As the world races into a digital age, what shocks should Trinidad and Tobago be preparing itself for?
WORDS By: Atiba phillips
Lead Consultant and ICT for Development Strategist, INFOCOMM Technologies Limited
Published in CONTACT Magazine
As new technologies sweep around the world, Trinidad and Tobago firms need to develop, deploy and use some of them in a way that can produce transformation and benefits to the economy within the next five to seven years. The question is: which ones?
Artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR)
AI, and to a lesser extent VR, are buzzwords at the moment, applied to everything from speakers to cell phones, computers and cars.
There will always be a place for replicating the decision patterns of experts and transferring human intelligence to automated systems.
True autonomous machine learning, however, requires data – and lots of it. Machines learn by storing every transaction and interaction, forming trends and analysing patterns, gathering feedback from new scenarios, until they can suggest and implement responses without a human agent intervening.
Local development houses will have to navigate through database and cloud solutions before reaching revenue-generating AI and commercially viable virtual reality.
Fintech and Blockchain
There are problems with blockchain and crypto-currencies. The infrastructure required to establish crypto-currencies in the Caribbean is mostly absent. Some of the key factors here are:
- Lack of financial and technology savvy in much of the market. Not enough people in the Caribbean know enough about the technology, or have access to sufficient speculatory cash balances, to take their first steps into crypto-currency trading.
- The irrevocable nature of transactions. When a transaction is done on a ledger, it is irrevocable unless all parties agree otherwise. There is no ombudsman or regulator to compel a participant to change. And if an encryption key is lost, balances can be permanently unavailable.
- Distribution architecture. There has to be heavy investment in a network of vendors, ATMs and other infrastructure to enable democratised access to the system.
- Convertibility and liquidity. A key constraint in the Caribbean. This will require the collaboration of the central and commercial banks, which are well behind institutionally.
Much better understood e-money and e-payment solutions are still not universally offered in the Caribbean 10 to 15 years after being available around the world. This has affected domestic businesses, and has stymied private sector investment in digital technology.
Still, there is a great opportunity for improvement in areas where there has been little change in operational modality. Insurance, healthcare, and government services are among sectors ripe for disruption with the application of (now common) technologies such as cloud, digital payments, mobile, and video conferencing. These will need to become mainstream over the next five years if Trinidad and Tobago is not to be disenfranchised in the wider global digital economy.
Electronic vehicles (EVs)
EVs represent a trend that is burgeoning globally, and Trinidad and Tobago has the right mix: a history of industrialisation, a global energy brand, an enviable base, and the capacity to produce relevant engineers.
What we need to add to this is vision and investment, which could bring a world of reward from the global market if we act soon.
We need a national mandate to convert a certain percentage of vehicles to electric within a given time frame, and initiatives by the government and private sector to partner with up-and-coming players to develop unique electronically powered vehicles for emerging and developing markets.
Data as the new asset
It is widely trumpeted that data is the new oil. But, unlike a barrel of oil, the value of a piece of data is directly proportional to the amount of data which can be related to it, and to an individual company’s ability to monetise those relationships. That ability differs vastly between companies, and varies with the amount of data held, the company’s installed base of customers, and the convenience of its payment transaction processes.
Other important factors are the tech savviness of customer markets, data protection laws, intellectual property rights enforcement, and data warehousing capacity and security.
These factors turn out to mean that a marginal piece of data in the hands of a large company in a technology-developed environment (say, Google) is likely to be worth more than that same piece of data in the hands of a local SME.
Nevertheless, Google and the like can be beaten in areas where localised data matters. Imagine if we held all the geo-seismic exploration data generated over the years on our own oil- and gas-generating offshore shelf (instead of it being held overseas).
Imagine if we were producing better than average images, and processing algorithms (read AI algorithms) of soil formations which were appreciably better at determining the size and scope of oil and gas deposits.
Then we wouldn’t bother too much about running out of oil ourselves.
We really should not continue to cede our economic power to foreign governments and companies. In this regard, a focus on cloud-based solutions and platforms – which harness our own data – is critical to the way forward.
Adopting cloud-based solutions in each sector could coordinate the actors better, improve collaboration and exchange efficiencies, exploit e-services, and track the data-trail of transactions.
This in itself would lead to a circle of benefit-generating local employment, lowering the cost of doing business, generating historical data for improved decision-making and statistical analysis, and producing new data-based revenue models which could even be exportable.
Protecting the net
As Trinidad and Tobago feels its way forward, there are certain threats to take note of, especially the loss of net neutrality.
Net neutrality says that all data on the internet should be treated equally, without discrimination or charging differentials by content, application, platform or type of user.
The term “over the top” is used by the telecommunications community for data services and applications which threaten (or may threaten) their existing or projected lines of business. For instance, ISPs have threatened to ban the use of android boxes over their networks.
This raises complex questions. For instance, how do they differentiate android box traffic from YouTube traffic? Will they develop “deep packet inspection” to determine exactly what traffic emanates from the wireless router in your home? After banning android box traffic, what will be next?
This issue has far-reaching implications. Any regional application which gains a critical mass, and thus drives significant network traffic, could be at the mercy of telecommunication providers wishing to impose a “tax” on them for having a service with unfettered access to the network.
We must invest in a technology-capable Trinidad and Tobago. But we must also choose the way forward wisely. Decisions made today will directly affect the long-term viability of our economy and society.