[WATCH] Wilbert Tabone: ‘AI will empower humans, not suppress them’

Wilbert Tabone is a researcher in the areas of artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction and the application of technology in cultural heritage. He is actively involved in the cultural, technology and education sectors and is also an activist for a number of Maltese and international NGOs. Tabone is currently spearheading creative computing development in the local heritage sector and recently formed part of Malta.AI, the Malta National Task Force on Artificial Intelligence, tasked with formulating the national AI strategy

Wilbert Tabone
Wilbert Tabone

You are a member of the Malta National AI Taskforce and were involved in drafting the government’s national strategy for AI. What is your background in this regard - which are your areas of expertise?

In terms of my undergraduate education, my background is in creative computing – combining computing technology with art and culture, which is what my job at MUŻA involves. I subsequently studied for a post-graduate degree in Artificial Intelligence, an area I always found interesting, especially when it comes to creative intersections with AI. I am very interested in computer interaction and computer vision, which are also my areas of expertise.

Moreover, I also have a general interest in the direction AI could take us, which is one of the reasons I was keen on being involved with policy-making in this sector. In terms of my future studies, I would consider pursuing a doctorate – perhaps in an area related to bridging the gap between human interaction and AI – since I would like to eventually venture into research.

You are also currently engaged with Heritage Malta. What is the nature of your work with the agency, and how does computing tie in with its work connected with museums, conservation, cultural heritage, and so on?

The heritage sector is being transformed through the use of technology, including through the use of AI. Both my under-graduate and Masters studies involved case studies on tools which art researchers can use to have better access to art databases, and on how paintings could be grouped together according to common features in the faces depicted in them. Today’s technology, including AI, can help transform the way the our historical, artistic and cultural heritage is presented. Museums, for instance, can integrate digital games and interactive features within the visitor experience. This can make such cultural attractions more appealing for today’s young people, who are “digital natives”, having used technology from an early age. Research shows that visitors remember more details about their visit to cultural sites when modern technology is incorporated within the experience than when older technology such as audio-guides are used.

In layman’s terms, how would you define AI?

This is the million-dollar question. Last year, the EU issued a document were it basically said that its experts couldn’t come up with a singular definition for AI. The definition I prefer is that AI is when a computer is made to replicate intelligent human behaviour. But AI is very broad, and there are various sub-types.

Malta’s AI strategy aims to make the country “the ultimate AI launchpad”. What does it mean to become an AI launchpad?

An AI launchpad involves creating the necessary environment – be it a legal, infrastructural or resource framework – to make Malta a very attractive country for education in the AI area, and for countries to expand or start up in our jurisdiction.

The strategy outlines how the government will create certain incentives to make the country attractive, in terms of things like a favourable tax regime, and a significantly upgraded IT infrastructure. Malta plans to also strengthen the available training in AI, with the University already intending to introduce an elective study-unit on the subject. There are also plans to introduce courses for employees, and to deploy an informative campaign on Artificial Intelligence. Many professionals might not quite understand what AI is, while several people might have used AI in their everyday life but do not realise that they have done so.

The government will moreover be undertaking a number of public projects which will be utilising and further promoting the benefits of AI.
Malta’s small size gives it an advantage when it comes to experimenting with AI, and a number of legal and data sandboxes will be created to allow those in the sector to experiment with the technology freely, but within certain parameters.

Which elements of the AI strategy did you work on? And which, in your view, are the most salient points of the AI strategy?

My main role within the AI task force was in the education and workforce working group, which involves meeting with all stakeholders in the education sector, such as unions, teachers, government ministries and representatives from the University of Malta and MCAST.

Within the task force, I was working for the generation of more awareness on AI, including by providing the necessary academic resources to students and by educating the general public on the technology. This included writing articles, in various publications, addressed towards the man on the street to give them a background on AI and its uses.

We’ve heard of AI for decades. Why did Malta choose to focus on AI now? Is the potential for the technology increasing?

AI has been in existence since the 1950s, but we are now witnessing a worldwide shift, with the technology becoming more prominent and having advanced to a greater extent. We now have a lot of big data which we can put to use with AI – more data is generated each year than the totality of that found in all books which have ever been written. This said, I think that having the type of AI found in some science-fiction movies – things like sentient robots – is still a considerable distance away in terms of becoming a reality.

When it comes to Malta, our country has in recent years increased its focus on digital technology, as demonstrated by its drive to become the blockchain island, for instance. Since these efforts were successful, and because Malta can use its size as an advantage in this regard, I think delving into AI was the next step in the process.

How will AI change our everyday lives, and which projects is the government planning in this regard?

AI can definitely improve our lives, although I should underline that it’s important that we ensure that AI is human-centred and used for their benefit.

There are many ways in which AI can provide tangible benefits to people. An example would be wearable devices which can be worn by elderly persons, and which learn the habits of the person concerned – such as when they go to sleep and when they get up – and can alert medical services if for some reason the device doesn’t detect any movement at a time when the person would usually be awake. Such a device could also include fall detection, which would detect that a person suddenly fell and subsequently stopped moving. These can be life-saving in certain scenarios. I know, for instance, a case where a young woman suffered an epileptic seizure, with the AI device she was wearing immediately detecting this and notifying her family. Her father noted that, had she not been wearing the device, the required medical assistance might not have gotten to her in time.

The government will soon be undertaking a number of pilot projects in the traffic management, education, health, customer care, tourism and water and electricity management areas which will really highlight the ways AI is of benefit to us.

In the traffic management area, the government will be investing in smart traffic lights and the optimisation of pathways, enabling drivers to choose the roads with the least traffic. Driverless cars are another aspect of this, albeit one which still needs a few years to become commonplace.

In the education sector, AI will be used in Malta as a tool to help teachers in various ways, for example it can significantly speed up corrections – which tend to take up a large chunk of educators’ time. Other possible uses of AI here are to use the technology to devise streamlined ways of learning, tailored for the individual needs of students, and to detect issues a syllabus might be causing students, with the aim of subsequently drawing up better syllabi. I am pleased to say that teachers welcomed the initiative to integrate the technology into teaching.

When it comes to health care, the plan is to use AI locally for things such as accelerating biomedical research, developing e-care trajectories for chronically patients, and the management of waiting list. AI will also be integrated within the Pharmacy of Your Choice scheme.

In customer care arena, Servizz.gov will be taking over the implementation of AI, which, to start out, will consist in a system which suggests replies to customer questions sent by email, based on an expanding database of information fed into the system and replies to previous similar questions, thereby helping staff reply to queries. The next step would be developing a completely AI-driven chat bot.

Regarding tourism, an app-based smart tourism project, which has already started being implemented, will use AI to boost tourists’ experience in Malta and recommend touristic routes for them to follow based on their interests, such as visiting beaches or going to museums. Virtual and augmented reality will also be integrated within the experience. The project is using the wealth of data available based on previous visits by tourists throughout the years.

In the utilities sector, AI can be used to automate manual processes, help with the optimised distribution of load, enhance the performance of the water and electricity network and enable better interpretation of collected data.

Do you feel it is realistic to believe that Malta can become a global AI hub, when it is competing with other, bigger jurisdictions which have more of a background in the field, such as the US and China – which have strong ecosystems – and European jurisdictions such as Germany and the UK?

Malta has potential because of its size, which makes it an ideal testbed and launch pad. The country’s population is relatively very small, which effectively means that the whole island can be the subject of an AI pilot programme. Malta is also attractive because of its legal framework, and, in fact, the Malta Digital Innovation Authority, which promotes the jurisdiction and sets and enforces standards, is the first of its kind in the world. Another advantage is that the drive towards AI is supported by the government, which means the necessary resources are available to us. Moreover, the island’s telecommunications infrastructure is one of the most advanced in Europe. Malta is also an EU member, which opens many doors. All in all, I think we have the right conditions to become important players in this area.

We’ve heard of scenarios where AI takes over the jobs which humans currently do. For instance, China recently unveiled the world’s first AI news anchor, negating the need to actually employ a human being to read the news. Is this a real danger?

AI is considered part of the technological revolution, also known as the fourth industrial revolution. It is useful to frame this within the context of developments which have happened in the past. Every technological advancement which has taken place has given rise to some fears that it might challenge traditional industries. Prior to the industrial revolution, people mainly worked in agriculture. Once the industrial revolution came about many new job sectors were created, and the nature of people’s work changed. When computers started becoming mainstream in the 1970s, the fear again was that they would take over people’s jobs. But this actually led to workers being trained in areas of IT, and nowadays practically everyone uses computers. The same can be said for the internet.

Now that AI’s time is here, there will be some jobs which will be challenged and reconfigured. Therefore, I see it more as a matter of the reconfiguring of certain jobs and the creation of new work opportunities. If humans and machines work together, they can create things which we could otherwise never even imagine. I see AI as a way of empowering humans, not suppressing them.

Do you see any challenges ahead when it comes to AI?

I think economists might be better placed to answer certain elements of that question in relation to industry and so on, but, so far as my own area goes, the biggest challenge I foresee is embracing the technology. The research and studies we have conducted show that people in general are ready to accept AI, but the challenge will be for professionals to embrace the use of the technology in their own fields. In the past, many professionals – for instance, those in the medical or aviation sectors – were somewhat reluctant to accept new technology and technological requirements. They might see it as something which is intruding in their line of work and asking them to change the way they do things.

So, until they fully embrace it and accept that it will take them forward, this could be a challenge.

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