Owing to our varied circumstances and experiences, there are contradictory tendencies to either exaggerate or underestimate the power and importance of artificial intelligence (AI) in contemporary society.
Nor should we uncritically legitimise everything AI can be used for, even if it has been hailed as the main frontier of the Davos-proclaimed Fourth Industrial Revolution. AI, more than other elements of Industry 4.0, is transforming humanity's understanding of ourselves in novel ways the world has neither experienced nor conceived of.
The AI market is already huge but it is still growing fast. The expertise needed is said to be growing exponentially. In fact, many enterprises seem to be struggling to meet this fast-growing demand for expertise with the needed capabilities.
AI's role is already very significant, but it is still transforming many painstakingly slow processes in diverse fields, typically displacing manual as well as skilled labour. For example, precision agriculture uses equipment to supply water and plant nutrients as well as to measure plant growth, eliminate pests, including weeds, and cater for the needs of individual plants.
Driverless cars are at the very advanced stages of testing in many jurisdictions, while AI is greatly improving supply chains and logistics. AI-based equipment is being used to track, police and solve crime, while its military applications, including killing enemy targets, are already infamous, not least because of the collateral damage caused.
AI applications in healthcare, elderly care and precision medicine and surgery are among the better known. AI machines have the capacity to do many things more efficiently than humans and even perform tasks too dangerous or difficult for human beings.
The mantra we are being urged to agree to is to accept all AI without qualification or to risk being left further behind. But there is no reason to define the challenge in such all-or-nothing terms.
Much of the AI development and applications are driven by business considerations and business, in turn, shapes politics and the law, influencing science and technology and how AI and its uses are seen and understood.
Big business and its representatives have long managed, shaped and manipulated public knowledge, opinion and sentiment, not only about AI and its applications, but also industry’s accountability and responsibilities. AI depends heavily on information, especially big data, in order to mimic and improve upon human thought processes and behaviour.
The issue of breach of privacy has received considerable attention as individual freedoms, privacy and property rights have allegedly been violated. Frequent apologies by tech companies for earlier breaches and even the sale of personal data have become so routine as to cast doubt on their sincerity.
AI's continued progress may displace many more workers very quickly, as suggested by some scenarios, while others suggest that AI's advent will enable us to devote more time to care work and creative endeavours. With so much conjecture, it is difficult to plan for and revise educational curricula.
Known and unknown unknowns
For businesses involved with AI, established or start-up, financial bottom lines are crucial, although deep pockets and medium-term strategies may give start-ups longer leases on life.
But to survive, beating the competition remains imperative, which often means being the biggest, the best and the most innovative, in order to survive the challenges from disruptive new technologies that are marginalising and displacing incumbents.
AI’s role in advancing medical technology has also enhanced its reputation for doing good, eclipsing the plight of the victims of AI. Meanwhile, there has been growing acceptance of the individualistic ideology that we are all responsible for the decisions we make, whether explicit or implicit.
One fallacy often invoked is that we just do not know enough about AI to rush to judgement about our concerns. But clearly, the businesses involved and the governments that purchase, use and shape demand have the relevant experience and knowledge to make better-informed tentative assessments.
Policymakers generally lag behind in regulating AI, especially in developing countries. Regulating what is little known or understood remains especially challenging. AI is not only to help us do things better, faster and more efficiently, we must recognise its multiple functions to begin to understand its complexity. Legislation and industry regulations must keep up with changes.
AI is here to stay, or at least the businesses, investors, politicians and technologists have decided so. AI offers potentially great means to enhance human capacity, but what and how businesses, governments and people deploy it is another matter. What are the responsibilities of businesses creating, selling and using AI? Will the rise and spread of AI lead to new modes of mass surveillance, control and manipulation, even digital dictatorship or authoritarianism?
The seemingly limitless potential of AI is undoubtedly attractive, even seductive. Those directly involved have identified much of the immediate and even medium-term potential. Futurologists are more likely to envision, reflect and speculate on the longer-term potential.
But much of the public, even those unfamiliar with AI, imagine its potential after encountering some applications in their own experience. As it continues to evolve in human society, pundits increasingly debate the many dimensions of the ecosystems of AI.
A few will disagree on how best to encourage and ensure the optimum development and use of AI for the greater good in the face of the imperatives of profits and power. Others worry about how AI is already being made use of and the potential for further abuse, but it is not clear what impact this will have on government interventions and social collective action.
Jomo Kwame Sundaram is a senior adviser with the Khazanah Research Institute. He was an economics professor and United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development. Rosli Omar was the first Malaysian to get a PhD in artificial intelligence and is now a nature photographer. His latest book is Forest Birds of Peninsular Malaysia.