Data science, AI to shape job market, export revenue | Sunday Observer

Data science, AI to shape job market, export revenue

The island’s IT industry is keeping its hopes high for artificial intelligence (AI) and data science based business and earning more foreign exchange earnings to reach its target of US$ 5 billion in 2022. Plans are afoot to promote and invest in AI education.

For the industry body, Sri Lanka Association of Software and Services Companies (SLASSCOM), 2019 has been the year of ‘AI’ as SLASSCOM plans to focus more on leveraging AI education, developing skills among youth, encouraging innovation and partnerships and securing AI related business opportunities abroad. We spoke to a three key industry experts to find out their plans on making Sri Lanka an AI/data hub in the near future.

President SLASSCOM, Jeevan Gnanam says, “AI is our number one priority this year out of five priorities set out by SLASSCOM.” He is confident that the $5 billion IT export target was achievable with the focus on higher-value exports involving data science.

Gnanam believes that AI and data science has a chance to bring in more foreign direct investments (FDIs). “It is a kind of expanse already existing (kind of basket of exports). If you look at the IT industry we relied a lot on two pillars – software development and financial accounting. I really felt it is time to add value or look at new basket of exports at this juncture with the expansion of data science and AI sectors,” he said in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

He adds, “I think this comes at a critical time, and data science and AI is kind of taking off or starting to take off. May be we are a bit late too - but the opportunities in the area are vast.”

In the South Asian context, Sri Lanka has a good opportunity to emerge as an AI destination. “I feel quite passionate about the entire process. If we can do this right - we can really set Sri Lanka as part of global stage in date science and AI,” he said.

Speaking on Sri Lanka’s opportunity in making an AI hub, Dr. Chrisantha Fernando, Senior Research Scientist at Google DeepMind based in London says, “I can say it could be great if we could add people in groups, people in Sri Lanka industry, university working together to publishing research in conferences like ICI IC ML this is where we normally publish and where most of the machine learning community publish - so I think just one or two published next one year is important.”

Co-founder, Conscient, C.D. Athuraliya who is also keen to see Lanka taking off as an AI and data science hub said, it is quite important to create awareness on AI and opportunities based on the subject. “Creating a community is number one priority. That should be done with a combination of education, research and sharing knowledge.”

“AI is already so much integrated into our day today life and if we don’t understand what is going around and if we are relying on someone’s technology especially given how powerful the technologies can be, it certainly needs a lot of awareness creating,” he said.

Another factor to focus on is - diversity and inclusiveness in AI – everybody should know about it. People talk about the transparency of AI- so diversity and inclusion is somewhat important.

If we are not included in this community we might not understand what is going on. China, France and Canada are actively working on creating their own knowledge, and actively contributing to research.

Recently we have seen in Africa they have a lot of movement in creating knowledge around AI, said Athuraliya who is also a Machine learning engineer and researcher.

Gnanam said the first SLASSCOM AI Asia Summit held in Colombo in November was a catalyst to drive a national agenda for AI engaging stakeholders. The leanings of the event are also used for addressing as a country to build AI awareness, AI capacity and AI education.

The conference attracted over 300 attendees from the industry and addressed topics relating to AI Applications, Data Science, Analytics and Machine Learning.

He says that SLASSCOM will work for the next five years with a proper AI data policy and strategy. “We are also working with government agencies such as ICTA and EDB on AI policy.”

According to Gnanam, it is not too early or late to get into AI. “It is easy to start with the online resources on how to get in to AI, how to create models - and how to inspire others and create initial papers. There’s so much to do.”

Recently SLASSCOM together with the Department of Statistics, University of Colombo launched educational programs in Fundamentals of Data Science.

Dr. Fernando who is keen to see the sharing of research findings said, “I think one of the important things for machine learning is access to data. Data should be made public. Otherwise it is not possible to predict the future. So data should be freely available.

“I suppose the way in which research is judged is probably set outside. The right conferences should be given high priority. Also I think people should be encouraged to travel more internationally and bring back knowledge on these subject areas,” he said.

“For instance when we talk to people who have the experience, we can learn a lot than reading hundreds of papers. We need to understand the problem- research is about creating problems. So we have to actually choose the right problems and getting research done,” Dr. Fernando said.

“I am very impressed with the possibilities here in Sri Lanka. We have to really encourage teaching from reliable sources and move forward. If Sri Lanka published major conferences, people will know things are happening in Sri Lanka,” he said.

Agreeing with Dr. Fernando, Athuraliya says, in this instance the data science community has a large role to play.

“The community should collaborate with the industry – academies and the business sector and create the right AI culture.”

Citing the successes Gnanam says, “We are beginning to see corporates start to engage in what is called open innovation-when they engage in open innovation it means they can start looking at small companies and start ups to answer certain problems. I don’t see why they can’t look at data scientists to answer those problems, or the date science community or data science companies or AI companies to start collaborations with the companies.”

The IT/BPM industry is recognised as a thrust industry within the National Export Strategy (NES) and is promoted globally as the ‘Island of Ingenuity’ for world-class knowledge solutions.

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Finance teams yet to embrace AI - Study

Finance teams lack the digital skill set to embrace the latest advancements in artificial intelligence, causing a negative impact on revenue growth, according to a new study by the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (the Association) and Oracle.

The study of more than 700 global finance leaders found that despite a clear correlation between the deployments of AI and revenue growth, 89 percent of organisations have not deployed AI in the finance function and only 10 percent of finance teams believe they have the skills to support the organisation’s digital ambitions.

The report, titled ‘Agile Finance Unleashed: The Key Traits of Digital Finance Leaders’ highlights that 46 percent of tech-savvy finance leaders report positive revenue growth, compared with only 29 percent of tech-challenged leaders.

Organisations that have seen revenue growth are more likely to be deploying artificial intelligence compared to those where revenues are flat or declining. However, only 11 percent of finance leaders surveyed have implemented artificial intelligence in the finance function, and 90 percent say their finance team does not have skills to support enterprise digital transformation.

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