The Maltese government has officially launched its national AI strategy during the Delta Summit 2019. The document is a blueprint for the progressive introduction of AI into Maltese society, which will position the island as a center of excellence for artificial intelligence-backed technologies. The strategy, which sets a vision for Malta to become the “Ultimate AI Launchpad” by 2030, relies on the attainment of three strategic objectives.
Investment, start-ups, and innovation: focus on initiatives to encourage the creation of start-ups and promote Malta as an innovation hub.
Public sector adoption: deals with the introduction of AI in the public administration, to optimize processes and facilitate citizens’ access to online services.
Private sector adoption: aims at facilitating access to AI for private companies through specialized training, toolkits, and financial assistance.
In order to reach the above objectives, the government will have to rely on enablers such as educating the workforce, setting-up an ethical and legal framework, and creating an environment that values cybersecurity and access to high-performance computing capabilities.
Ethical questions surrounding the introduction of AI to Malta
After having introduced the concept of AI, the document delves into ethical implications. Of particular concern is the possible abuse of AI technologies, which may lead to privacy infringements, primarily when used in a law enforcement context. One has to appreciate the immense value of using facial recognition software to locate, for instance, a wanted individual among a crowded city street. However, what guarantees does the public have that the same technology would not be used to automatically log the movements of individuals in a specific urban area? Human beings also base their decisions upon a set of rules, determined mainly by the cultural and religious environment they grow up in. Let’s imagine the case of an AI software coded in China but deployed in a European context: what are the ethical rules that will be applied in this case? Will the AI be biased due to the cultural and political background of the Chinese programmers, and will this result in an automatic and widespread collection of private data? It is for this reason that several nations are developing ethical guidelines and control frameworks. In this regard, AI technologies are already starting with a considerable disadvantage due to the general concern among the public that their application may lead to a “big brother scenario”.
Another threat lies in the possibility that the introduction of AI may create job displacement. Artificial Intelligence can be considered as a new industrial revolution, whose social cost may be ultimately paid by a workforce becoming increasingly redundant. A study carried out by Nedelkoska and Quintini, highlighted how 33% of all jobs in a Central European country are deemed to be highly automatable, compared to only 6% of the jobs in Scandinavian countries. So is Malta’s workforce ready for the adoption of AI?
Education, workforce and social impact
It is no secret that the country’s workforce has, in some cases, failed to meet the labour market requirements. Jobsplus CEO Clyde Caruana highlighted that the rate in Malta of low-skilled workers stood at 38%, one of the highest in the European Union. The education system has failed to provide a workforce capable of filling positions in highly technical sectors such as aviation and i-gaming, leaving employers with no other option than to rely on foreign workers. This may easily be once again the case with AI, if the workforce offering fails to align itself with the government’s vision. The risk is to develop another sector with little benefits for Maltese workers to ripe. “If we want to maintain a sustained level of output per capita, we need to keep increasing our labour supply,” Caruana warns, “and if we don’t have enough native supply, we’ll need foreigners. So, our sole option is for the quantity of foreign labour to continue to increase, or else we’ll have to limit our economic growth.”
The most important enabler, and possible stumble block, for Malta’s AI strategy, is probably its banking system. Local credit institutions are still offering resistance to opening bank accounts for blockchain and crypto currencies-based operations. Parliamentary Secretary for Financial Services Silvio Schembri recognized the issue, and has pledged to hold meetings with local banks to create a more permissive environment for the operators.
In its bid to position itself as the AI and blockchain island, Malta has to safeguard the public interest and needs of its population. Creating a new class of pariahs, workers whose skills have become redundant, is not an option. Investing in education is, therefore, key for Maltese workers to fully enjoy the benefits of the AI revolution and create a healthy social and economic environment.