Patrick Hosein is homesick. When he speaks you can hear the wistfulness in his voice.
Born in Curepe, this San Diego-based inventor and innovator has notched up more than 40-plus patents and 100 publications. In his time at Bell Labs, Ericsson and Huawei, he has been at the cutting edge of telecommunications.
He made time for my call in between work in South Korea (rolling out the world’s first 5G network that will enable almost any object to be cheaply connected and usher in the internet of things) and his real passion: nurturing students at UWI, where he has recently introduced new data-science graduate programmes.
I dived in: how do we return to growth and generate jobs? Can innovation be our way out?
“Yes, our local industries are inefficient as it was easy to be profitable with energy. But you cannot innovate and produce something to generate foreign exchange overnight. We are not hungry for innovation.
“App development will not bring in foreign exchange. We need to compete on a higher level.
“Repeating an app that someone in another country has done locally isn’t doing anything much.
“I’m focused right now on how we can use data science to help existing companies make their operations more efficient. The real battle (that can bring in foreign exchange) should be to solve problems for third world countries using AI and data analytics. What I’ve found, though, is that industry cannot use data analytic techniques because they do not have the means to collect data. You need to help them develop the infrastructure to do it.
“So the first step is to do that…then we can introduce data analytics and AI.”
This makes sense. For a small business like a restaurant, this can be something as simple as analysing the customers who make most reservations – and focusing on them – rolling out new pastries, for example. But are people prepared to start thinking in this way?
“There is the other issue of education: we are not educating our students in the areas that we should.
“(In TT) we give them well defined problems and they can solve them, because they are given solutions.
“They go out into industry and they are at a complete loss because they don’t understand how to formulate and break down the problem. The questions asked are open-ended. They want complete guidance to the solution. Whereas I go in and say look: lay out how you would go about doing it (defining the problem and solutions) and write it up.
“Local companies tend not to trust our (the university’s) abilities. I don’t blame them, as in the past in my field, UWI had a poor track record of producing quality work for industry. I see that changing. The change is coming because they (businesses) can’t afford the foreign exchange.
“TSTT is using five of my students. CIBC has five students. Guardian Life, Beacon etc are now approaching us to help them with data science, which is a good step, but we have to step up to the plate and provide them with good expertise.
“But our industries do not compensate local technical people well. The good ones, we’re going to lose them, and it will then cost them five times more to use foreign expertise.
“There are people who are abroad and who would like to come back. Besides the issue of crime, there is the issue of not being treated well. I try to grab some of these returning scholars and have them continuing the type of work they were doing abroad otherwise they end up in a ministry doing something trivial.
“Look at people like Stefan Hosein. After his work at NASA, a ministry had him working on a website…frustrated. I pulled him out and paid him from my personal company – he’s now doing great work at Cambridge and Google.”
Can we actively recruit our diaspora?
“Islands like Barbados have a programme whereby they come here for research tourism. UWI could provide nice houses by the beach in return for some form of collaboration.
“I could stay out here in San Diego doing research on 5G. but I keep returning.
"Of course, nobody takes me seriously.
"I see so much potential in TT. It is frustrating to see that. I used to fight when I was on boards and councils – but not any more. I can’t do it all on my own. My students will take that up.”
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh
Editor's Note: This article has been corrected to say that Dr Hosein's place of birth is Curepe and not Cunupia, and he has 100 publications, not 74.