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Mar 10, 2020

AI Academy Sri Lanka’s first dedicated Artificial Intelligence Educational Institute opens

  • New future-oriented institute to be located at the Colombo Innovation Tower

In a bold move, the Artificial Intelligence Academy Colombo is being launched with a vision to drive the knowledge economy in Sri Lanka and the South Asian region. The launch of the AI Academy is fully supportive of the government’s agenda to reform the curriculum in higher education to meet local and global market demands and prioritise technology based education in driving faster economic growth, creating a skilled resource pool for economic transformation.

Housed at the Colombo Innovation Tower, in a unique eco system, co-existing with Design (AOD) The Academy of Design, Art (MMCA), Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and a collection of ground breaking tech initiatives, the AI academy is set to deliver what Sri Lanka needs for its next phase. 

The following interview with the two founders of the AI Academy – Linda Speldewinde and Lin Deutschmann – reveals details about the AI Academy, its motivation and focus. Linda is the Founder and Chairperson of Design Corp, a group of companies to which – amongst others – the Academy of Design (AOD), Colombo Innovation Tower and Retail platforms Urban Island, Lin is the Managing Director of Design Corp, with deep experience in technology driven companies and a passion for human centred design.

What is the economic relevance of AI – why should companies adopt data driven decisioning?

The global potential of Advanced Analytics and AI is estimated to be between 10 and 15 trillion USD per year. Companies which are successfully employing big data analytics today already realise double digit revenue and profit advantage, and across all sectors data driven companies dominate in terms of market share. Every company which stays back risks to be obsolete in due course.

So what is holding back companies to adopt AI?

The majority of business leaders cite the lack of qualified advanced analytics and AI professionals as the single biggest barrier for adoption in their business. Further, with 75% of leaders responding, the single most important factor determining a company’s job location is the availability of skilled local talent. If we want to retain jobs, and further attract jobs in Sri Lanka, we need to address this shortage of skills urgently.

What does this mean for our young talent in Sri Lanka and for experienced professionals?

With this imbalance between supply and demand, the labour market is set to undergo a dramatic turmoil. While in the next few years one third of roles will become redundant, also one third of roles will be new and centred on big data analytics. From the perspective of young and experienced professionals this constellation represents a unique opportunity and secures much above market average salary levels, where analytics jobs now top the rankings consistently.

How is the current education system geared to meet the demand for analytics skills?

Academia worldwide and in Sri Lanka has responded with an increased focus on future technologies. However, the supply of adequately skilled talent falls dramatically short of the demand. In addition, beyond data scientists and data engineers, organisations need to scale data driven decisioning across their ‘entire’ organisation. McKinsey coined the term ‘Analytics translator’, a role which ensures business problems are translated into data science, and which further ensures insights to action, in order to generate actual and lasting business value.

Tell us about how the AI Academy is different and distinct

The AI Academy is the first Educational Institution in Sri Lanka, and likely in the world, which is completely focused on Applied AI. The AI Academy offers a 360 degree program to young talent as well as experienced professionals, providing the required foundation for big data analytics and AI, as well as the required domain and business knowledge to fulfil the much demanded role as an Analytics Translator. AI Academy talent will be able to generate actual business value from data, and will enable to unlock data driven decisioning at scale.

What does the focus on applied AI actually mean for the students?

Our students will be working hands-on from day one. While they will get a solid foundation in all quantitative domains, such as statistics, coding, and big data analytics infrastructure, our students will be working on projects and actual business problems. Also, they will complement their data science and IT domain knowledge with specific business domain knowledge, such as Banking, Financials and Insurance services, Fast Moving Consumer Goods, Manufacturing, Telecommunications, Travel and Hospitality, Media.

How can Sri Lankan enterprises contribute to – and benefit from – the AI Academy program

We explicitly invite all Sri Lankan enterprises, small, medium and large, to actively engage with us. First, partner enterprises will have the opportunity to tap into our talent pool for internships and projects which immediately can return business benefit, as well as create an opportunity to establish a lasting relationship for a potential employment post-graduation. Second, the AI Academy offers a Distinguished Speaker Series, which will host senior experienced AI practitioners who will share their knowledge. Third, we will offer the opportunity to sponsor student grants, further augmenting the talent pipeline for partner enterprises.

What about existing online courses, can’t they replace a physical classroom today?

MOOCs (massive open online courses) have been hugely successful – Coursera, edX, Lynda/LinkedIn, Udemy – just to name a few. Many globally leading universities are open sourcing their lectures, such as MIT and Stanford. And the leading cloud companies, such as AWS, Google and Microsoft, provide outstanding learning material on analytics and AI. Naturally, the AI Academy will leverage a well-balanced and curated set of online courses and material. However, the actual learning experience comes with hands-on practice, gained in supervised, project and team work. The AI Academy will provide the optimal infrastructure to solve actual business problems through advanced analytics and AI, and will provide the necessary exposure of the students with AI practitioners and enterprise leaders.

You mentioned team work, what skills do you see as important in the future

This is an excellent question, and all too often the so called ‘soft factors’ are underestimated. In fact, in a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute, next to the technological skills, the highest in-demand skills are in the social, emotional and creative domain. This includes communication, team work, leadership, entrepreneurship, creativity and design thinking. The focus on those skills is what makes the AI Academy distinct, and where we fully leverage our year long experience with the Academy of Design. In addition, as an AI Academy, we will lay significant emphasis on the risks of AI and AI ethics. Very recently, private and public institutions as well as governments have started to create guidelines for the responsible use of AI. While there is still no final consensus, our students will be at the forefront of responsible AI thinking and in a position to lead AI ethics in their respective companies.

What kind of programs does the AI Academy specifically offer?

The AI Academy provides a 360 degree applied AI program, for your talent as well as professionals. For young talent, we offer a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, with solid foundation as well as practical hands-on experience. In addition, we hold a regular Distinguished Speaker Series by global experts, researchers, scientists and innovators, which offers a unique opportunity for professionals to stay up to date with the latest advancements in AI and practical applications of AI in the various industry sectors. Professionals can earn dedicated certificates supporting their career and market value. In addition, AI projects – with sufficient potential – can be incubated and spun-out separately.

In summary, what is your main drive towards the launch of this AI Academy?

We have entered the age of AI and all successful businesses will be AI first. Therefore, we need a new type of talent which is currently not available – bridging the gap between data science and business impact. The AI Academy fills this gap and therefore are we inviting young talent, experienced professionals, Sri Lankan enterprises, and public authorities to work together to create a bright AI-first Sri Lankan digital knowledge economy and generate impact together for the wider South Asian region.

For more information contact: 077 048 7755 or drop in to the AI Academy housed at the Colombo Innovation Tower, 477 R.A. De Mel Mawatha, Colombo 4, open from Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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