Artificial Intelligence (or AI as it is more commonly known as) is fast improving as are robots. They are improving at such a rapid pace that it is very realistic that in the next ten to twenty years we will be witnessing AI and robots taking over jobs that humans have once held. That is not new nor is it headline news, for since the dawn of man using tools and technology we have witnessed where people have been replaced by machines (be it people thousands of years ago who went from manual tilling of the earth to the ox driven tiller, or the spinning jenny that decimated the British textile cottage industry).
What needs to be done and what hasn’t really been touched on by local politicians, industrialists and unions is just how robotics and AI will affect the already precarious labour market. AI and robotic ‘theft’ of jobs are not just going to be a first world problem and is one that we must tackle now or we will definitely be left playing catch up in an age where things, technology and events are transforming at a pace never seen before.
Take for example the recent Jamaican economic ‘saviour’ the call centre or Business processing outsourcing (BPO). Yes, it is true that call centre jobs in the US and other developed nations have fallen off a cliff due in no small part to the cheap labour that is offered in nations like Jamaica, but what has also hit the call centre worker is technology. We see where persons have been laid off en masse in the U.S and replaced by technology (AI), call PayPal for example and see if you can and just how long it takes to speak to a human, one has to interact with what is really pretty decent AI. This is because it is massively cheaper to have AI (that requires no pay, insurance or benefits) and hire a few technicians to maintain the system. Will these companies who moved to Jamaica exclusively to maximise profits really continue to employ the projected 30,000 (that is the number we are aiming for) when the AI in the next five to ten years makes human interaction unprofitable?
This is not just in the ‘tech’ areas that we will be hit but also in areas that are now seen as the real domain of persons such as farming. Jamaican farming has not come all that far a way and in many ways is stuck in the mid twentieth century, all that though will change. If the government and those with vested interests are to be believed then in the next couple of years (again that ten to twenty year range comes up) farming in this country will be unrecognisable as we aim to bypass methods of both the mid twentieth century (which we use in abundance) and the late twentieth century and dive head first into the methods and technologies of the twenty-first century. This will mean the introduction of drones to replace the humans who currently manually check crops, smart irrigation and pest control eliminating the need for humans to either water their crops or apply a pesticide. Imagine the cane workers unemployed because of the smart thrasher/reaper that WILL be coming in in the next few years? Even the act of actually planting the seed will be done by smart technology shortly, saying nothing of the obvious introduction of twenty-first-century earth tilling technology, all of which will mean a loss of jobs.
Many other white collar jobs that we take for granted in this nation will also vanish as the rapid march of progress that technology is making continues. Take for example the job of a legal clerk. This profession mainly entails going to NLA, Tax Offices, RGD, the Companies Office and of course the courts to deal with the stamping, registering, signing and filing of documents. Anyone who does that job can tell you that while the backlog of cases won’t (or may never) be dealt with anytime soon, the modernisation of the courts is taking place at a rather quick (not speedy or Usain Bolt fast) pace. With the introduction of many more computers, and a better internet system we are already seeing where documents that used to be sent over from the registry to the printing department (human interaction) is being eliminated with these documents now being transferred electronically (from the registry computer to the legal clerks USB stick or by simply taking a picture of the document). With the NLA and RGD also pushing hard to go fully online we are seeing where searches, payments and requests that would usually in the past would have required one to go to the physical institution and interact with a person is being eliminated as these go online. All of this clearly poses a threat to the white collar jobs of not only those who are legal clerks (as less will be needed to do this work) but also those in the aforementioned institutions as the need to keep costly humans becomes less and less as the technology improves.
We already have been seeing this happening in our banking and finance sector where these workers (and us the consumer) have been bearing the brunt of the rapid increase of the sophistication in the technology and AI. We see this in banks now asking, nay, forcing one to use technology to bypass humans in instances such as the paying off credit cards, the paying of overdrafts, the depositing of cheques and the simple withdrawal and depositing of cash. Try going in a bank, not only will you be charged to actually withdraw and deposit your own money, it is also scant of people (employees) when compared to ten years ago and this is because people cost more money than the technology that is rapidly advancing. Even as Jamaica seeks to become a hub of high finance we are seeing where even those jobs are fast being decimated, the persons who once worked in those positions and commanding high salaries being replaced by computers with algorithms that can do in seconds what would have taken those person days. How exactly is a person to hold a job when a robot/machine can do your work both faster and cheaper?
These are just the realities of what is going on, this is both what is currently taking place and what will be taking place shortly. We should really have a serious sit down as a nation, hold forums and serious dialogues with the stakeholders and those who will be affected so that we can both prepare ourselves and evolve accordingly. This sitting down and doing nothing is akin to seeing the train barreling down towards you and you decide to stay on the tracks, it’s just silly. Politicians, Unions and the private sector must have a public discussion on just how the advance of technology will affect us all as workers, if not then we all could be in for a rude awakening.