the 1980s, people thought that there would be no more bank tellers. In fact, there are more bank tellers now than there were in 1980. They just do more sophisticated things like helping clients with financial planning and new kinds of services. It’s a great example of how technology displaces tasks, not jobs.

A recent survey found that the “best job in the US” in 2017 was that of mobile apps developer – a job that did not exist a few years ago.

Software engineers will help design the future of medicine, infrastructure, finance, transportation, stock markets and maybe even music and art.

Philosophy, history and the humanities will always be important as we chart this new path. But so will computer science and programming. A recent study by Google shows that computer science and programming skills are critical to the UAE's digital economy plans. At the heart of every organisation, there will be need to be data scientists who understand how to program the business for success.

Beyond educational change, cultures need to evolve as well. It seems counter-intuitive, but you want young people to take a chance on a cool new thing, not just hope for a safe job with the government or a large company. You need to promote a culture of risk and reward, and a legal system that accepts that sometimes people will try and fail. No other place in the world has witnessed more failures than Silicon Valley. These failures constitute the fertiliser that led a subsequent generation of Silicon Valley start-ups to create perhaps more value than any other place in history.

The governments in this region can adopt other policies that will directly contribute to the rise of the knowledge economy and benefit both businesses and citizens. Promoting a start-up ecosystem, letting successful companies share economic rewards with their employees, avoiding red tape, burdensome licensing rules and limits on trade, and giving ready access to government data can all help entrepreneurs grow new markets.

I feel fortunate to be living in a time when technology has the potential to fundamentally improve the way people work, learn and live – no matter who they are, where they are or what they do. History has shown us that technological progress leads to greater prosperity, more jobs, safer workplaces and higher standards of living. It’s up to all of us – tech companies, governments, business and citizens – to work together to create the conditions that allow innovation to flourish.

The UAE has been a leader in many aspects in the region. Social and economic developments that would have seemed hard to imagine 50 years ago are today a reality through vision and a relentless desire to achieve results.

But more than ever before, governments must prepare for the future. Technological change means that leaders must constantly re-evaluate how to foster the right policy environment.

We look to the UAE to rise to the challenge to become as much of a regional and global leader in the hyper-connected digital age as it has been in the bricks-and-mortar economy.

Kent Walker is a senior vice president at Google