Are we able to keep pace with AI developments?

I am surprised by recent artificial intelligence (AI) developments in both good and bad ways.

I am optimistic because these developments can improve productivity by leaps and bounds; pessimistic because the idea of a dystopian AI world popularised by movies may actually come true.

Barely two years ago, scientists and government leaders were confident that there would be many opportunities in the Industry 4.0 era and that the general concern of humans becoming obsolete was a misguided fear.

What we needed to do instead was to upgrade ourselves quickly, and embrace and apply digitalisation.

While it is inevitable that jobs with routine and repetitive tasks are being taken over by robots, skills like creative thinking and emotion reading cannot be replaced by automation.

In recent years, software has eaten into the entry-level and repetitive tasks that used to be done by legal professionals.

I used to believe that mediation and arbitration cases would not fall into this category as they require a high level of judgment from lawyers and judges.

That appears to no longer be the case, though some lawyers argue that the AI available may be appropriate for helping to deal with only small financial claims (When robots take on the role of lawyers in mediating disputes, Aug 15).

A Buddhist temple in Japan has also put into service a robot priest to preach sermons this year (Buddhist temple in Japan puts faith in robot priest, Aug 15).

In May, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said technology has changed various industries in Singapore, including education, but it will never replace teachers here (Tech will never replace teachers: Ong Ye Kung, May 17).

After reading about the robot priest and the use of AI in mediation, I cannot help but wonder if the beliefs Mr Ong and many of us hold need to be reassessed.

I wonder if we can keep pace with the speed and directions in which AI is going.

We need time to learn and apply what we have picked up.

More importantly, the skills we learn should stay relevant for a reasonable length of time.

The conundrum lies in how some technologies become obsolete so quickly.

Tan Kar Quan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2019, with the headline 'Are we able to keep pace with AI developments?'. Print Edition | Subscribe