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Pursuing happiness and learning via AI

By Marianne David

 

While Artificial Intelligence (AI) is permeating all aspects of our lives, collective wisdom is falling by the wayside, says Prabash Galagedara, the author of ‘Embrace: In pursuit of happiness through Artificial Intelligence’. Asserting that AI is gaining more momentum each day, Galagedara advises taking up the struggle, educating ourselves, and building a life that connects technology with human needs. 

“I believe good health, good wealth, and a great mind will lead to happiness. Most of us are unaware of the impact of AI in these areas. I decided to showcase the role of AI in everyday life so that people can make informed decisions,” he said in an interview with The Sunday Morning Education, explaining the thinking behind his book and its purpose.

“My key message is, ‘you must learn about AI before AI learns about you’. If AI is going to learn, act, and behave like humans, it will understand our needs one day. If people understand the application of AI, they can think of ways to improve their life,” he added.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

 

You have over two decades of experience in data and analytics, finance, and technology. What made you choose happiness as the focus of your book in sharing your experiences and knowledge? What inspired the pursuit of happiness through AI?

 

As humans, we do everything to be happy in life. Happiness is one of the fundamental rights of humans. This has been recognised in many constitutions across the world. AI is a technology that should be used to safeguard the fundamental rights of humans. I decided that it is important to connect technology with human needs or rights. 

I have also been inspired by many role models, who used technology to make our lives better. History has so many examples; their work gave us a happier and more prosperous life. AI has the same potential to bring ultimate happiness through a healthy body and mind.

Most books focus on technical nuances and lack practical applications. I wanted to not only write a book that is relatable, but also shed light on how it impacts us as humans. I aimed to show how to bring technical subjects to non-technical people. I hope I was able to do it through ‘Embrace’. So far, I have received positive feedback from both technical and non-technical readers. I will leave it to readers to rate my success on that.

 

You’ve divided the role of AI in our lives into eight categories – wealth, safety, jobs, health, faces, fake, beauty, and cars. Could you explain these categories?

 

These areas are everyday topics AI is making an impact on. I believe good health, good wealth, and a great mind will lead to happiness. Most of us are unaware of the impact of AI in these areas. As a first step, I decided to showcase the role of AI in everyday life through the eight areas, so that people can make informed decisions where relevant. Let me elaborate on these topics to share more insights.

Robo-advisers are a growing area in advanced economics in wealth management. More retail investors (everyday people) use robo-advisers today due to convenience, cost-efficiency, and relative performance. However, this is still a greenfield for many. Anyone in a remote corner of the world can access the most sophisticated wealth creation tools with a smartphone and Wi-Fi connection today, yet the vast majority are unaware of such advancements.

Online safety is critical for a sustainable digital ecosystem. Many people don’t understand the importance of digital security. There are many tools at the disposal of citizens to protect themselves. Needless to say, protecting our children, parents, and everyone around us in the digital economy is fundamental to a prosperous economy.

AI in healthcare has been a focus since the pandemic. In fact, we managed to get a vaccine much faster due to AI and other technologies. AI is being used to identify treatments for some rare cancers today. If people understand the improvements in healthcare technologies, it will lead to better care for people in need. 

AI on beauty has had a huge impact on younger generations. Beauty filters in particular have made us think about it differently. In some instances, it has impacted the mental health of our children. AI is at the front and centre of the beauty revolution. The book explores both the positive and harmful effects of AI and how we look at ourselves today.

Facial recognition technologies have infiltrated our lives, they are AI applications. Law enforcement agencies in particular are gearing up the use of such advancements. We have to create a healthy debate on privacy. A simple yet fundamental question like ‘who owns our face?’ has come to the fore of the debate.

Deepfakes are an advancement in AI that have been used against people, particularly women, through revenge porn. I have read many horror stories and met a few people who have been victims of such harassment. However, awareness in society is very limited – non-existent in some cases.

Similarly, AI in relation to cars is also advancing fast. We are informed of self-driving cars, but the Government is not actively working on road rules. Have we thought about a national AI policy and regulatory framework?

I wanted to create a healthy debate on all these areas that really matter to us. There are many stakeholders in this debate – government, private sector, education sector, civic organisations, and citizens. 

 

As you point out, AI is everywhere, yet learning and collective wisdom is not keeping up. How can this be addressed?

 

Education is the key that unlocks the golden door to happiness. We have to achieve a tipping point in education; we have to educate enough people so that it becomes a regular conversation among people of all ages. I think that level is 50% of the population and we are currently at 10%, so we have a long way to go.

How do we reach the tipping point? We have to reach people through the media they are accustomed to. A book is one such medium. However, there are other platforms such as TV, newspapers, forums, movies, social media, and word of mouth. Essentially, we need an education revolution to take place. This will not happen soon. 

There is a generally-accepted law called Amara’s Law: ‘We tend to overestimate the effect of technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run’. Amara further outlined that it takes about 15-20 years for technology to mature. So the educational revolution will take time and we must be persistent. 

From a Sri Lankan standpoint, this is a huge opportunity for us as a nation to drive exponential growth and catch up with the West. India was able to create an opportunity through IT off-shoring. China was able to achieve significant growth through manufacturing. Sri Lanka has the most educated youth sector in the developing world. We need a vision and leadership to guide us to achieve our true potential. AI is our opportunity and we can achieve our true potential in our lifetime. 

 

You argue that creators’ sole purpose is outsmarting people with the intention of wealth creation. How should this change?

 

The most advanced technologies are used by private organisations driven by access to capital. Their primary objective is profit-making.

If we focus on the growth of revenue, AI is used in identifying more opportunities with existing or new customers – sell, sell, sell. However, there are more areas where technology can be used – ethical applications of AI or technology. If organisations use AI to identify customers who struggle financially and provide a better payment plan, that’s an ethical application of AI to improve people’s life. If organisations fund activities such as finding white-collar criminals, it is a social cause that will drive a better life for everyone. 

Today’s thinking is limited to profit-making. As a society, we can make more progress by thinking beyond the bottom line; this thinking has to come within organisations as part of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Organisations must think beyond the bottom line. I haven’t seen many organisations disclosing AI applications as part of their commitment to social responsibility. This is the change we need and it has to start in the corporate sector.

From a Sri Lankan perspective, we are at a critical juncture as a nation. There are many ethical applications one could think of within the current economic and political landscape. This is a time when true leaders emerge and guide the whole nation. We are yet to see true corporate leaders in Sri Lanka who will shape the future for all Sri Lankans.

 

In terms of citizen education, where should people look and what areas do you want them to focus on in order to ‘rise with the creators’?

 

There are four parties to this discussion – people themselves, the Government, civil society, and the private sector. 

People have a responsibility to themselves to learn and grow every day. We cannot rule that out easily. We must continue to learn new things – skills, technologies, hobbies. It comes with people’s curiosity. There are many options to learn new things such as online tools, personal networks, and educational institutions.

The Government has an obligation to provide opportunities to less-privileged people in society. These opportunities include, but are not limited to, educational opportunities. Needless to say, the Sri Lankan Government could do much more in this regard.

Civil organisations have an obligation to create awareness of what is available to people and, more importantly, what is missing in the ecosystem. In a sound society, civil organisations fulfil social responsibility that the Government and private sector aren’t capable of delivering to the most vulnerable in the society.

Last, the private sector can do much more through the social responsibility framework in place. In fact, private sector capital allocation needs re-thinking. Many private sector-owned educational institutions can do more to educate everyone.

If we make our parents and grandparents understand technology a little better, they will encourage the younger generation at an earlier age to think about careers and jobs in these areas. I remember my father encouraging me at a young age about the importance of learning IT as a skill. Younger generations get inspiration from elders in society.

 

Finally, what is your key message for people looking to embark on this AI journey in pursuit of happiness?

 

My key message is, ‘you must learn about AI before AI learns about you’. I have consistently used this tagline to show urgency on this. It has a simple message. If AI is going to learn, act, and behave like humans, it will understand our needs one day. If people understand the application of AI, they can think of ways to improve their life. 

AI applications will enable the automation of business activities so that business owners can hire more staff to expand nationally or internationally. There will be new medical solutions accessible to people in need so that they can be hopeful of overcoming health challenges. There will be more educational opportunities for children in remote and less-privileged areas to learn skills so that they can have a better life than the previous generation. 

AI is the defining technology of our time, so this is our calling to take humanity forward through innovation. We need three things to be successful – educational revolution, ethical application, and a global mindset.

In Sri Lanka, this is our opportunity to make Sri Lanka great – a nation that outsmarts and outperforms way above our size in some fields, like the sporting field. It is the responsibility of everyone. Let’s do another Aragalaya on this!