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Ready or not, here it comes! Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming an ever-present reality that no one should ignore. At first, there were warnings of the imminent danger of AI on the longevity of traditional jobs and occupations. But now, as the extent of the machine learning revolution becomes known, the attitude shifted toward acceptance.
Inevitably, with the advent of artificial intelligence, certain traditional jobs will go extinct. Businesses will be forced to change their systems to incorporate AI as a normal part of their production processes. This change or adaptation means retooling, reallocating human resources, and retraining staff. This process, however, costs money that few Jamaican businesses can afford.
So, is Jamaican businesses ready for artificial intelligence?
Artificial Intelligence is good for Business, Economy
What started out as warnings against the inevitable take over of human jobs by intelligent machines has now become pleas for the government to put in place policies and mechanisms to embrace AI. This attitude shift occurred within five years.
In 2018, then Minister of Science, Energy, and Technology Dr. Andrew Wheatley acknowledged that with more powerful technologies available, business process operations are transforming. Technologies including cloud computing, software and automation, and social media are increasingly used by businesses to reduce costs and accelerate growth.
Studies, including one cited by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in a report this year, suggest that artificial intelligence will boost the economies of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Risks of Job Losses but AI is Inevitable
That study, done for the Institute for the Integration of Latin America and the Caribbean (INTAL), however, presented the risks of job losses in the region. Approximately 10 to 65 percent of the region’s labour force is at risk of losing jobs to AI. In the Latin American region alone, the estimated job loss is between 36 and 43 percent.
On the other hand, Jamaica, with its lower gross domestic product (GDP) and greater inequality is at higher risk of significant job losses.
Naturally, Jamaica cannot afford to reverse any gains it has achieved over the last five years in its employment numbers. Not when the mantra of the government is job creation, job creation, job creation! According to data from the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN), the country’s unemployment rate in January 2019 was an encouraging 8.0 percent (in April 2018 it was at 9.7 percent).
Closer examination of the sectors accounting for the growth in employment in Jamaica’s workforce points to the increase in jobs in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector. That is the explosion of “call center” jobs, particularly for young persons.
That said, the World Economic Forum and the IDB’s prediction that the global adaptation of advanced technology will create major labour market shifts as early as 2022 should be taken seriously by Jamaica’s government and the private sector. There is no question that the adaptation of artificial intelligence in business and other processes is inevitable.
More Funding Needed for the Sciences
Former Prime Minister, Bruce Golding in an address to the graduating class at Ardenne High School in 2018, cited the need for additional funding in science and technology fields. The need for more funding in these areas has been made many times before. Apparently, the desired level of funding has not materialized. Then again, student preferences remain fixed in traditional areas, rather than in the sciences.
Evidently, Jamaicans have a morbid fear of mathematics and the sciences. To get the typical student to embrace STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) seems like a tall order. Very few secondary and tertiary students excel in these subjects. Secondary students who managed to matriculate into tertiary education with maths and science subjects soon find the cost of completing their degrees rather daunting. Consequently, some students dropped out or switched their majors to survive.
While access to funding is a pressing concern for the development of science and technology in Jamaica, flaws in the education system and the quality of STEM subject teachers are to be addressed as well. In order to push Jamaica into the 21st century of technology, radical changes in the island’s educational system are, therefore, necessary.
New Occupations with Machine Learning
Jamaicans need to equip themselves to take advantage of the many opportunities created by the fusion of technologies. But this will be a tall order that requires a higher level of commitment for the long haul. But as the saying goes, “delay is danger“. The evolution of machine learning is moving to replace humans in certain functions. Such functions as customer service, retail, information and data processing, analysis, will become jobs for machines.
In its study, Future of Jobs 2018, the World Economic Forum suggests that machines programmed for pattern recognition and the ability to function without humans are on the horizon. At the same time, smart machines will replace humans in other jobs. One of its key findings, however, is that AI and other technologies will drive advances in automation and create new occupations. The study estimates that 75 million jobs worldwide may be displaced by the shift in the division of labour between machines and humans. Concurrently, 133 million new roles may emerge.
New Skills Required
Naturally, there will be changes in the kind of skills necessary to perform new functions in conjunction with machines. Indeed, digital technology will be vital in how industries adapt and change their processes worldwide. Fortunately, Jamaica ranks among the top 50 digital nations in the Thalons Services Globalisation Index for the adoption of innovation. Unfortunately, with its high percentage of unskilled labour, high poverty rates, and low GDP, Jamaica remains at a disadvantage. To emerge from this disadvantage, Jamaica must implement policies for productive development, innovation, and investment in human talent. An apt quote from Alvin Toffler illustrates the challenge Jamaica currently faces:
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but rather will be those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn” Alvin Toffler
The Jamaican education system is not yet prepared to accommodate the wholesale adoption of artificial intelligence as a norm. But, inevitably, for the nation’s survival, it needs to get there.