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Asia needs a policy framework to govern AI technology

Artificial intelligence will benefit the region, but economic reforms needed

| China

In his novel "The Master of Go," Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata chronicled a real-life game of Go, the Japanese game of strategy, that took place in 1938 between Honinbo Shusai, a respected master, and Minoru Kitani, an up-and-coming player. The epic six-month game ended with the master losing narrowly to his younger challenger, reflecting the eternal tensions between old traditions and modern rationality. As Kawabata concluded: "From the way of Go, the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled. Everything had become science and regulation."

Nearly eight decades later, games of Go as pivotal as the 1938 challenge are still being played, but with more profound implications. In 2016, Google DeepMind's Go-playing artificial intelligence, AlphaGo, beat top South Korean player Lee Sedol. In the first few days of 2017, AlphaGo went on to beat Chinese player Ke Jie, the world's number one player, on the online Go platform Tygem.

As AI technology matures from laboratory research to its anticipated fruition, business leaders think it is time to open Pandora's Box, facing the serious -- and potentially detrimental -- problems that may lie inside. Demis Hassabis, the founder of DeepMind Technologies, which was acquired by Google in 2014, thinks mankind is at the beginning of a "mutual enlightenment" between humans and AI. Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt has written that advances in machine learning will help humanity thrive, in areas ranging from health care to energy.

The think tank McKinsey Global Institute says that automation could raise productivity growth globally by 0.8-1.4% annually. Half of all the activities people are paid to do could be automated, amounting to almost $16 trillion in wages. This would be a boon to the world economy at a time of weak productivity gains and unfavorable demographic trends. A case in point is China, where the working age population is predicted to fall by more than 10% by 2040. Venture capital fund Sinovation Ventures chairman Lee Kai-Fu says that the "AI market potential will be 10 times greater than that of the mobile internet revolution."

Asia is fertile ground for AI development. Japan and South Korea have long enjoyed a depth of technical and research and development capabilities in AI and robotic technologies. More importantly, Asia has some of the world's largest internet economies, including China, India and Indonesia. The tremendous amount of data generated is a critical "natural resource" in driving AI development. In 2016, China surpassed the U.S. in the number of papers published annually on the subject.

According to a survey of Asia-based executives by the MIT Technology Review, AI will have a positive impact on most sectors in Asia. To bolster its manufacturing prowess, China is looking to complement its human labor with AI. Japan and South Korea are attempting to upgrade their consumer electronics with intelligence.

AI could also help densely populated Asian cities to manage their resources better, from transportation and electricity to finance. In this context, Singapore and Hong Kong are transforming themselves into smart cities. In South and Southeast Asia, AI has the potential to address a number of developmental challenges, including agriculture and health care.

Human cost

While the benefits are unprecedented, the challenges AI brings are equally profound. Top of the list are the repercussions of unemployment and inequality. The replacement of human labor in most of Asia will happen at a faster rate than in fully developed economies, because of the relatively high percentage of low-skilled workers.

Ultimately, rapid advances in AI pose existential questions for human civilization. These questions span politics, economics, law, public policy, and philosophy, and they call for a critical examination of AI's impact on society. As Stephen Hawking, the cosmologist based in Cambridge in the U.K., put it in October 2016, "The rise of powerful AI will be either the best, or the worst, thing ever to happen to humanity. We do not yet know which."

In his 2015 book "Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow," the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari suggests that human authority may soon be subsumed by algorithms and big data. According to this creed, called "Dataism," the universe is an all-encompassing data-processing system, and humanity and life forms are merely ripples within the cosmic data flow.

If the 1938 Go game represents the destruction of tradition by modernity, will the AlphaGo games of 2016 and 2017 be seen as an existential challenge to humanity from AI? The short answer is: It is up to us. Each technological disruption before AI brought about uncertainty and fear, but each time humans have evolved faculties and organizations to thrive alongside. It is possible for us to achieve a symbiosis between humans and machines.

This requires Asian policymakers and businesses to revolutionize their mindsets and processes to manage talent, growth and productivity. AI will result in labor displacement and increased inequality, but workforce retraining and adapted social safety nets could support workers during transitional periods. Educational reforms will also be needed to provide the next generation of workers with the digital literacy necessary to collaborate with machines. AI will create opportunities for those with innate human skills that machines cannot replicate: creativity, social capabilities, and entrepreneurship.

As we delegate increasingly complex decision-making to algorithms, now is also the time to develop a charter governing the human-machine relation. Stanford University's "One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence" highlights the potential loss of control of AI systems via the rise of "superintelligence" as a concern.

AI systems that are well-defined, transparent to inspection, secure against manipulation, and amenable to meaningful human control are not only desirable but essential. It was with this in mind that in 2015, Hawking, Elon Musk, chief executive of the advanced carmaker Tesla, and dozens of AI experts signed an open letter, recognizing AI's unprecedented benefits to humanity, but also the importance of building robust systems to avoid potential pitfalls.

Back in 1938, Kitani questioned conventional wisdom and led a new wave of innovation in the Go opening game, stimulating the creativity of subsequent players and deepening our understanding of Go. In the same vein, AI may well challenge us to reflect seriously on who we are, and to identify the human essence of our existence.

Considerable complexities surround the advent of AI, but the opportunities for the advancement of the human race are also significant. Overcoming this complexity requires close cooperation among policymakers, business leaders, educators, computer scientists, and ethicists. We have done so in previous technological disruptions, and there is no reason why we cannot do it again.

Andy Yee is public policy director for Visa for greater China, and previously worked for Google as an Asia-Pacific public policy analyst. This article expresses the author's personal views.

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