Bulletin No. 1, 2021

THE NEW GOSPEL ACCORDING TO A.I. 9 often are by their nature of representing only part of the whole truth and by the simple fact that they were selected by humans—so must the model be. With Shenzhen having a predominantly younger population, it is not too problematic to consult an AI model feeding solely on social media data, as Professor He pointed out. In cases like hiring government employees, though, it is probably a bad idea to rely on AI. Using the current workforce as the template, an AI recruiter would miss out on bright minds that do not fit ‘the norm’, miss the opportunity to shake things up and, more dangerously, inherit whatever discriminatory practices that characterize the organization in its present state. ‘With all its unreasonable judgements, AI does, after all, serve to expose everything that’swrongwith its teachers, us. Rather than thinking about letting it run our lives, we should take this opportunity to reflect on the human prejudices that have made it the way it is,’ said Professor Wong. AS ENCOURAGING AS IT IS, the fact that there have been calls for the use of AI for social good, including even a movement that got itself the catchy abbreviation ‘AI4SG’, is a reminder that things can move—and most certainly have—in the wrong direction. It can be a treasure trove that AI is unlocking, but it can also be a Pandora’s box. We have been talking about AI in tandem with big data, and we have seen how they enable each other, albeit imperfectly. This symbiosis comes at a price, one that we might have given up caring about: privacy. ‘The relationship between data and privacy is forever a contentious one. At one end of the spectrum, you have a society that withholds all its data for privacy’s sake and gives up all the benefits we’ve talked about; at the other end, you have a society that surrenders all its data to the point where even the faintest of facial expressions could, with the right technology, be monitored,’ said Professor Wong. With most people going for the middle ground, the idea of data governance has gained momentum over the past few years. ‘It’s all about creating a mechanism where data users, including the government, can be held accountable,’ Professor Wong explained. Ideally, it will be a legal framework regulating the whats, whens, whos and hows of data collection and use. ‘By making the use of our data transparent and keeping ourselves informed of what’s happening behind the scene, we might find ourselves closer to a symmetry of information and, therefore, power.’ One particular issue with data use in public administration is its scope. Whilemost people are willing to sacrifice some of their data for whatever benefits they are promised, there will always be those that firmly object to any erosion of their privacy. Though it is getting more and more difficult, they remain free not to use social media to keep the hands of Big Tech away from their information. That is, however, not an option in face of an intrusive public policy, which by definition applies to everyone in the community, given the ubiquity of data-driven technologies. ‘It’s impossible to go completely off the grid, to be quite frank. What we can think about is how we can minimize the impact for these people,’ said Professor Wong. ‘Some people are really uncomfortable with the ideas of smart cities and IoT, at the thought of a smart refrigerator looking at your snack stash and intervening in your eating habits in the name of health. What we can do is allow opting out as far as possible. With new policies, we can run pilot schemes with those that are more enthusiastic and let the hesitant wait and see.’ At the end of day, though, no institution is perfect. What is perhaps most needed is an understanding of AI and big data at an individual level, a data literacy. ‘As I often tell my students, data deleted is not deleted. There are many ways in which data can be recovered, so it’s best to think twice before creating it. This is the sort of alertness you get with data literacy,’ said Professor Wong. ‘To be data-literate, ultimately, is to have the knowledge to use data in a way that improves your life while not being enslaved by technology.’ WITH ITS BLUNDERS AND FLAWS, AI may have a hard time making critical decisions for us; and given the invasion of privacy it enables, it needs more scrutiny, indeed, than it is getting. But no contribution it makes is too small, whether it be adding to traditional statistics when it comes to thinking about a city’s transport, or assisting policymakers in distributing public goods; and with a proper regulatory regime and a keen awareness of the power of data among citizens, it can, after all, do good. ‘With all that we’ve said about smart cities, I believe AI can also encourage civic engagement by making the data the individual citizen generates valuable,’ Professor He added, reminding us how in the world of AI even a throwaway tweet from a disgruntled commuter can contribute to the smooth functioning of a city. ‘I’d like to think it’s here to make lives better.’