Artificial Intelligence: Making Sri Lanka ready for the future

Monday, 25 March 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


(Left picture) Microsoft Sri Lanka and Maldives Country Manager Hasitha Abeywardena leads a career coaching session at the Office of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka on International Women’s Day. (Right picture) Students in Sri Lanka interact with the BBC micro:bit, a single-board microcontroller designed to make coding fun 


The most important skills needed are quantitative, analytical and digital skills, adaptability and having a continuous learning mindset 

Microsoft and IDC today announced the results of a survey where more than 1,600 business leaders and over 1,580 workers across 15 markets in Asia Pacific were asked about the impact of artificial intelligence on society, business and the economy. 


About the study

  • 1,605 business leaders and 1,585 workers participated in this study.
  • Business leaders: from organizations with more than 250 staff and decision makers involved in shaping their organization’s business and digital strategy.
  • Workers: who have an understanding of Artificial Intelligence today, and do not play a role in decision making process within their organization.
  • 15 Asia Pacific markets were involved: Australia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
  • Industries polled included agriculture, automotive, education, financial services, government, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, services and telco/media.


Why adopt AI?

For the organizations that have implemented AI initiatives, the top five business drivers to adopt the technology were (in priority order): Better customer engagement (26% of respondents named it as the number one driver); higher competitiveness (19%); higher margins (18%); accelerated innovation (15%) and more productive employees (9%).

IDC Asia/Pacific Consulting Operations Vice President Victor Lim said: “Last year, organizations that have adopted AI saw tangible improvements in those areas in the range of 18% to 26%. They forecast further improvements of at least 1.8 times in the three-year horizon, with the biggest jump expected in accelerated innovation and competitiveness.”

While 80% of business leaders agreed that AI is instrumental for their organization’s competitiveness, only 41% of organizations in the region have embarked on their AI journeys. Those organizations that have adopted AI expect it to increase their competitiveness 100% by 2021. 

“Today, every company is a software company, and increasingly, every interaction is digital. To be successful in this new world, organizations need to be a fast adopter of new technologies; and secondly, they need to build their own unique digital capabilities,” said Microsoft Sri Lanka and Maldives Country Manager Hasitha Abeywardena. “Economies and businesses that have yet to embark on their AI journey run a real risk of missing out on the competitive benefits that are enjoyed by leaders.”

This is particularly relevant to Sri Lanka given the announcement last year where ‘AI Nation’ was positioned as the next big pillar for IT sector growth and where National Export Strategy (NES) Advisory Committee on ICT/ BPM expect to get around 5,000 data scientists in the next five years for Sri Lanka to be well ahead of the pack. In Sri Lanka, the IT industry can potentially become a $5 billion industry by 2022, creating 200,000 direct job opportunities, and enable the launch of up to 1,000 start-ups.


Organisations need to address skills challenge 

The study found that a majority of business leaders (62% of business leaders and 66% of workers) believe that AI will either help to do their existing jobs better or reduce repetitive tasks. 

“When it comes to creating or replacing jobs, 18% of business leaders believe that AI will produce new jobs, whereas 15% feel that the technology will replace jobs. Interestingly, workers are more optimistic, with only 5% expecting AI to replace jobs, while 13% anticipate AI to create new ones,” said Lim from IDC.

The study also found that workers are more willing to re-skill than business leaders believe they are. 20% of business leaders say it may be too difficult for workers to develop new skills, whereas only 14% of workers felt that it was a challenge.

“Microsoft’s vision for AI is first and foremost about people. AI technology cannot progress without them. This means that millions will need to transform themselves into skilled workers as well as learners that an AI future needs,” said Hasitha. “It is wonderful to see that 84% of businesses prioritize skilling and reskilling of workers in the future.”  “The jobs of today will not be the jobs of tomorrow, and we have already seen demand for software engineering roles expand rapidly beyond just the tech sector. However, building an AI-ready workforce does not necessarily mean an acute need for technological skills,” added Hasitha.

The top three future skills required by business leaders in Asia Pacific include quantitative and analytical skills, digital skills, as well as adaptability and a continuous learning mindset. The demand for all three is higher than the existing supply.

According to Sri Lanka Association for Software and Services Companies (SLASSCOM), the potential economic impact from data science and AI exceeds more traditional information and technology services and hardware. Sri Lanka’s IT industry is planning to prioritise data science and artificial intelligence to increase the export of skilled workers and improve its GDP. 

The study also uncovered that business leaders value soft skills more than workers expect. The biggest skills gaps identified were in:

i. Adaptability and continuous learning (7-pt difference)

ii. Leadership and managing others (7-pt difference)

iii. Entrepreneurship and initiative taking (6-pt difference)

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Microsoft’s footprint in Sri Lanka 

In the K-12 education space, Microsoft is working with the Ministry of Education to train teachers to become innovative educators. Last week, Microsoft held a full day session for #DigiGirlz at the Office of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Over 500 girls, including their parents and teachers, experienced career coaching sessions, heard from an esteemed group of industry leaders in a panel discussion, and participated in a hands-on coding project using the BBC micro:bit and Microsoft MakeCode. In the university and startup space, Microsoft has given over 200,000 local students a global platform to voice their ideas through Imagine Cup. A spokesperson for a team that competed in the Microsoft Imagine Cup 2019 Regional Finals said they emerged with a lot more confidence in themselves and in their project. “There was nothing they had seen at the finals that couldn’t be built in Sri Lanka and by Sri Lankans. It was just that the culture for innovation had to be developed and nurtured.”

Last year, Microsoft introduced a global program for startups in Sri Lanka. The program helps late stage business-to-business startups accelerate their business growth through mentorship, streamlined go-to-market activities and most importantly access to world-class technology. Microsoft has invested over $11 million in Sri Lanka, offering technology skills training and connections to employment, entrepreneurship, and continued education. 

The company collaborates with Sri Lankan NGOs and Government ministries to generate interest amongst students to learn STEM and empower teachers with skills to teach STEM.