Focus on Critical Thinking Skills to Help Meet AI’s Challenge to Future Jobs

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

On November 22, I took part in a dialogue meeting at the Arab Forum for Open Science, titled “Future Prospects of Open Science in the Arab World”.

My participation was a reflection of an intellectual journey, contemplating its seeds, roots, and fruits, given that the ideas it contains help us to understand the governing aspects of this topic.

This journey begins by raising the problem of “post-humanism”. Homo habilis appeared on Earth roughly 2.4 million years ago, while the oldest evidence of our species, Homo sapiens, comes from about 300,000 years ago. , Homo sapiens became the most widespread human species on our planet, with a population that has grown from one million people a hundred thousand years ago to over 8 billion people today. 

Humankind, like all species, is subject to extinction over time through natural selection. Is raising the problem of the extinction of Homo sapiens an objective reality, or a form of fictional reality? If it is an objective reality, this may happen due to the decline of the human species, climate change, natural disasters, overexploitation, pollution, or the emergence of invasive species. So what will be there after humanity ends?

Is it possible to interact positively with this problem, by presenting a comprehensive cognitive map based on the generative mind and critical thinking as a model and analytical tool?

All of these questions are no more than an attempt to confront bounded rationality with jurisprudential objectivity.

Therefore, the University of Cambridge, the University Oxford, the University of California at Berkeley, and other world-leading universities have established research centres to study the risks of human annihilation. Artificial intelligence is one of the risks that threatens the future of humanity, which depends mainly on natural intelligence.

We find this phenomenon in the “man vs. machine” narrative. This was countered by a competing vision, “man and machine,” that foresees the possibility of developing humans biologically and mentally, not only through positive interaction with natural selection, but also with artificial selection to develop a new type of intelligence, i.e. an augmented intelligence, which includes a combination of human and artificial intelligence, which often depends on the context and the real situation.

Knowledge and Work

Adopting or rejecting such visions, whether we are pro-machines or pro-humans, makes us wonder about the future of knowledge and work. Knowledge and work are the norm of human life, and a pivotal issue, as stated in one of the interpretations of the opening of the Quran: “Whoever knows and does not act according to his knowledge is displeased with, and whoever acts without knowledge is misguided, and whoever knows and acts according to his knowledge is on the straight path.”

Needless to say, the most important factors influencing success in knowledge and work are those related to cognitive skills, which are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to be replaced by artificial intelligence.

Looking to the near future, we find that much of the research issued by global research centres like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Economic Forum indicates a growing global skills gap. By 2030 it is estimated that closing that gap will require skilling and upskilling more than one billion workers in line with the requirements of the new economy, out of a total global workforce of about 3.7 billion workers between the ages of 15 and 65.

This gap is attributed to several factors that increase the competitiveness of science and work, including: globalisation, demographic changes, digital transformation, the Covid-19 pandemic, distance learning, on-demand economies, inequality, and urbanisation. If the goal of skilling, upskilling, and reskilling is not achieved, the global loss is estimated at more than 60 trillion U.S. dollars, or exceeding the combined losses of the global financial crisis in 2008, the subsequent crisis of the World Trade Centre bombing in 2001, and the Covid-19 crisis from 2020 to 2022.

The essence of research in such studies suggests the difficulty of replacing cognitive skills with artificial intelligence, especially critical thinking skills, which include problem solving, analysis, creative thinking, interpretation, evaluation, and reasoning, which play a major role in the development of enhanced intelligence.

From here arises the problem of determining the future of knowledge, work, and the relationship between the university degree, job, and skills. There are several explanatory models that pave the way towards a theoretical and practical understanding of the future of university degree-job-skills trilogy. 

For example, several studies, including recent research by scholars at Harvard University, confirm the difficulty of predicting future jobs. Some experts believe that as many as 90 percent of future jobs haven’t been invented yet. If we are convinced that the main purpose of education is to prepare youth for employment, then the question is: How can universities achieve this without knowing what the jobs of the future are?

If we are convinced that the main purpose of education is for enlightenment, then how can we rely on universities to prepare graduates for unknown future jobs, while many companies claim that the graduates universities are producing now do not meet the requirements of labour markets?

Some people believe that the collapse of universities’ monopoly on providing the credentials that lead to a job has become a reality, especially with the emergence and growth of education technology companies. EdTech firms, which began offering online university courses, or MOOCs, have now begun to establish academies, in partnership with international universities and companies, and issue partial accreditation certificates (micro-credentials), focusing on the fastest growing jobs, such as those that require electronic or digital skills.

Here too we face the challenge that places the job as the milestone for determining education that produces specific skills for that job; if the job becomes extinct, this education becomes of limited benefit.

The approach of focusing on measuring and developing critical thinking skills, which are difficult to be replaced by artificial intelligence, opens the way for universities to interact positively with the skills gap, by equipping graduates with the skills of the future, and also empowering the workforce through upskilling and reskilling, and developing those skills through executive education and continuing education in universities. This also achieves a rational method for dealing with the claim of many companies that current graduates lack the requirements of current or future labour markets. It is also consistent with the perspective of education for enlightenment.

Defining Critical Thinking

The focus on critical thinking skills results from the agreement of several studies in philosophy, psychology, and education—despite the difference in defining critical thinking within each discipline—that critical thinking is a package of dispositions or behaviours. Therefore, my company, Macat International, which specializes in measuring and developing critical thinking skills and behaviours, along with the University of Cambridge, conducted a study to define critical thinking skills. It concluded that critical thinking consists of six main skills and 24 sub-skills under the “PACIER” model.

The PACIER model is the first global model for critical thinking, especially after it was adopted by the OECD, in cooperation with Macat International, as a modern cognitive map to measure critical thinking skills and creative thinking at the school and university levels.

This model is superior to many other measurement tools, including the intelligence quotient (IQ) test, since it can, after measuring critical thinking, be cultivated and developed, and the cognitive map of the PACIER model enables the user to form different packages of sub- and main skills to deal with assumptions, ideas, data, evidence, and the ability to make decisions and solve problems, as it is a tool for codification of thinking process.

We can say that critical thinking skills help humans communicate, and achieve flexible, collective, and effective social cooperation and collaboration with humans and machines, which some consider to be the basis of the superiority of Homo sapiens over other species.

It also seems that the dialogue on posthumanism can be reformulated after considering the PACIER model for measuring, cultivating, and developing critical thinking skills, in terms of the inherent potential, and moving within its framework to enable humans to harness artificial intelligence, and move to augmented intelligence so that a human victory over the machine becomes a reality.

If confronting the global skills gap depends on skilling, upskilling, andreskilling, then we can say that it is correct to rely, in the first place, on pre-skilling in universities and schools starting from the sixth year (ten-year-old students).

All of the above proposals and visions are offered as an effort to shed light on a topic that concerns firstly humanity, secondly the world, and finally looking at how the Arab world can benefit from these ideas, and linking them to the reality of open science to determine what deserves to be kept, and what need to be excluded, and to reconstruct them to form multiple holistic units and constructive visions that advance our countries and Arab peoples.

This article is formulated out of the speech of Salah Khalil, a founding member of the Board of Trustees of the Alexandria Trust and chief executive of Macat International, before the Open Science Forum, organised by the Arab Open University, in partnership with the Arab League Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ALECSO) in Kuwait, in November. Al-Fanar Media is one of the projects of the Alexandria Trust.

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