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AI: Threat or Opportunity?

Better befriend Artificial Intelligence than wish it away

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and reality may appear contradictory but the fact is that AI is fast becoming the reigning reality of modern life. AI is no longer a mere buzzword. Its potential applications are visible all around us from gaming to expert medical diagnostic systems to speech recognition to machine learning to robotics to customer services to workload automation and predictive maintenance to effective data management and analytics, etc. Sounds magical? Simply put, artificial intelligence is computer software that performs human-like activities including learning, planning and problem solving.

According to an AFP news report from Washington in the latter half of February, US researchers used AI to identify an antibiotic chemical which can kill several drug-resistant bacteria generally known as superbugs. “The scientists at MIT and Harvard trained a machine learning algorithm to analyse chemical compounds capable of fighting infections using different mechanisms than those of existing drugs,” the report stated. The identified compound has been, interestingly, named ‘halicin’ after the fictional AI system from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. The scientists succeeded in their quest for a new drug through machine learning model that enabled them to explore large chemical spaces which without AI is a prohibitively expensive process even for advanced countries and pharmaceutical giants. Without new drugs, it is feared, resistant infections would be able to claim 10 million lives a year by 2050.

The news brings hope and reassurance to mankind at a time when the deadly corona virus (Covid-19) is spreading its tentacles beyond China, the country of its origin. Horror and terror abound. There is no immediate treatment in sight. However, it is believed that AI will enable us to find a way out sooner than later. If and when that happens, it will create immense opportunities for medical and pharmaceutical organisations and people at large.

Already, AI has helped us make unimaginable advancements in different domains of human life. Robots are already teaching and assisting humans in conducting classes for junior students in a highly interesting and absorbing manner. Robots are running machines in automobile companies. Cars are moving around without drivers. Thanks to AI solving humongous calculations in a jiffy, creating new scientific models has become much easier and faster. Repetitive work may no longer be forced upon us. Artificial intelligence will take care of that while humans will devote themselves to real value-adding tasks. This is changing the way we have been doing business for too long. The development will only gain vigour and momentum over time. Managers in Nepal need to gear themselves up for the world altering change.

Let’s listen to AI expert Deidre Paknad. He says, “Compared to humans, AI is able to crunch numbers, identify patterns, and make faster data-driven decisions. With the ability to process large amounts of data and spit out trend directions and actionable advice, this application of artificial intelligence can be a vital tool for any manager looking for some quantitative support in their decision-making. In fact, computers can be so good that in financial services, 40% of predicted layoffs in the industry will be in money management, as robo-advisors replace human fund managers.”

According to a Harvard Business Review survey of project managers, 54% of their time was spent tackling routine administrative chores. This neither adds value to business nor does it motivate top class managers. They are always on the lookout for challenging assignments whose accomplishment gives them a sense of fulfillment. AI is an excellent tool for such aspiring high-flyers.

AI can assist good managers in bolstering team spirit by giving timely feedback. AI can manage very regular, even weekly, feedbacks to team members by using natural language processing and chatbots. Global surveys have highlighted employees’ faith in ‘more’ feedback. They feel that feedback and the consequent coaching and mentoring lead to better performance. With timely fact-based feedback, course correction can be made as and when it is required. (I had devoted an entire column to the feedback system in a previous issue). AI offers means and tools to managers to identify team members who need more attention and guidance. It helps managers to anticipate the coaching needs of their team members.

We often come across AI in the manufacturing sector. The machines are connected to a network that supplies large amounts of data which is just too much to be sorted out and managed by humans efficiently. Machine learning comes into play here recognising patterns and anomalies in the data rapidly. The managers concerned are immediately informed the disruption in patterns, and corrective measures are taken to make the machines run as required.

Far more useful than machine learning is the new concept of deep learning. The algorithms used in this case equip machines with the power of non-linear reasoning. We can see this in operation in self-driven cars whose sensors are able to gauge its distance from other objects in nano seconds. Fraud detection ability too is gradually making deep learning highly useful for businesses with growing availability of data.

Customer, we fully realise, is the king in today’s highly competitive business. We are aware of customer relationship management softwares like Salesforce and Zoho. But these need high level of human intervention. Application of AI to these platforms can imbue them with the ability to auto-correct and self-update.

The best role that AI can play is protection of computer network defences. It can detect breaches in the defence system. No doubt there are cyber security experts but can a company afford to employ as many as warranted by the scale and complexity of computer networks? AI comes to the rescue here.

All this appears to be hunky dory. But should a country like Nepal, which is majorly reliant on the old age economy, welcome artificial intelligence with open arms? Our linkage with knowledge-based economy is, at best, basic and tenuous. Education-wise, our people are equipped for basic jobs. On the other hand, AI seems to be an employment destroyer, particularly in the Nepali context.

Nepal’s business barons and managers need to seriously debate the issue. We may or may not adopt AI as willingly as many countries are doing but history shows that technology has a way of breaching barriers of forbidden lands. Moreover, we are already linked to a globalised world. External influences cannot be wished away.

At best, we can induct artificial intelligence in measured and calibrated doses. We need to understand enough of AI to be able to interact with the outside world. The advanced countries will not lag behind so that Nepal may catch up with them. Inequity has been the only permanent feature of humankind and is set to increase. AI may only contribute to this horrid reality.

How to deal with this challenge? Thankfully, Nepal has a small population. We should change our national priorities to focus sharply on basic education and information technology. We have seen that the world’s best and most successful IT entrepreneurs were not college toppers. On the contrary, many of them were college dropouts.

This is not to suggest that our youth should start disdaining higher education. What I am saying is that IT programming and coding skills require burning zeal rather than certificates and degrees which are often not worth the paper they are printed on. Also, IT education and industry do not require big capital expenditure unlike education in other streams and manufacturing sector.

The state, business and the society need to create an enabling atmosphere and let a million flowers bloom.

Basant Chaudhary is a Poet, Writer, The Chairman of BLC and Basant Chaudhary Foundation. (feedback@basantchaudhary.com)

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