In this insightful conversation with The Ismaili, Rahim Hirji details the ways in which technology is having a growing influence on our everyday lives, covering topics from artificial intelligence and robotics, to social media and education. Detailing some of the opportunities and risks this presents, Rahim suggests how we might prepare for an increasingly digital future.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been referred to as the ‘great accelerator’ of digital transformation. Who stands to benefit and lose from such developments?

We saw digitally native companies benefit most from the pandemic and companies like Amazon and Netflix took centre stage as the default options in their categories. While this great acceleration towards a digital-centric world has been an upheaval to many industries, this reset brings with it much opportunity.

Industries like pharmaceuticals, online marketplaces like Etsy and Alibaba, logistics companies that have delivered everything we needed during the lockdown, and communication platforms like Zoom have all benefited from the pandemic. The leaders in these areas will continue to win, and in some ways, alongside the leading technology companies, they form part of the new infrastructure for the future. Companies will “plug-in” to this infrastructure and become dependent on it. If you are taking a new product to market, you would have to consider distributing via Amazon and its supply chain. From a work perspective, many companies have realised they can operate remotely and have reworked how teams are run, allowing employees to work from wherever they want using collaborative tools like Slack, Notion, and Asana.

There have been some obvious casualties to the pandemic, from traditional retail to cinema to tourism, but it will be interesting to see industry segments that are now required to rethink themselves further from within, from hospitality to healthcare to manufacturing. In these and in others, new business models will be defined, and redefined, in order to survive. On a personal note, I’m also interested to see how the school education sector reforms itself to protect against the catastrophe of students missing out on large parts of their learning and formation.

How are Educational Technology (EdTech) solutions disrupting traditional learning processes?

As with many industries, the education sector has been eroded with the adoption of digital technology within the overall learning process, and we have seen an escalation of change during the pandemic. There are many areas of change but I see three main areas of disruption from EdTech:

More data-driven insight: with tracking at every stage of the learning process, the potential for bespoke personalised learning will become more prevalent, meaning that everyone could have a unique learning experience.

Globally accessible education: it’s now easier and cheaper than ever before to pick up anything from basic skills to Ivy league type educational instruction. In fact, using platforms like Coursera and edX, you can acquire the equivalent of a university course for free. You may not get the full qualification but this sort of accessibility can help you adapt in these rapidly changing times.

Immersive learning: there’s a concept called blended learning which involves a combination of traditional classroom-based instruction with online learning. I see this evolving to include additional emerging mediums as technology reduces in price. Imagine a virtual reality history lesson where a student is transported to Ancient Greece, homework being supported by prompting chatbots, or language learning being practised with Google Assistant or Alexa. 

As we move forward through this pandemic, I’m hopeful that EdTech will support a wider realisation that education doesn’t and shouldn’t just stop when one reaches the end of their formal school or university phase. EdTech solutions will support lifelong and student-driven learning whereby we learn, skill-up, and reskill on a continuous basis.

Young people today have never lived in a world without social media. What are the implications of this for the future of society?

The interference of social media in our actual lives is a very real problem, especially as some allow it to shape our very deepest thoughts. But the use of social media has transcended past real lives and those in the midst of this bubble are likely to have more followers or connections than they do actual friends that they have deep relationships with and know in real life.

In my mind, there are two specific implications for the future:

The first one is that, despite our want and need to control a digital universe, it does exist. Many of us have colleagues that we haven’t met, or suppliers that we only converse with online. So my point here is that we need to be good at conversing selectively where we need to and where it can be beneficial for us, but that we also need to embrace real-life interaction which takes me on to my second point.

Soft skills like communication, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and teamwork are the very skills that become important in an age of artificial intelligence (AI), machines, and technology. And these are the skills that are put at risk in an age where people live online. It will become increasingly important for us all to over-index in developing these skills to be able to stand out and lead. It’s this juxtaposition of not having the skills because of society but also needing them for society. This needs to be actively addressed. Skills like coding, data analysis, and appreciation of technology will be at the forefront of the minds of those going into education today, but without the soft skills, talented and bright individuals will not reach their full potential in work and life. Parents of children under 18 will need to make an extra effort to coach and support their sons and daughters to adequately prepare them for the future, to actively allow experiences that support personal growth in areas like problem-solving, creative thinking, global citizenship, as well as key interpersonal skills.

What is your take on artificial intelligence — could the risks outweigh the rewards?

We’ve all heard some of the outlandish predictions that surround artificial intelligence, and actually, if you play out how automation and machine learning are evolving, there is some validity that AI could do all of the crazy things we hear about and then some. The reality is that artificial intelligence is already powering our everyday lives: predictive search and algorithmic results when we use Google, recommendations when we use Amazon or Netflix, personalised advertising that follows us around the Internet, price setting on what you might be willing to pay for your Uber, or recalculating your route through traffic on Google Maps — as well as that bespoke experience as you scroll through LinkedIn, Instagram, or TikTok. And if AI is already powering our world and our habits, how do we take back control?

I can’t stress enough how important a technology AI is and will be over the coming years, from disease detection and diagnosis, fully autonomous cars reducing deaths, automated investment of our funds, and virtual tutors supporting teachers in and out of the classroom. If we think about how revolutionary the Internet has been for us, artificial intelligence will build upon that world.

But with revolution comes pain. Over the coming years, we will see much misuse of technology: monitoring of our behaviour in ways that we can’t quite imagine at the moment, and everything from privacy violations and ethical issues, to problems like weapons automation. We also have to face the existential risk that may present itself as AI becomes “superintelligent” — more than humans ourselves. We can’t directly control this risk, but we can be circumspect when controlling our own data, and make sure that we are not a slave to the technology.

Do you think the increasing sophistication of robots could result in a widespread loss of jobs, or can it lead to new forms of employment?

Machines will never take all the jobs that are available. The labour market is much more nuanced than that, but machines and technology have been good at doing a better job than humans where repetition is required. And as technology improves, it has and will move further up the employment value chain to more traditional white-collar skilled jobs. What I think you will see is that machines will annihilate some job sectors but will complement others. If we take lawyers as an example, you’ll see that algorithms have replaced the processing of some legal documents, but this allows lawyers to focus on higher-value work requiring more creativity and flexibility. So, in many cases, machines will indeed replace tasks but will also complement jobs.

I certainly think that there are new job categories emerging, centred around technology and data that didn’t exist 10 years ago, and there will be jobs in five years time that we don’t know today. The big question is whether there will be a net replacement of the jobs that have disappeared by the new ones that are created. The only thing we can do, as humans, is to educate ourselves, embrace technology use within our various fields, and be ready to pivot and evolve.



Rahim Hirji works in the ever-changing world surrounding education, consumer Internet, and technology. He previously founded the edtech business EtonX and now leads international growth for Quizlet, the popular global learning platform used by over 60 million people per month. Rahim also curates Box of Amazing, a newsletter covering how technology affects our lives.