As artificial intelligence transforms jobs around the world and workers fear for their future, Italy plans to spend nearly $30 million to help people boost their digital skills, particularly for positions at risk from automation and technological advances.
Regulators and lawmakers in Europe and elsewhere are grappling with how to handle AI as it becomes more accessible across industries. While experts say the technology will not replace humans any time soon, its rise into the mainstream - including through the viral chatbot ChatGPT - has fueled concerns about the impact on the job market.
AI can power robots that help with warehouse inventory, speed up vaccine production and re-create voices, raising questions for a wide range of workers, including grocery store employees and voice actors.
In Italy, an array of jobs could be at risk, including in transportation and logistics, office and administrative support, production, services and sales, according to the Fondo per la Repubblica Digitale (FRD), a fund that Italy established in 2021 to improve digital skills in the country.
The latest plan involves putting some $10 million into improving the skills of people whose jobs are at high risk of being replaced because of technological innovation, the fund announced this week.
While the program is not focused solely on AI, it will fund companies and nonprofits for projects to train their workers to use new technologies, which could involve robotics, data science and artificial intelligence.
"It is necessary to adapt the know-how of workers with training on digital and soft skills so that people can do their jobs in a complementary way" to the technology, said Martina Lascialfari, head of institutional activities at the FRD. "This will enable companies and workers to experience it as an opportunity and not a threat."
The FRD described its efforts as an intervention to help workers as companies expect more advanced skills to remain competitive on the market. The fund aims to create "experimental projects that can be scalable" and inform government policy in Italy, Lascialfari said.
The remaining money in the plan, about $20 million, will go toward helping people who are unemployed or economically inactive to develop digital skills that could allow them to enter the job market.
Italy has a specific context, with 54 percent of the population between the ages of 16 and 74 lacking basic digital skills, compared with an average 46 percent in the European Union, according to the FRD.
Still, around the world, "one of the worrying features is that we now need societies that are AI literate, and we haven't even really managed to do digital literacy in some ways," said Rose Luckin, a professor at the University College London Knowledge Lab.
The technologies, and worries about the future of work, may not be new, "but I think it's become much more real," she said.
A recent Goldman Sachs report said generative AI - software that creates text, images and video based on data it is fed - could disrupt the global economy and predicted 18 percent of work worldwide could be computerized, although analysts caution it's too early to gauge how disruptive it could be, The Washington Post reported.
"We have to have a combination of well-designed regulation with education programs that help people to get to grips with these technologies," said Luckin, who founded Educate Ventures Research, which also does research and consultancy on ethical AI solutions.
She said it had become important to teach workers aspects of AI "because it will be part of people's jobs." The United Kingdom, for example, is investing in training to try "to make sure everybody at university gets a taste of AI," but it is also necessary to equip the wider population, she said.
Before ChatGPT went viral, Finland rolled out its "1 percent" plan nearly five years ago to teach at least 1 percent of its population the basic concepts at the core of artificial intelligence through an online course and then grow that number.
Chatbots that can write books and generate images have since turned greater public focus to generative AI. While its abilities have drawn admiration, they have also prompted a variety of concerns, including over jobs and privacy.
In Italy, authorities temporarily banned ChatGPT until the U.S.-based company behind it, OpenAI, said it had addressed issues raised by the Italian data protection agency last month.
"[All] that happened with ChatGPT has woken the world up to the fact that we are not AI ready," Luckin said.
--Ellen Francis, The Washington Post