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COMMENTARY

Don't fight artificial intelligence, work with it instead

OCBC Bank recently became the first company in Singapore to offer scholarships to National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) postgraduate students ready to study the most hyped of computer science fields - artificial intelligence (AI) - with this initiative established to "harness the potential of AI to deliver greater customer value and business scalability".

Indeed, with the rapid advancement of AI - from social data-mining to natural language processing (NLP) - the technology has successfully plugged a plethora of different gaps in existing processes. In fact, International Data Corporation estimates that spending on AI systems will reach US$4.6 billion in 2021 in the Asia-Pacific (excluding Japan) alone.

However, despite the promise and potential of AI in terms of contributions to society, there remain at the same time apprehension and fears of a darker future. AI has evolved at a pace beyond our wildest imagination, radically changing the way in which the world moves - which begs the question: Are we ready for it?

The return of the beloved dark anthology series Black Mirror brings our use of technology into question once again, presenting a world where at best, we are caught up in the digital, and at worst, particularly when it comes to AI, enslaved. And in many ways, you could say that we are basically living the show. We are addicted to our smartphones, and social media companies have a tremendous sway on how we consume news, making it harder to discern fact from fiction.

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But does this mean we are headed for digital dystopia?

THE CASE FOR CAUTION

Pop culture typically depicts "evil" interpretations of AI either as a programme that has strayed from its coded moral system in favour of a more "logical" one, unable to emote or show empathy, or as gaining consciousness and a sense of self. Both ultimately suggest that AI will gain the power to destroy the human race (especially if placed in the wrong hands), and create a sense of uncertainty among the general population.

Indeed, even leading AI scientists have raised concerns. For example, one group called for a ban on the development of autonomous weapons that are able to find, track and fire at targets without human supervision in the belief that autonomous weapons would be devastating for human security and freedom. Establishing councils to regulate the ethical use of AI will therefore be key to keeping us on track.

Meanwhile, one of the most pressing concerns among the public is the fear of large-scale job losses due to AI - according to a report by Gartner, it is estimated that 1.8 million jobs will be eliminated worldwide as the technology takes its place in the workspace.

However, the same report also suggests that a whopping 2.3 million jobs will be created in its place. Clearly, widespread education on the positive uses and applications of AI is therefore needed to dispel misconceptions and demonstrate where the opportunities in AI lie.

THE CASE FOR OPTIMISM

For all the scaremongering, the reality is that AI has also been instrumental to enabling innovative research that advances humanitarian efforts in key sectors such as health care. For instance, Lenovo has been working with a group of research scientists in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the National Taipei University of Technology for brain research - which has resulted in a video game that allows participants to control and race virtual cars via cerebral activity. While this might sound like fun and games, just for entertainment, there is in fact profound potential, as the tool can be used to help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and even allow patients with severe disabilities to communicate.

Aside from its uses in the medical field, AI can also play a vital role in helping alleviate the hardship of workers in laborious jobs. In Vietnam, for instance, a crop intelligence system is being developed whereby farmers can upload pictures of their crops to get a better understanding of their plantations. The system, named Sero, enables farmers to identify sick crops as well as diagnose the kind of disease that their crops suffer from - and even provides solutions on how to treat these issues.

So where does that leave us? While it is true that AI has evolved quicker than originally anticipated, there is little evidence - despite the gripping storylines out of Black Mirror - to suggest that this progress will eventually impede our control over these systems. So instead of fighting the technology, perhaps we need to be focusing our efforts on how we define our relationship with AI - how we can work alongside it to facilitate productivity so that we are freed up to take on more challenging tasks that require human empathy and judgement? Where can we use our uniquely human skills to contribute on a deeper social level - through community service and expanded leisure time with family, for example?

History is filled with innovations that have transformed the way that we live our lives and how we work, yet we have fought and feared change every step of the way. Isn't it time we learned to embrace technology instead? We know that AI is already saving people in many senses of the word, and we have only scratched the surface. From climate change to disease, AI has the potential to solve some of humanity's greatest challenges - so I think it would be safer to assume that the real dystopian future is one that is devoid of AI.

  • The writer is president, Asia-Pacific, Lenovo Data Center Group