Thu | May 23, 2019

Replaced by robots! - University lecturer urges Jamaicans to embrace retraining to reduce job losses from robotics

Published:Sunday | March 18, 2018 | 12:00 AMCarlene Davis
No humans in sight as an automated machine works at an assembly line in a car factory.

Jamaicans are again being urged to brace for job losses with the increased introduction of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) in the workforce.

By next year, sectors such as agriculture, finance, manufacturing and professional services are expected to introduce more automation and rely less on humans.

Dr Noel Brown, vice-president of Innovation and Technology at the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU), says as Jamaica move into the robotic age what will happen is that jobs that are repetitive in nature or classified as lower level, and which can be automated, will be turned over to robots.

According to Brown, this will mean job losses and extinction of certain professions, but there is no need to panic.

"Let's face it, we are going to have some casualties as far as jobs are concerned, if we go artificial intelligence and robotics.

"But then again, if we could train ourselves and upgrade our qualification so we could take over the higher-level jobs that you would definitely need human input in order to do them, and then your hands would be free for us to create new jobs," said Brown.

He added: "Some of the things that you won't be able to do as a human, a robot will be able to do it; when you talk about the higher-level jobs you are still going to need people to programme these robots or these automation."


Inevitable changes


The university lecturer also urged companies operating locally to embrace the inevitable changes and move ahead.

"People saying they are trying to protect jobs but all that is doing is delaying the inevitable, and we might end up finding ourselves further and further behind than other countries. One of the things that we have to bear in mind is that the longer we take to get on board is the further we will be left behind," said Brown.

He pointed out that the robotic or AI movement is already well ahead in several countries, and persons who use the Internet frequently would have noticed that in trying to access certain websites there is the 'are you a robot' question.

"And after it ask you if you are a robot, it then starts saying identify the pictures that have cars in it or roads, and you go through about two or three sets, and after it lets you go to where you need to go.

"This is because of the fact that you find out that artificial intelligence and robotics is taking over a lot of things so people want to know whether or not this is a robot they are communicating with, so now you have to prove that you are not a robot.

"You didn't have to do this two years ago, or maybe less like a year ago, but you have to do it now, it's becoming more and more prevalent as we move into the robotic age," said Brown.


Embrace technology


He argued that Jamaicans should try to embrace technology and not see it as an enemy.

"See how you can use techno-logy to enhance what you are doing because what I'm saying is maybe you are working too hard, we should work smarter so we can get more things done, once productivity goes up your overhead is going to go down and we are all happy," said Brown.

That is a position shared by president of the Jamaica Employers' Federation (JEF), David Wan, who is pushing his members to be prepared.

According to Wan, while the upgrade that will come to Jamaica will not be on a large scale as some first-world countries, it is coming and members of his federation are getting ready.

"We are going to be trying to encourage our members to retrain those people who are very low-skilled and who won't be able to survive because of the displacement of their jobs. We want to get them retrained. That's one of the things we are going to be addressing with our members. Prepare yourself, get retrained, get certified, that is the key," said Wan.

Wan said the change will bring some positives and some negatives.

"Cost of labour will go down with the machinery, even though it will take a big upfront expense, but over the years that you have it, it should be beneficial to the employer.

"The negative is Jamaica, as a third-world county, if we have large pockets of unemployed people it is going to feed into the things we are suffering from now like crime and youth unemployment," added Wan.