Tech like AI raises issues of morality, ethics: DBS chief

'Game-changers' like AI, 5G and blockchain linked to issues of social sciences, he says

Imagine the day when insurance companies use artificial intelligence (AI) and genetics technology to determine if people will remain cancer-free for the rest of their lives.

People might not take up insurance and, conversely, insurers might not be willing to cover those pre-determined to be stricken with the disease in future.

This scenario was cited by DBS chief executive Piyush Gupta at the Tech3 Forum last Friday in his speech, where he focused on three "game-changing" technologies - AI, 5G and blockchain - and ethics.

The use of AI will affect the insurance industry, he said, adding: "We are willing to socialise losses since none of us know who is going to get cancer in the room."

But if this was made certain, the way insurance is handled would change.

"Is there a point you get to where you say, 'too much information is not good, too much AI is not good', or rather, 'how do we as a society deal with these questions of morality and ethics' - which are going to determine what makes us human and a society?" he said.

Blockchain technology might appear to be unrelated to philosophy, while AI and morality might seem to be unlinked.

But these technologies have spawned issues of the social sciences, such as the need to adjust ethical standards when using them and the fundamental idea of value, said Mr Gupta.

He had less to say about 5G, which he said will drive the "metaverse"- a virtual world of games, films and music.

"It really is bandwidth and latency, but what that will let you do is escape via both augmented reality and virtual reality," he said.

He added that there are challenges in the ethical use of AI, even as the technology is increasingly being used in workplace processes such as marketing and human resources.

For example, in employing AI to determine if a person should have access to a loan, banks have to ensure they are not discriminating against certain groups in society, such as a specific race or gender.

Mr Gupta said credit analysts have been making the same decisions, but "it is in their heads".

"Now when we try to codify it into an AI model, it becomes a problem - where do you draw the line?"

He also said these issues resulting from the use of AI are not related to the Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.

"They are issues of the social sciences - the issues of morality, the issues of what makes us who we are, the issues of what makes the society a society."

But he stressed that society has to stay anchored in recognising "fundamental truths and principles of what makes us who we are".

He also said blockchain technology would "fundamentally destroy the architecture of the world we build", where value is recorded in hubs such as banks.

The hubs would not be needed if a distributed ledger - such as blockchain - is used, which enables records to be kept by every entity.

This would change the business world where stock exchanges, banks and central authorities might not be needed, he added.

But having a world based around blockchain comes with its own challenges. These include questioning the fundamental notions of value, he said.

An example Mr Gupta gave was a non-fungible token, which is a digital object such as a drawing or animation, being sold for millions of dollars.

"Why is there value in it? But then, you start thinking, why is there value in a Mona Lisa painting?" he said, adding that any person can view the painting at the Louvre - the museum in Paris - or online.

He also said all companies are now dealing with technology and there is no separate industry for it.

"Therefore, if you haven't figured and understood how to leverage, use and deal with technology, you're a dinosaur," he added.

Besides technology, he spoke about climate change and biodiversity loss, saying these issues were "bigger, more looming" threats than the pandemic.

But a company's switch to a carbon-light business model cannot be done overnight, and industries relying heavily on fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas cannot be immediately shut down.

"You can't do that because people have to live... and economies have to grow," he said. There must be a transition which has to be thought through, he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2021, with the headline 'Tech like AI raises issues of morality, ethics: DBS chief'. Subscribe