JANUARY 17 — The prime minister has been an AI champion for a while now. While it makes a fun joke how they both share the same initials I do not find this push towards making it compulsory for students to learn AI at all funny.

I think the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-Desa) summarised the situation succinctly in its article : Will robots and AI cause mass unemployment? Not necessarily, but they do bring other threats.

“Governments may be tempted to focus on the benefits of technological progress, while largely ignoring its negative impacts. Low-income countries are particularly vulnerable unless policymakers have a clear understanding of the risks and potential of these new technologies. The sooner we start rethinking and redesigning labour market policies, social security schemes and taxation systems, the better we will adapt to the future that is already happening.”

That is clearly what is happening in Malaysia. How does AI “help” students actually? I have tried AI tools (that keep getting shoved in my face thanks to the Microsoft Edge browser) and found them lacking.

Advertisement

While testing out the Goodnotes app, I wasn’t impressed with the AI functions that included checking mathematical equations and rewriting to change tones or meet certain formats.

What I don’t think either the prime minister or our economic affairs minister understand is that AI tools by themselves do not help workers.

They benefit shortsighted employers who think that by firing writers, artists and other creatives and replacing them with people whose jobs are just to create or clean up AI-generated content they are making efficiency and cost savings gains.

Advertisement

I have freelancer friends who struggle to make a living because their clients are telling them they’re using AI and instead of writing gigs, they’re being offered to edit the “free” AI content for mere pennies.

Ah, how quickly the devaluation of human capital shows its impact.

In a report by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, AI contributed to the loss of nearly 4,000 jobs in the US in May 2023.

Judging by the ridiculous statements constantly being put out by the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF), if it were possible to replace all of us with a computer, I’m sure too many employers would.

No sick days! No annual leave! No haggling over benefits! When a computer breaks down, you just buy another!

What those salivating over AI refuse to see is that computers are only as smart as the people who make them.

In a report by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, AI contributed to the loss of nearly 4,000 jobs in the US in May 2023. — Reuters file pic
In a report by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, AI contributed to the loss of nearly 4,000 jobs in the US in May 2023. — Reuters file pic

Those image and writing generation bots create their content from mass consuming human-created media and despite the improvements over time, the reality is no AI can create a work of art or literature that bests anything a person can create.

Someone on X despaired that newer programmers he encountered can’t even figure out basic image editing tools when I, a sub-editor, crop, resize and occasionally edit pictures as needed on a daily basis.

AI should have been an invisible process, with the combined skill of developers and media creators to create automated tools that would take away the need to labour over mundane tasks (removing backgrounds from images) or safely clear biohazards without the need of human participation.

We need AI programmers working with the best in the creative fields to invent exciting new applications that change the world.

Instead, we have banks like Maybank use AI to create horrific images of grotesque gaping figures to advertise their products because why pay for stock images or human models when you can press a button for instant schlock?

There is no reason to herald AI as some sort of saviour when the basic issues remain unresolved: poor matching of skills to employment, depressed wages, class divides and a whole host of other systemic problems that cannot be fixed with a computer.

What use is AI when the struggling farmers see their university graduate children return to their hometowns because they can’t find work due to employers thinking a laptop can replace 10 people?

How can AI help the disenfranchised school children who have to cross rivers and rickety bridges just to get a basic education?

Add that to the recently announced capital gains tax exemptions, and I wonder if the M in Madani stands for “Money first, rakyat second”.

What we need is vision and compassion but alas, like a terrible sci-fi movie scenario, the robots are winning again.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.