Artificial Intelligence – Colombia’s smart gamble

Artificial Intelligence Colombia

Details:

  • Strong government and private support for AI innovation exist in the country
  • Colombian business leaders recognize AI as one of the three top technologies that will benefit their companies
  • However, barriers to the adoption of AI still exist, namely skepticism, data quality and complexity, and the existence of an AI skill gap
  • Despite a relative lack of funding, Colombian AI start-ups are growing and internationalizing 
  • Foreign entities and organizations also see Colombia as a promising regional AI hub

Strong public support for AI

While Artificial Intelligence (AI) is notoriously difficult to define and its applications are almost too widespread to quantify, it has been estimated that AI contributed more than USD 2 trillion to global GDP in 2019, and that contribution is expected to rise to nearly USD 15.7 trillion by 2035. 

It is little wonder that Colombia is attempting to position herself as an AI leader in Latin America, with the national government proactively investing resources in the sector so that Colombians can become better prepared for the AI revolution. Most notably, in November 2019, the Colombian government passed a new COP 124 billion (USD 33.4 million) national policy for Digital Transformation and Artificial Intelligence to prepare the country for the challenges and opportunities arising from the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Some of the goals include:

  • Reducing the barriers that currently block the implementation of digital technologies
  • Fostering innovation
  • Encouraging the growth of technically skilled human capital

Under this policy, the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism will have the responsibility of developing a new line of services to support digital transformation in enterprises. It was estimated that 40 percent of digital transformation initiatives would benefit from these services initially, with the figure rising to 75 percent by 2021.

With AI being a highly skilled sector, the government has also implemented training programs. For instance, in 2019, the Ministry of IT and Communications launched a program to train nearly 4,500 students in AI subjects such as machine learning, programming and deep learning.

Other public entities have also taken up the cause. In 2018, for instance, Ruta N, a public innovation agency based in Medellin, opened an AI Centre of Excellence to train local talent in areas like Machine Learning, Robot Process Automation (RPA), cognitive technologies and Deep Learning. More recently, in 2021, Ruta N also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Chinese E-commerce giant Alibaba to help train local talent in the digital economy and e-commerce.

Colombian business perspectives on AI

It should therefore come as no surprise that, according to IBM’s latest 2021 CEO Study, business leaders all around the world cite AI as one of the three top technologies that will bring benefits to their companies in the next two to three years, with cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) being the other two.

Perspectives in Colombia are no different. 65 percent of business leaders named AI as one of the top three beneficial technologies for their companies. Moreover, six out of ten CEOs in Colombia expect AI to bring those benefits within two to three years, according to Juan Carlos Gutiérrez, Technology Head of IBM Colombia, Venezuela and the Caribbean Region.

That being said, Juan Carlos added, although many businesses have ‘digitized’ aspects of their businesses, most have not yet made the changes that would allow them to become more intelligent, resilient and flexible. This is because there are still many challenges associated with the adoption and implementation of AI-related technologies. Some of the main barriers are persistent skepticism towards the utility of such technologies, the quality and complexity of the data required, and the skills needed to build and implement AI-related solutions. 

While challenges exist, one of the largest industries in Colombia, the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector (which brought in USD 1.17 billion in 2019), already sees the value of AI. Ana Karina Quessep, the executive president of the BPO Association, highlighted that technologies such as cloud computing and AI allow their members and partners to optimize daily tasks and operations while maintaining their human-centric philosophy

Dynamic startup activity

There has also been a notable rise in the number of start-ups either focusing on AI development or leveraging AI technologies. For instance, DataGran helps companies integrate machine learning analysis without having to build their own in-house AI engineering capabilities. It says it allows companies to connect their apps, run machine learning models, and automate workflows – without coding!

Another example is Whale & Jaguar, which develops AI and Big Data infrastructure geared at social media, marketing and PR campaigns. It also developed a fun Mai Fina algorithm, a reggaeton song generator built after analyzing over 7,000 reggaeton songs.

Mo Tecnologias, a startup using AI to predict the creditworthiness of potential borrowers with no access to traditional credit and no credit history (estimated at 3 billion people worldwide), had the honor of raising the most money for an AI startup in 2020 – a respectable Series A USD 4 million. 

Even startups in other verticals are embracing the use of AI. For instance, one of the leading Colombian telemedicine startups, 1DOC3, uses AI technology to assess, pre-diagnose and screen patients before connecting them to doctors. 

Some of these startups have even made successful forays overseas. For instance, Kiwibot, which provides last-mile delivery solutions using robots, currently has operations in the US and Taiwan. Nextonia, which provides real-time video analytics, recently concluded a pilot project to improve waiting times and customer experience in the airport of Santiago, Chile.

Attractiveness of Colombia as a regional AI hub

It is not just Colombians who see the potential of AI in their country. Global players and experts also believe in the attractiveness of Colombia when it comes to AI technology development. In August 2020, IBM selected Bogota as the location for its eighth and largest regional AI center. The ‘Cognitive Transformation Center’ is expected to provide its services to industries such as banking, telecommunications, gas and energy. 

In 2019, renowned Stanford University Professor Andrew Ng, previously chief scientist at Baidu, founder of the Google Brain project and former CEO of Coursera, established his second office for all his AI projects – education startup Deeplearning.ai, the AI Fund startup studio, and Landing AI, which helps companies leverage AI – in Medellin. Medellin was selected after a wide-ranging analysis of cities across Europe, Asia and Latin America, due to its “strong talent pool, educational system and business ecosystem”.

Also in 2019, the World Economic Forum selected Medellin as its first Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Latin America. There are a total of nine such Centers globally, and their mission is to support and accelerate the development of technologies such as machine learning, AI, Big data, blockchain, IoT, nanotechnology and so on.

As the use of AI becomes more pervasive and indispensable to how businesses and societies function, Colombia’s gamble on AI may just prove to be one of the best bets made by the country.