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Financially Speaking | Jamaica desperately needs big failures

Published:Thursday | January 21, 2016 | 12:00 AMLavern Clarke

Jamaica has never been shy about punching above its weight.

That's why we have the world's fastest man and woman, who established their supremacy in the country with the largest population on earth.

And it's why our music has gone international and is credited with influencing the evolution of other musical styles.

A discussion on BBC this week spoke of the circumstances that gave rise to sound systems on street corners and dance halls, and how that culture was later exported to the United Kingdom before migrating further into Europe and on to the United States. It was something of an infusion.

But there is another side of Jamaica that remains depressingly local.

The spirit of entrepreneurism runs so deeply in the blood, its part of our DNA, fuelled by a 'Desperate Need for Additional' income. Even salaried workers tend to have some income-generating project or business on the side.

The problem is Jamaicans are not big on thinking big, at least not when it comes to business ideas and innovative products that can change the world. And I do mean the world. That's as true for inherited wealth, whose progenies are good at selling stuff that other people make, as for the innovator heading to the bank with cap in hand.

This week, at the Annual Investments and Capital Markets Conference in New Kingston, Opposition Leader Andrew Holness said he was not inclined to entice investments from the Facebooks of the world because the economy does not have the support infrastructure that such massive enterprises might need.

Invest in own potential

He is more inclined to seek out rich Jamaicans overseas. Maybe they are less picky about business support or more forgiving over the lack of it.

But what if, instead of always making nice with foreign investors, Jamaica began to invest in its own potential. It certainly doesn't lack talent and brainpower. The accomplishments of scientist and now ganjapreneur Dr Henry Lowe is a case in point.

What if our education system was structured to encourage youngsters to dream, challenged them to upend the status quo, make science an adventure filled with experiments and field tests rather than a swotting exercise for exams, and was designed to teach the real-world connection between life and the subjects students study.

What if our training institutions focused on making or creating stuff, rather than repairing or fixing them.

What if the dreamers and innovators among us were more valued than distributors. What if bankers were courageous enough to seek out and back entrepreneurs like the Turners, a rural couple who invented what so far may well be the world's best sorrel-harvesting machine from their garage.

If Holness had thought through his comment a little more, he might have said Jamaica can produce its own Mark Zuckerbergs. Or that he would fight to make it happen.

The world is in an era of rapid change.

In December, billionaire techie Elon Musk of SpaceX, Tesla and PayPal fame, joined with other tech entrepreneurs to launch a US$1-billion research and investment fund dedicated to studying artificial intelligence. The idea is to stay a step ahead of 'human-level' AI. We're talking super-intelligent computers and robots that develop 'consciousness' and are capable of 'thinking'.

AI threat

It sounds surreal, but the world's greatest mind, Stephen Hawking, considers it an existential threat to human life, if the technology is unchecked. Sort of like the theme of the cable TV show Person of Interest.

Hawking posits that advanced AI could eventually redesign itself beyond human capacity to understand or control. This week, the issue was central to discussions at the World Economic Forum attended annually by world business leaders and politicians, though more discretely focused on industries, the environment and jobs.

The development of 3D printing, driverless cars, smart household appliances that can monitor themselves and your habits, and robots that look human, can converse and - yes, people - have sex with humans, are all part of what is now being called 'The Fourth Industrial Revolution'.

By the way, the evolving technologies are expected to replace humans in various jobs, including, as one commentator pointed out, journalists. The worry is that greedy profiteers won't be able to resist the lure and may push AI to dangerous limits. After all, a robot won't need vacations, nor a salary for that matter.

Musk's fund is meant to create 'good' AI that could act as a check on the bad.

Meantime, Jamaica's tech evolution is focused largely on apps designed to solve small, local problems and are highly unlikely to take the world by storm.

It's okay that Holness is not inclined to chase after the Mark Zuckerbergs, but we surely need the spirit of the self-made Elon Musks who think big, are willing to fail big, and end up impacting the world.