We are living through the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is driven by technological advancements that have the potential to foster innovative growth and benefit development at an unprecedented rate and scope. These technologies include Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, big data, and 3D printing.
Let us focus on AI. As defined by the Oxford Dictionary, Artificial Intelligence is the theory and development of computer systems that can perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence: such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation and interpretation. Algorithms are the basis of AI and are used to discover patterns and make predictions through analysis of “large” or “big” datasets. These datasets are so massive and complex, that traditional data-processing application software is inadequate to deal with them. AI could replace the need to programme every single action, by creating processes in machines which mimic humans’ thinking and reasoning.
AI’s “thinking” gives it great potential to help tackle global challenges. AI could have the potential to address some of the Caribbean’s most pressing development challenges. Among various other positive changes, AI could make quality health services more accessible, promote greater agricultural productivity, and optimise energy production.
Despite significant progress, Caribbean healthcare systems still focus heavily on treatment and are short-staffed, particularly in nurses (Thompson et al., 2017). These are major factors as to why Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) are linked to the deaths of seven out of ten people in the Caribbean region (World Bank, 2013). AI could change this by facilitating preventative treatment and addressing labour shortages in healthcare to save thousands of lives. The technology can be used to analyse huge datasets to better predict, identify, and monitor NCDs while cutting treatment costs (Butcher, 2016). In some cases, the use of AI in conjunction with a doctor would make diagnoses of NCDs about 99.5% accurate (Wanjek, 2016). AI assisting doctors as virtual nurse assistants would also enhance predictions of relapses to further shift the treatment-based healthcare systems toward more preventative-based systems. These virtual nurses would provide round-the-clock monitoring at significantly lower labour costs and thereby could address the Caribbean’s human resource shortages in health, and potentially, could save countless lives.
Caribbean countries import more than US $4 billion in food; this represents more than 60% of the total food that they consume (FAO, 2015). This is expected to increase to US $8-10 Billion by 2020 as Caribbean populations increase and climate change reduces the region’s food production. AI could reduce these imports of foreign food by helping local farmers create better conditions for crop growth, especially in response to different weather patterns. Agriculture programs such as FAO’s AquaCrop Model can be used in the Caribbean to predict the ideal types and amounts of fertiliser, soil, water, and other variables for the best crop growth. The use of AI-based smartphone applications also allows for better monitoring of crops and growth conditions. There are applications that can inform farmers of plant diseases and soil nutrient deficiencies with 98% effectiveness through photos alone (Senaar, 2017). For Caribbean farmers with little formal training, this reduces costs and makes monitoring conditions and crops easier, which could then result in the production of more food for all of us.
Artificial Intelligence technology has the potential to revolutionize the production and consumption of energy in the Caribbean region. Artificial Intelligence could help optimise the oil and gas industries in the Caribbean region, especially in the upstream segment of production, which involves locating and extracting crude oil or natural gas. In this segment, AI would reduce costs and boost production – and tax revenue – by using real time data to improve decisions during the drilling and oil lifting processes. Locating new oil reserves, including ones across the Caribbean, can also be facilitated by AI, which would be able to identify prospective drilling sites that are becoming increasingly scarce. In the medium term, AI can support the transition towards using renewable and sustainable sources of energy. AI can help in forecasting demand and supply of renewable energy, increase energy efficiency of enterprises and homes, and provide recommendations for the optimal use of energy.
AI in the Caribbean has the potential to save lives, improve food security, and make energy production more efficient and sustainable, all while reducing costs – a very rare combination of desirable objectives. However, AI technology comes with risks; it can potentially worsen inequality by eroding jobs through automation and redirecting profits to capital owners. Appropriate economic and social policies are therefore needed to prevent this. Policies should seek to build more in-demand skills, redistribute AI capital gains to society, stipulate for AI to compliment rather than replace workers, and encourage business innovation to create new work opportunities. Furthermore, complementary policies are needed to generate AI inputs – e.g., big data – and build the human capital required to operate AI systems. With the systematic and coordinated adoption of AI technology and the rules surrounding its uses, the people of the Caribbean would be able to benefit from this unique opportunity.
Zubin Deyal is a Research Assistant in the Economics Department of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Group in Trinidad and Tobago. After an undergraduate degree in Economics and Finance from the University of the West Indies, Zubin won an internship at the IDB’s Country Office in Barbados where he provided support to the economics team.
Lodewijk Smets is a Belgian national with a PhD in Applied Economics. After a post-doctoral fellowship at KU Leuven (Belgium), Lodewijk moved to Washington D.C. to work for the World Bank. At the World Bank’s evaluation department, Lodewijk worked on macro-economic evaluations and provided methodological support to evaluation teams. Since December 2017, he started at the Inter-American Development Bank as Trinidad and Tobago’s Senior Country Economist.