The importance of spatial intelligence and soft skills in AI era

September 08, 2023 09:24
A study showed that females are better than males at putting themselves in others’ shoes and understanding what the other person is thinking or feeling. Photo: Reuters

A recent study from OpenAI and the University of Pennsylvania found that OpenAI's latest language-processing model GPT-4 would affect mostly educated white-collars with an annual earning up to US$80,000 of the American workforce, including financial analysts, accountants, and writers.

This echoes the predictions of the Future of Jobs Report 2023 released by the World Economic Forum that as many as 83 million jobs would be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI). This includes accounting and administration staff. To address the problem, we need to have innovative mindset. Spatial intelligence which will become indispensable can help us master the future.

The intelligence of smart cities lies in massive amounts of data. With the number of connected devices worldwide jumping to 125 billion in 2030, according to IHS Markit, geographic information systems (GIS) can efficiently collate and analyse data for making better decisions. The tool, combining knowledge of spatial geography, statistics, mathematics and modelling, can help one to visualise the analysis results for easy communication and to share with different stakeholders.

In Hong Kong, GIS is widely used, from the Transport Department's Intelligent Road Network, urban renewal and public housing estate planning, to the Common Operational Picture (COP) to connect multiple government departments for natural disasters relief operation. In addition, the combination of GIS and big data makes it easier to explore deeper intelligence, helping the Fire Services Department to analyse the images taken by drones to search for and rescue missing hikers faster and more efficiently.

On the other hand, spatial data is a driver for the new economy. According to the U.K. government, location data has been widely used by private sector such as retail, logistics and transportation, creating jobs and unlocking an economic value of up to £11 billion (around HK$108 billion) a year.

Despite this, there is a serious shortage of talent with geospatial expertise. Hong Kong is no exception. With the launch of the one-stop data supermarket, the Common Spatial Data Infrastructure (CSDI), more public and private sectors can easily obtain and use spatial data for product development, leading to relevant talent being in short supply.

To solve the problem, we need to start with education. Therefore, I hope that the authorities will include GIS in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) curriculum to enrich young people's problem-solving skills, expand the local smart talent pool, and work together to build an advanced smart city.

In addition, soft skills like empathy would become increasingly important.

Smartphones has conquered the world with its ease of use, thanks to user experience (UX) design. This kind of invention blends mathematical engineering, psychology and marketing.

The digital tech industry has long been dominated by male, with women making up only 28% of the U.S. tech workforce in 2022. But according to human resources firm Zippia, four out of ten UX design positions are held by women.

Why? A study of more than 300,000 people in 57 countries by the University of Cambridge released last year confirmed that females are better than males at putting themselves in others’ shoes and understanding what the other person is thinking or feeling. This sounds a lot like UX, which AI currently does not have the capability to take into account.

Since women have this basic instinct, they should make the best use of it not only to fight for better pay, but also to complement the application of technology. However, in Hong Kong, even though women have accounted for more than half of university students for more than 10 years, less than 40% study STEM subjects. In terms of employment, the number of people in the information and communications industry increased from 109,000 in 2008 to 132,000 in 2021, but the proportion of female employees remained unchanged, from 32% in that year to 31% 13 years later.

As AI is growing to be our key competitor, we should bank on our unique human quality, like empathy, to gain the upper hand.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong