Singapore AI framework is a good start

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This week, the global elite have gathered in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum. Idealists see it as a great opportunity for world leaders to meet in-person. Cynics (like myself) view it as an ostentatious gathering of an elite class who don’t particularly speak for most people.

That being said, Davos does consistently produce meaningful results (this year, it seems David Attenborough’s speech on the environment will steal the show, which is nice change of pace from the years dominated by Donald Trump or Xi Jinping).

For , Minister S Iswaran also used the summit to introduce a new tech initiative aimed at creating ethical guidance the for artificial intelligence industry.

It is called the Model Artificial Intelligence (AI) Governance and is meant to help steer the industry towards positive development.

Overall, the framework is fine. Frankly, it is hard to get overly worked up about the initiative (yes, not a statement in an opinion piece). But, because it confuses policy with ethics, the framework is essentially irrelevant.

Let me explain

The two guiding principals of the plan are as follows:

  1. Decisions made by or with the assistance of AI are explainable, transparent and fair to consumers
  2. Their AI solutions are human-centric.

These guiding principles are benign, and fall into the realm of platitudes. If they were backed with legal consequences (like GDRP) then it would make a difference. But they are not, and that is by design.

Now to the crux of the issue. The Infocomm Media and Development Authority (IMDA) used an example of a company targeting soft drinks towards certain consumers. In this hypothetical, the algorithm is telling the company to push sugary drinks towards a buyer.

Selling products is generally a low-harm use of AI because it is up to the buyer to go through with the purchase (and IMDA admits as such). However, the use case also suggests the algorithm should be tweaked because high sugar intake can lead to diabetes.

This confuses ethics with policy. In Singapore, there is a gigantic push to get people to consume less sugar because of the city-state’s high rate of diabetes. But it is not unethical to sell someone a Sprite and should not be viewed as such.

Furthermore, one of Singapore’s most famous use-cases for artificial intelligence (putting facial recognition software on lamp posts) would be considered an egregious ethical violation in many nations.

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