Editorial

Let's start to really talk about artificial intelligence

Monday, July 01, 2019

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Like all well-thinking Jamaicans, this newspaper is happy for further confirmation of the improving employment environment, reflecting gradual economic growth.

According to the Planning Institute of Jamaica's (PIOJ) Economic and Social Survey for 2018, employment improved by 1.3 per cent to a record 1,215,975 workers.

Of course, Jamaicans also know that a huge chunk of those jobs are at the lowest end of the scale, where wage earners are barely able, if at all, to make ends meet.

So, for example, a domestic worker earning the recommended national minimum wage of $7,000 per week, may be able to feed herself and her children from that, but won't be able to do much else.

Hopefully the family is on the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) and the children's father is around and pulling his weight, so that utility bills can be taken care of and expenses covered for the children to go to school.

Let's not even begin to consider medical bills and so forth.

Those are just some of the difficulties that people at the lower end of the wage-earning scale must confront on a daily basis.

Building capacity, so that people will earn better rewards for hard work and are better able to support themselves is an ongoing challenge for Jamaica and its leaders.

But, as is well established, even a minimum wage job is better than none at all.

All of which brings us to a growing elephant in the room.

We refer to the threat posed to human employment by the growth of artificial intelligence and automated systems.

It seems fair to say that, barring the collapse of modern human civilisation, there can be no turning back of the extraordinary technological transformations taking place before our eyes.

Technology Minister Ms Fayval Williams is reported as telling a business forum that very soon 30 per cent of all day-to-day businesses will implement artificial intelligence as part of their digital transformation strategy.

The minister added that business leaders will have to be agile to deal with the changing world.

Said she: “We are in the digital era where the only constant is change ... The technological revolution and transformation, which are characteristics of the digital age, have significantly changed and reshaped the way we operate on a daily basis and in business.”

Clearly the implications for the labour market are also extreme.

Globally, robotic technology is displacing human labour in industry and elsewhere at an ever-increasing rate.

While the technology remains in its infancy in many respects, there is anticipation that, within two or three decades, it may be cheaper and more convenient for a householder to acquire a robot to do chores than hire a domestic helper.

Already, in some countries, robots are being used to assist the elderly and infirm.

What will all this mean for the Jamaican job market? It seems to us that the time has come for a full and comprehensive discussion.

No doubt, Jamaican universities and various think tanks within and outside of government are exploring these issues. They should share with the rest of us.


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