Thu | Nov 23, 2017

Imani Duncan-Price | World of Work 2020 and Beyond

Published:Sunday | July 23, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Imani Duncan-Price

It's a sunny day at Oxford University and half the classroom is crying or paralysed with fear and the other half is looking at the data with anticipation of opportunity. I felt a wave of anxiety rise in me as I thought this conversation is not happening in Jamaica and that the developing world seemed set to miss the boat again.

While Jamaica was struggling to get its education system right - with a needed focus on generating quality, now that we had achieved full access for the majority - the developed world was set to make a quantum leap with artificial intelligence (AI). While we struggle with the fact that one in two Jamaicans graduate from high school unqualified for the current world of work, the reality is that jobs that exist now likely won't be needed in 10 years' time.

The presentation and discussion was on 'The World of Work 2020 and Beyond - the Fourth Industrial Revolution', a phrase coined by the World Economic Forum given the extensive and complete shift they saw coming in how the world and people will soon operate due to AI. Artificial intelligence is basically what used to be done only by humans is now being done by machines. Current AI believers assess that soon the machine will be smarter than the human.

 

Valuable individuals

 

In that world, nurses are more valuable than doctors. For computers and machines will be able to diagnose disease much more accurately and quickly, as well as have a 99 per cent success rate in operations compared to the human being doctors with their 78 per cent. How is that possible? Because now computers can store billions of data and rapidly compare what they see in your X-ray to GlobalData and make a diagnosis more accurately and cheaply. In terms of operations, they work quite neatly and accurately based on the scientific mapping of the human body - their metal hands don't shake or sight diminish. But the computers can't yet replicate empathy, warmth or care of the human being. Thus, nurses are more secure in the future than doctors.

What of lawyers? Based on the data shown, similar fate to doctors. Only the best-case lawyers and legal luminaries with ability and experience to deal with complex matters will succeed, as all rote legal jobs will be done by AI-enabled computers.

Who knows if the minister of education has sat down with the medical or law schools in Jamaica but given the billions of tax dollars used to subsidise tertiary institutions? It's time for the real talk on how we spend the country's money. Where do we invest for the biggest return for the country's future? Perhaps, instead of quarrelling over nurses migrating, we would instead start training more and more nurses for our needs now and the future.

But it's not just professional jobs that face the risk of extinction in 15 years based on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It's the manual labourer jobs and the call centre operator jobs, too. Wherever there is a high level of repeated tasks in a job, a computer with enough data and simulations (practice) can do it more effectively than a human being.

I almost fell off my chair when the presenter said right now in China, Amazon does some of its basic assembly and packaging via AI-enabled robots at a cost of less than US$8 per day. That's about J$1,000 per day. How do our Jamaican workers compete with that? And those robots don't require lunchtime, vacation, health or pension benefits and can work three shifts if needed. Would we in Jamaica even want to compete with that? That could not be a meaningful way of living for the majority of Jamaicans.

 

Who wins in that AI-driven world?

 

This potentially harsh reality opens up a unique opportunity for Jamaica if we are ready for real talk and make some smart choices.

Creatives win in that new world - like singers, songwriters, dancers, producers, managers in the creative industries, lawyers who understand the nuances of cultural capital and protecting the value created. Care services win - practical and registered nurses who not only can be easily employed abroad but who can also work in retirement villages for foreigners here. We could be the next Fort Lauderdale in that way.

This is why many of us were both thrilled and relieved to start seeing the conversation being had on our shores. Sheldon Powe organised one of the first AI conferences under his leadership of the Jamaica Computer Society. Dr Peter Phillips, leader of the Opposition, articulated the need for the Youth Employment, Innovation and New Economy Commission, which has as strong focus on the implications of AI and solutions for how Jamaica, can better leverage what we already do well and compete effectively. Gary Peart, Ryan Foster and others on the commission have a possibilities and can-do mindset, so will help lead the charge in this area, but we need more leaders throughout society to start thinking differently.

Real leaders see the problem not just in front of them and seek possibilities to solve them, but they also look into the future and seek to build a real foundation for future generations. Real possibilities for success exist.

We can create a Jamaica that can truly shine and benefit the majority, not just a few. It will take some real conversations, smart choices and smart policy, as it must also address the persistent inequality that has plagued Jamaica far too long. As the saying goes, 'Real know real'. Are we ready to get real?

- Imani Duncan-Price is chief of staff for the leader of the Opposition, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and former senator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and fullticipation@gmail.com.