AI or not AI?
Written by Dayna Camilleri Clarke
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a phrase that’s been doing the rounds for quite some time, but is it just a buzz word set to fizzle out or should we fear a take-over by machines? Dayna Camilleri Clarke caught up with Pierre Vella: Head of Department, Marica Xuereb: Project Manager, Daniela Chetcuti Consultant, and Keith Cortis: Senior Solutions Architect, who form part of the Programme Management Department from the government’s technology arm MITA, to find out more about the phenomena concerning the local context.
According to a recent McKinsey & Company report, all companies should be preparing for the digital wave of disruption AI is bringing, and that’s exactly what MITA are doing. “We all know it’s a do or die situation and with technology constantly changing, we all have to adapt to a new way of thinking. In such a state of flux, the only constant thing is change. At MITA, we are working relentlessly to streamline processes for the public and government. What we do today isn’t the way we will be working tomorrow” explains Daniela.
“It’s a great time to avail of the opportunity to gather big data and usefully utilise AI technologies and other Advanced Analytics techniques to automate certain processes and build intelligent systems” Keith Cortis said. As an AI specialist, he reveals the pioneering work the Programme Management Department has been working on, which spans from computer vision to natural language processing.
Keith continues by talking about these projects saying that “There’s an inherent need for the recognition of the Maltese language within certain intelligent technologies. Many voice-controlled virtual assistants, such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home, do not currently understand the Maltese language. Wanting to preserve our mother tongue, we are working on developing language tools and resources required to recognise the Maltese language and to build any AI Maltese language technology, such as chatbots and recommender systems”.
Marica adds, “Another fruitful project we have recently embarked upon was the implementation of a system for Notaries to upload site plans, which technology uses image recognition to automatically process site plans’ authenticity. This saves many human hours of repetitive and tedious manual tasks, which do not necessarily add value and creates unnecessary bottlenecks”. But how can MITA stay abreast of the changing climate? Marica replies “We were an integral pillar to the recent Malta AI Strategy, especially with respect to the need for accessing the Government of Malta Hybrid Cloud platforms, technology and resources that can be facilitated through organisational bodies mandated to support the AI ecosystem. Furthermore, we are also heavily involved in collaboration at an EU level through participation in project groups and EU projects, which gives us the experience to move forward, share knowledge and implement processes locally. We don’t have to see change as a threat- but more as what can technology do for us. It’s an exciting time to be in this industry, to be at MITA”
Talking about AI, one should also investigate the importance of ethics in the promotion of responsible AI practices. Keith speaks about how a core component of the Malta AI Strategy, was that in October 2019 saw the development of a National AI Ethical Framework. This is an important milestone because it ensures that AI development is ethically aligned, transparent and socially responsible. In essence, trustworthy AI should be lawful – that is respecting all applicable laws and regulations; ethical and robust, both from a technical aspect as well as from a social environmental point of view. It must not discriminate, whilst also be sensitive to privacy and data protection, transparent and traceable and offer well-being to humans. There is no simple and straight answer to any question related to AI. One must ensure that development of AI solutions is validated against a holistic assessment and not in a fragmented way.
From talking to the experts at MITA, the impact on jobs may sound scary, but it shouldn’t be. AI in our workforce shall not result in a loss of employment. To the contrary it shall provide these workers with the opportunity to work on more interesting day-to-day work that is more rewarding and valuable to them and the agency as a whole. “It is again why the agency heavily invests in training for its employees; both in upskilling plans for current technologies as well as reskilling for the ‘reprogramming’ of people’s mindsets. This is the only way to remain relevant and effective in today’s dynamic environment”, explains Daniela. MITA well and truly shall have their finger on the pulse when it comes to this. Pierre continues, “We see great progress already, especially with the health systems, and the provision of government services such as Social Security and Tax services. Our goal is that citizens won’t need to inform the government of changes in circumstances and provide documentation – whether that’s for welfare benefits, marriage or the death of a loved one; simply we will work seamlessly once certificates are issued, to draw the dots to save people repeating information to different departments and reduce the paperwork, all within legal parameters”.
After all, concludes Pierre with a reassuring smile, “For when the robots do come for our jobs, the challenge will then be to yet again find the opportunity to re-invent ourselves”.
All companies should be preparing for the digital wave of disruption AI is bringing, and that’s exactly what MITA are doing security threats that people and businesses need to be aware of!