By Edd K. Usman
In about five years, artificial intelligence (AI) could threaten one of the country?s biggest income generators ? the multi-billion business process outsourcing (BPO) industry.
This is according to experts who said that the scenario is not far-fetched as call center agents who answer phone calls or handle business processes might be replaced by intelligent computers powered by AI.
To address the impact of machine learning technology, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) is sending ten students and professors for immersion on AI at Silicon Valley-based tech firm Wave Computing.
DOST secretary Fortunato de la Pe?a said Filipino tech guru and Wave Computing chairman Diosdado “Dado” Banatao had warned him of the perils of AI to the BPO industry late last year.
Dela Pena said he acknowledges the threat posed by AI to the local BPO sector and this the reason why, he said, the government is taking proactive measures to soften its impact.
“Engr. Banatao gave us the idea to have a big initiative on AI. It was timely considering that we were figuring out in which direction we will go on ICT (information and communications technology) R&D,” dela Pe?a said.
The DOST chief recalled that he has done his own research on AI many years back in an article in 1985 he wrote for the Philippine Engineering Journal.
“I have to mention that as early as the 1980s, I already wrote about AI as a future R&D focus in the Philippines,” dela Pe?a said, adding he mentioned AI as “the next wave of technological development in the global technological space.”
On Oct. 6, 2016, the Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development (PCIEERD) jumpstarted discussions on AI as it held a consultative meeting on AI. The meeting was held for stakeholders, researchers, and experts to come up with a roadmap for AI in the next six years.
On Feb. 3 this year, PCIEERD again conducted a dialogue on AI led by dela Pe?a with over 55 participants from the private sector, academe, and representatives from various national government agencies. Banatao was among the prominent participants.
“So, we discussed the matter (AI initiative) and decided to hold consultations regarding a Philippine R&D and Commercialization Program,” said dela Pe?a.
“At that point, we decided to propose it as one of our new priority programs. We brought it up with NEDA PDP (National Economic Development Authority – Philippine Development Plan) 2017-2022) Group and they supported the idea. It was then included in the write up of the Science, Technology and Innovation Chapter of the PDP 2017-2022. The PDP is up for Cabinet discussion and approval on Feb. 20,” he said.
Dela Pe?a cited the potential of the AI Program “to generate economic activity and to bring in economic contribution and benefits.”
AI technology’s application includes, among others, “medical diagnoses, stock trading, robot control, law, remote sensing, scientific discovery, and toy making.”
In a separate interview with PCIEERD executive director Carlos Primo David, he explained further what Banatao had said about the looming effect of AI on the BPO industry.
“There are major changes that will happen in the next five years and one change that they are foreseeing in the United States is that the BPO industry will slowly acquire more computers with AI capabilities that can take calls instead of actual people doing the calls,” David said, reiterating Banatao’s warning.
“That is a threat to our BPO industry if it does happen in the near future,” said the PCIEERD chief. “So, we have to do something about it.”
David said one solution DOST officials are considering is to develop capabilities of Filipino scientists in creating AI systems, not just in the BPO industry but also for other sectors. “And the immersion program in Silicon Valley is precisely that,” he said.
The immersion will start in mid-2017 and will not be in an academic environment but in an actual company (Wave Computing), said David. “It is a way of protecting one of our major sectors, but also protecting the overall ICT and electronics industry which is still one of the highest grossing exports of the Philippines. We want to protect that as well,” David said.
In October 2016, the DOST conducted the 1st National Research and Development Conference, during which dela Pe?a announced plans of crafting the government’s R&D that covers AI in the next five years. The DOST held the Second Harmonized National R&D Conference on Feb.15.
“We would like to pursue new areas, not necessarily new in the global sense, but as far as local research and development is concerned and that is in the field of artificial intelligence and space technology,” said dela Pe?a.