Who’s afraid of Artificial Intelligence?

Everyone’s talking about Artificial Intelligence, but for much of the private sector in Sri Lanka, it may not be apparent how these rapidly changing technologies will fit into our lives and businesses right now.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is here to stay and no one in the business community can afford to believe that AI will have no impact on your company or your industry.

We must now take action to leverage its potential and understand its implications on business and life in the coming years.

Just two weeks ago, this column highlighted the need for the business community to play a transformative role in shaping how Sri Lankans prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Whether we thrive or die in the age of AI will be determined by how well we prepare our youth to harness the opportunities and negotiate the challenges of the new world order.

Last week, business leader Dhammika Perera spoke on television of the applications of AI in the case of a state hospital. His interview, widely circulated on social media, was proof of the thought leadership the private sector must now champion to get Sri Lanka on the AI bandwagon.

We encounter a lot of AI on a daily basis – from Siri and Alexa to Gmail, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Pinterest and all those applications that sweep your online activities to predict your interests.

Any social media feed or shopping suggestion is tailor-made for you based on your previous actions on that platform.

Behind such prompts are robust algorithms that mine data to observe the patterns and thereby predict behaviours exclusive to each user.

But that’s just the surface of the all-pervasive and powerful influence of AI on the world today – reinventing entire industries on a scale never known before.

In business, AI is not just about automating manufacturing and the simple processes.

You can use AI to identify user preferences and behaviours and thereby transform your products and services; to optimise your supply chain; to discover better sales opportunities and identify how new customers can be acquired at the lowest cost; and to simplify accounting systems and financial reporting.

In short, artificial intelligence will not just save you money, it will give you the knowledge and insights to hone better strategies and make better business decisions.

For developing nations such as ours, the applications of AI for the betterment of the country and its people are boundless – from predicting everything from traffic patterns to natural disaster and disease patterns, to influencing learning and enabling the preservation of biodiversity and ecosystems, to intelligent automation that creates quantum leaps in efficiency, efficacy, and quality, and so much more.

AI can even be applied to agriculture to predict weather patterns, crop health, and soil quality, thus enabling better decisions on planting and harvesting and even pesticide application.

It’s not all rosy though; Sri Lanka is far from ready for the labour market disruption that is bound to ensue from a wide application of AI over the next decade.

It’s not just jobs on the factory floors that are being taken over; automation has already started replacing office jobs.

There are both opportunities and serious challenges to prepare for – AI is more likely to make mid-level jobs that require predictable, monotonous, repetitive behaviours obsolete; the jobs that remain relevant will be those that require social and emotional skills, and logical reasoning and creativity – skills that machines can’t quite replicate, at least for now. While AI has the potential to make life richer and more rewarding by taking over the dull and dangerous jobs, in reality, its immediate disruption of the world of work will be a shock to the system. In the long run, AI should work best in a supportive role by enabling humans to better perform roles that require judgement and critical thinking.
In improving our AI-readiness, Sri Lanka must tap into the potential of its young human resource bank by equipping them with the knowledge and expertise to close the digital skills gap. The deep penetration of smartphones and the natural curiosity of children should be harnessed to teach them how they work; coding can be introduced very early into school curricula with the private sector too playing a role by offering the funding and know-how for technology training, laboratories, and experiential learning opportunities.
It’s not that everyone must aim for tech jobs, but living alongside robots will require a different skill set to what we possess now. In fact, the new jobs created by the Fourth Industrial Revolution will mainly be in the handling of artificial intelligence – we will need to be tech savvy, but also be culturally savvy to make sense of the world. The 21st Century survival skill set will include the ability to adapt and remain resilient in the face of change, the ability to think critically and creatively, and the lifelong ability to learn and relearn.
For businesses, the rise of artificial intelligence may also mean new business opportunities in new industries dedicated to developing the tools and equipment that power AI. Fundamentally, building AI requires smart people and computing power. That’s why Silicon Valley controls much of AI right now, which has led to the criticism that the output is governed by the preferences and commercial strategies of a handful that control much of the world’s data. While private businesses possess the wealth to lead the development of AI, the State too must assume an important role in regulating AI – governments, including ours, must ensure that it is driven by human interest and reflects the circumstances and needs of a nation.
It really is a future that we couldn’t have imagined – the stuff of sci-fi fantasy but with applications in any industry in any setting anywhere in the world. The power of AI is that it simulates both human labour and human intelligence; our task must be to ensure human potential is maximised through the optimal use of AI.
As AI becomes smarter, we must support the creation of a human capital that is capable of manipulating its capabilities for the greater good.