Wed | Oct 28, 2020

Partnering with machines

Published:Friday | April 27, 2018 | 12:00 AMShelly-Ann Harris
The Industrial Technology Research Institute's companion robot plays Scrabble with attendees at the CES International gadget show on Wednesday, January 10, 2018, in Las Vegas.

St Francis of Assisi was known for love, faith, and simplicity. But the saint also had some thoughts on carnal, ruddy things like labour.

He once said: "He who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist." True. In today's technological world, I would add to his sentiment that 'he who works with robots is prepared for the future!' Sounds like a scary and extremely hypothetical idea, especially if you've seen the Matric trilogy, where the machines tried to take over the world. But while the idea is a little out there in developing economies like Jamaica, it is certainly no longer in the realm of hypothetical.

According to research by The Economist, almost half of all jobs could be automated by computers within the next two decades.

In fact, data shows that 47 per cent of all US jobs could now be automated. Plus, the economics makes the age of automation, artificial intelligence, and robots more compelling. A software robot costs $15k/year while an outsourced IT worker from India can run you $30k/year. These benefits are clearly what inspired Amazon's human-less supermarket. Closer to home here in Jamaica, banks are catching on with all sorts of automated processes. So where do all these exciting developments leave the labour market - the living breathing human beings who can't process hundreds of data points and prepare an accurate report in 15 seconds?

These were some of the riveting matters for discussion and interrogation at the 2018 Labour Market Forum organised by the Planning Institute of Jamaica with support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). IDB's General Manager for the Caribbean Country Department Therese Turner-Jones asserted that we simply must learn to be "partners with machines" and "upskill the labour market to do tasks that machines cannot". She sided with Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun in pointing out that going forward, "people will still need to know specific bodies of knowledge to be effective in the workplace, but that alone will not be enough when intelligent machines are doing much of the heavy lifting of information. To succeed, tomorrow's employees will have to demonstrate a higher order of thought". This includes developing and honing expressly human, cognitive skills like critical thinking, systems thinking, entrepreneurship, and cultural agility.


Global requirements


Julian Robinson, opposition spokesman on information and the knowledge economy, couldn't agree with Turner-Jones more. "The reality is that we have to spend more time on determining the kind of skills needed to compete at the global level," he said, while calling for more computer science graduates in order to position Jamaica as an option for the outsourcing of code.

Fernando Pavon, specialist in the Labor Markets and Social Security Division of the Inter-American Development Bank, also made the point that we must invest in people in order to embrace change and to master the age of robots. He said that the new labour market would not only need workers with technological skills, but also socio-emotional skills (which robots lack) such as empathy, the ability to effectively communicate, teamwork and self-management. Similarly, the demand for workers with more complex and analytical skills will grow.

Abilities such as learning to learn, problem solving, or adaptability, he believes. Pavon said that in the end, we must indeed all do what we believe to be right for humans in the age of robots. St Francis could again be instructive here, he said. "Start by doing what's necessary (train and upskill people), then do what's possible (keep advancing and bettering automation and other technological tools), and suddenly, you are doing the impossible (improving lives through human-machine collaboration)."

- Shelly-Ann Harris is a communications specialist with extensive experience working with international organisations and governments.