Artificial Intelligence: a blessing or a curse waiting to unfold?

Sophia the humanoid. Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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The notion that computers could one day “think” or supersede human intelligence is not a new one. It was Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician and developer of one of the world’s first modern algorithms in the mid-1800s, who suggested that computers might one day be able to think.

It was almost a century later that the term “artificial intelligence” (AI) was coined at Dartmouth College in the US in 1956 after a two-month-long meeting between several scientists and mathematicians.

Today, AI is a reality in several industries and is being hailed as the golden solution for much of the world’s problems. It can, with its immense power and ability to learn, put an end to global poverty, find a cure for cancer and ensure food security. In the Middle East, “data is the new oil”, is one notion often quoted at technology events and conferences. So if that is truly the case, then will artificial intelligence be a curse or a blessing for the region?

At the inaugural AI Everything conference in Dubai held this week, policymakers and industry leaders from around the world convened to showcase the latest technologies in AI including in machine learning, automation and robotics.

From basketball-playing robots to AI-powered recruitment that measures your level of integrity, there was a strong sense of the boundless opportunities that await us.

There were some words of caution about the ethical and societal impact of these technologies, but they were mostly drowned out by the catchy notes of the AI-generated music.

The Big Nine

One of the more troubling aspects about AI highlighted at the conference is that most of these technologies are being created and developed by just a handful of companies. During her talk, Amy Webb, the founder of US-based Future Today Institute explained that there are just nine companies leading AI development globally, six of which are based in the US and three in China.

The US six are Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft, all publicly-traded companies with a “fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders”. It is primarily capitalism and the need to make a profit that is driving their investment in AI according to Webb and not the need to rid the world of its problems.

The Chinese three are Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent, although publicly-listed, they are headquartered in China and are also viewed with a suspicious eye by policymakers in the US, who have already banned telecoms infrastructure developer Huawei from operating in the country due to concerns over intellectual property and sharing of data with the Chinese government.

Given the issues with human bias in machine learning, the implications of having two countries power the AI of tomorrow with their own cultural, ethical and societal bias embedded into their algorithms can create problems for other parts of the world.

There is no global standard for AI, there is not yet a moral or ethical code for AI, there is no global governing body for AI. And if such a body were created, which code of ethics should it adhere to? Which societal values should be upheld? How will that sit with the Middle East and its values?

The race to automate is forging ahead while people still ponder these questions, which will likely strike a technological cold war between these two superpowers with the Middle East already deemed a ripe market for investment for both countries.

The UAE, the only country in the world with an AI ministry, headed up a minister who is not yet 30 years old, has for the past decade positioned itself as a global leader in embracing new technologies to improve the quality of life for its population.

But the rest of the region cannot claim the same economic and societal comfort as the UAE. It is important to bear in mind that the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) has the world’s highest youth unemployment rate and the world’s biggest gender gap. It also struggles with a bloated public sector, ongoing wars and conflicts and parts of it remain a hotbed for terrorist activities that continue to be exported to the rest of the world.

For the Arab youth, economic concerns, unemployment and inadequate education are the biggest issues they face and according to the Arab Youth Survey 2019, the majority feel entitled to government support. So how will AI impact a region with such problems? Few, if any, have a clear answer.

Job Loss

According to an Oxford University study, technology will replace humans from doing all human jobs in just over a century. Closer to our lifetime, the McKinsey Global Institute report on automation predicts that two-thirds of the world’s jobs, about 800 million, will be lost to automation by 2030. While many argue that technology will create new jobs, it is unlikely to create enough for the ones it displaces. According to the World Economic Forum, AI and machine learning will create 58 million jobs by 2022 and if it continues at that pace until 2030, it will have created 464 million jobs.

“What is important is to focus first on those who are particularly concerned – the youth and women,” said Cedric Wachholz, chief of ICT in education, culture and science section at UNESCO. “Two thirds of the youth are likely to be unemployed and AI tends to take away first entrant jobs, the easy jobs, so that is a challenge.”

Dissatisfied youth have proven to be a powerful force in the Middle East, most recently in Sudan, where peaceful protestors managed to bring an end to Omar al-Bashir’s regime.

According to Ben Goertzel, chief executive officer (CEO) at SingularityNET and chief scientist at Hanson Robotics, AI is initially likely to widen the wealth gap and will impact the manual and skilled labour, jobs traditionally held by the working class. This, he thinks, might result in more violence and terrorism around the world, but perhaps the real danger will lie in the breakdown of the middle classes, when office jobs become automated.

Such an unprecedented rise in unemployment in the Middle East can easily lead to protests and revolutions and a jobless population will reshape society and politics as we know it. This is the dilemma that governments and industries around the world will have to navigate to ensure stability and an easy transition to the future.

So would the executives of these tech companies be as enthusiastic about AI if it meant that one day they too would be replaced by a robot?

It’s a question I once posited to the CEO of one of Silicon Valley’s biggest virtualisation firms. His response was that if such a robot existed, he would not hesitate in hiring it. What was striking in his answer was that even if the technology existed to replace him, he was still the one “hiring” the robot and he would still have a job. The disconnect between the people pushing these technologies and those who will be most affected by it is widespread.

One website – www.willrobotstakemyjob.com – predicts the likelihood of losing your job to a robot. Taxi drivers are at 89 per cent risk of being replaced by robots or AI and suggests an 88 per cent chance of automation within the next two decades.

Compare that with a chief executive, which is just 1.5 per cent at risk. The reason for that disconnect thus becomes more apparent. Meanwhile white-collar workers like accountants and auditors are at 94 per cent risk while insurance underwriters are 99 per cent at risk. As the website says “you are doomed”.

The answer will lie in re-educating, re-skilling or upskilling, but as Wachholz pointed out at AI Everything: “We’re speaking about enabling an environment in countries, which is not always a given. If we look at current trends, in the lowest-income countries, only 10 per cent of the youth will have a secondary education by 2030…it’s easier to talk about lifelong learning and leapfrogging when these basics are not a given.”

For others, the answer to these woes will be a universal basic income, but where exactly this money will come from to fund millions if not billions of salaries is still up for debate. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has suggested taxing robots 90 per cent to fund this, which will mean taxing the companies that produce or use these robots – but given their power, this is unlikely to happen.

“The ecosystem all should take responsibility. Technology innovation always advances so we have no other way,” said Chae Sub Lee, director of standardisation bureau at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). “Engagement of all the ecosystem is quite important. I recommend it would be good to look to the bright side, the best way is to bring the light against the dark.”

But perhaps caution and regulations might be a better place to look initially, than to rely solely on optimism.

 

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