AI no threat to BPO sector — Epstein

Observer staff reporter

Friday, April 13, 2018

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Immediate past president of the Business Process Industry Association of Jamaica (BPIAJ) Yoni Epstein has sought to allay fears that the emergence of artificial intelligence will be detrimental to the sector.

The BPO sector, which raked in some US$400 million into the economy last year, currently employs in excess of 26,000 people.

“Artificial intelligence should not be looked upon as a threat; it should be looked upon as an opportunity. As this industry grows, and as technology grows, there are going to be more opportunities to diversify into many different ways,” Epstein, who is also chief executive officer of itelbpo Smart Solutions, told the Jamaica Observer.

Meanwhile, president of the Jamaica Promotions Corporation (Jampro) Diane Edwards, who conceded that artificial intelligence could result in some job loss, however, noted that “you will have people working alongside the robots and the work will become more and more complex, and this is why our people have got to upskill themselves”.

“I think it will present opportunities. I think it will take some jobs, so it will take some of the very, very basic entry-level jobs. And that's why we have to be really clear we are climbing that value chain, and that's why we have to upscale our people and equip them for the next wave. What you will have is sort of basic applications like IVR (interactive voice response) systems now,” Edwards argued.

She added: “There is a lot more we can be doing in BPO, and what Jampro is dedicated to doing is to climb the value chain and ensuring that we upscale our young people for the next wave which we see as shared services. And that's going to be things like legal, HR, IT, accounting and finance — that's where we see the next wave going.”

Meanwhile, Epstein pointed out that employees now holding the positions that will be lost will get the opportunity to step up into new posts. He said the BPO sector, which has been under threat from IVRs from as far back as the 1990s, is here to stay.

“[IVRs], that was to kill the call centre in the 1990s; it didn't kill the call centre, it actually grew it. In the early 2000s when people started to chat on websites through an online chat portal, that was to kill the call centre; it actually grew the call centre, opening another multi-communication channel for customers to get to the companies they are doing business with,” Epstein said.

“I look at chat box, which is a version of artificial intelligence, as a way for growth. Anything that is referred to as machine learning has to be taught by somebody, has to be taught by a human being. So when we talk about Jamaica going up the value chain, this is an avenue for us to go up the value chain because our agents that are working on the front line today now can increase and move up to the next level in their position.”

Epstein and Edwards were speaking to the Caribbean Business Report at the itelbpo one-day summit held at the itelbpo Smart Solutions facility in Montego Bay on Wednesday.

Epstein pointed out that the summit was geared towards bringing investments and more jobs into the country.

“Here today (Wednesday) we have industry analysts, international journalists, clients and prospective clients looking to place new business with us. Bringing them here to see what Jamaica has to offer and what itel has to offer, it really makes the sales pitch much easier,” Epstein noted.

itelbpo is a home-grown multinational BPO enterprise which has grown from seven employees to more than 1,000 in six years.

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