Somi Arian intends to ensure women don’t lose out in the Artificial Intelligence revolution. With a new book on the future of work, a female-focused platform and a think tank on business and technology, she is doing all she can to balance the playing field.
Somi Arian has had an extremely productive lockdown. Her book, Career Fear (and how to beat it): Get the Perspective, Mindset and Skills You Need to Futureproof your Work Life, is just out, she has launched an online think tank for women in business and technology and she is about to launch a platform, Fem Talent, which connects female talent and funders. All of that while running her own marketing company.
She is used to juggling multiple roles as a film-maker, tech philosopher and social media influencer.
Her book is about how work is changing in response to technology and artificial intelligence and about the kind of human skills people will require for future work as well as the need for lifelong learning for a career full of transitions.
Somi was approached by Kogan Page to write the book after she made an award-winning documentary called The Millennial Disruption on consumer behaviour in the digital environment and became a leading LinkedIn influencer. The film led to the managing director of Morgan Stanley asking Somi to do a project on millennials in the workplace and the need for greater emotional intelligence to understand some of the stresses they are under as a result of growing up at this period in time. This in turn led to Kogan Page asking her to write a book on the future of work.
Somi spent 2019 researching and writing the book and in the process she realised 90% of the references in it were to men and that the majority of jobs that would be displaced by the technology revolution would be traditionally female jobs. “I saw that there was a real danger for women,”she says. That realisation was combined with the break-up of a relationship linked to her passion for her career. “I felt it was unfair that I was being asked to choose between my career and my relationship even though I didn’t want children. Even that was not enough,” she says.
So she decided to set up the think tank to explore in a systematic way why women are held back in the world of work, to promote more female role models and to fund data-driven studies into women’s socio-economic status. Although she says she began to feel more at ease with herself after years of feeling huge pressure to succeed [a pressure which she describes in the book as a widespread one for women of her age], her ultimate goal is no small ambition. She says: “The world is run by 10 tech firms all of which are run by men. I want to change that. My platform aims to help women get to those levels.”
Somi has faced multiple challenges in her life. Born in Iran, she taught herself English and, after a stint as a programme officer at the UN, came to the UK from Iran in 2005 to study for her master’s at the University of St Andrews. Somi, who has ADHD, began her PhD but could not finish it after her money ran out so she ended up instead with two master’s. After working as a tv producer/director, her inner drive and curiosity led her to set up her marketing business, Smart Cookie Media, in 2015. Among marketing advice and training and a focus on thought leadership, it runs marketing workshops with high-level executives at the Ivy Club in London.
That thought leadership extends to Somi’s broader embrace of the future of work. Her book talks about the need to teach people the skills they need to be emotionally intelligent, self aware and creative. She says this needs to start at school. “Emotional intelligence is as important as maths and science, if not more so,” she says, “but lots of teachers do not have it. The structure of education is changing and more and more people are questioning the value of formal education.”
Somi says every major revolution in how we work has involved a trade-off: in the industrial revolution people’s physical abilities were enhanced by machines such as cars, but people still needed to build those capacities so they did exercise and went to the gym. In the digital revolution, people’s cognitive abilities were enhanced by computers, but we still need to use our minds. We need, she says, “a mental gym” to keep our minds working. In the AI revolution robots will be able to mimic human emotions so we need to ensure that we do not lose those capabilities to machines by emotionally challenging ourselves.
A combination of those human and technological skills will give people a better fighting chance for quality jobs in the future, says Somi, describing her role as a “transition architect”. She is fairly pessimistic about the impact of AI on jobs, particularly in developing countries. A report out this week from the World Economic Forum forecasts that half of all work tasks will be handled by machines by 2025. The think-tank says a “robot revolution” would create 97m jobs worldwide but destroy almost as many, leaving some communities at risk, with routine or manual jobs in administration and data processing most at threat of automation. However, it says roles that relied on human skills would rise in demand.
That is Somi’s contention too. She says: “I cannot solve the problems that will be created,” adding that much of it is due to past action or inaction over sustainable growth and proper regulation of the internet. “However, I can suggest things that will make the transition less painful.”
She warns that Covid-19 is just a “test run for what is really coming down the line” and she is not optimistic that governments will rise to the challenge. However, she wants to raise awareness among individuals and educators of the challenges ahead, particularly for women. “I want society to embrace the idea that women’s careers are as important as men’s and should be taken seriously,” she says.