INTERVIEW | Stephen McCarthy: ‘In 2030, Malta will be recognised as the ultimate AI launchpad’

Over the past few decades, Stephen McCarthy has provided guidance and assistance in steering a number of companies forward, always instilling an element of innovation within the operations of the companies he’s headed. He was appointed CEO of the Malta Digital Innovation Authority when it was founded and is on track to establish, lead and grow it into one of Malta’s most important game-changers in the years to come


What is the role of MDIA?

The Maltese Government recognised the importance of emerging technologies and the advantages they could bring to various sectors of the economy. Malta chose to not only embrace these disruptive technologies but also to protect and certify them. The Government therefore took a global lead when it established a new regulatory framework centring around the use of Innovative Technology Arrangements capturing Distributed Ledger Technology (“DLT”) platforms, Blockchain and AI technology, with the primary aim of providing transparency and legal certainty in innovative technology. The legislation aims to instil peace of mind and certainty, as society places more trust in technology. Hence why MDIA was created: to enforce standards that protect and support all users and encourage all types of innovations. Furthermore, this regulatory framework positions Malta at the forefront of technological business opportunities, as it creates a sound platform for innovators as Malta aspires to become the “Ultimate AI Launchpad”.

Malta recently launched its National AI Strategy. What is the vision for the country? And does government have a role in enabling this?

Our aspiration is for Malta to become the “Ultimate AI Launchpad” where local and foreign companies can operate from and ultimately test, scale, and showcase their innovations to the rest of the world. To this effect, we are the first country in the world to certify Artificial Intelligence software, which is key to ensuring that artificial intelligence-based products are trustworthy and dependable. Not only do we carry out due diligence on the individuals but also due diligence on the technology itself. MDIA played a key role in establishing a framework that ensures safety, quality and dependability of DLT and AI-based systems, through a technology certification process. The Government has taken a clear stance on technological innovation: it should be embraced not stifled. Hence our efforts to position Malta as an enabler of safe technology, creating the necessary conditions for AI to springboard from Malta to the world.

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Predictive Analytics, Neural Networks ... These are just some of the names used to describe some of the things that have been worked on since the 50s. So why all this hype about AI now? What has changed?

AI has been an academic discipline for more than six decades. It has now shifted and evolved into a technological innovation that impacts our society directly due to the advancements in processing power and the accessibility of inexpensive storage. AI is widely considered to be a general-purpose technology that has functions and characteristics which can generate and spread incremental and radical innovation and business growth. Research carried out confirms that AI is expected to make a noticeable difference to every one of us in the way we work and live our lives. We already interact with AI-based systems daily without perhaps realising we do so. Applications that have AI technologies embedded in them include search engines, social media channels and also online shopping recommendations.

With Malta’s limited R&D budget, what kind of AI is it possible to create in Malta?

R&D is one of the major drivers of innovation as it helps new products and services to be brought to the market. The Government is committed to encourage research in niche areas such as AI by increasing R&D expenditure and AI adoption through high -profile pilot projects. These include AI for traffic management, education, healthcare, customer service, tourism and using AI for better utilities. These pilot projects will foster further the adoption of AI in their respective areas and support ongoing research in the field. MDIA’s role will be to monitor the pilot projects and ensure that each one gets implemented by their respective owner. Recent investments in infrastructure and legislation placed us in a strong position to become a leader in health-related AI research.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, said: “The pace of progress in artificial intelligence is incredibly fast ... You have no idea how fast it is growing; at a pace close to exponential. The risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five-year timeframe. 10 years at most.” ... Can artificial intelligence be dangerous?

As outlined in our Strategy and Vision for AI 2030, it may be possible in the distant future for human engineers to create an AI that can demonstrate a more general intelligence, rather than narrow as it is at present. However, at present, no system currently available can or will evolve to become full or general.

What is truly important to us at this stage is that substantive research is carried out on how AI may be corrupted or misapplied.

To this effect, In August 2019 Malta published its ethical AI Framework Towards Trustworthy AI, in an effort to guide AI practitioners on how to design, train and operate AI in a trusted and ethical manner. The intention is for the Malta Ethical AI Framework to support AI practitioners in identifying and managing the potential risks of AI while also identify opportunities.

Malta’s AI certification ensures the development and enforcement of standards for compliance with local and international obligations and is also aligned to the EU and OECD ethical frameworks.

MDIA’s certification process includes a detailed assessment process carried out by independent MDIA-approved system auditors who will review the control frameworks in place in order to achieve ethical and trustworthy AI.

Market leaders insist AI needs to become more broadly available in business. What are the benefits of introducing AI-powered solutions to a business today?

AI solutions will undoubtedly enable companies to improve their operational performance and ameliorate their services to customers. This is particularly relevant in a tight labour market such as Malta’s. Our key sectors are in a good position to adopt AI solutions as companies look to innovation to drive operational improvements. We are already seeing this in financial services, gaming, tourism, and real estate. AI-driven solutions are also being deployed in advanced manufacturing and aviation maintenance.

Is AI the playground of only large multi-nationals? Or can - and should - even small business look into how they can integrate AI in their service solutions?

AI solutions will enable companies of all sizes to enhance operational performance and deliver better services to their customers as AI is a broad field with many branches and sub-branches. There are many niches that can be explored. Malta will seek to create an innovation ecosystem that will allow the AI sector to flourish, whilst attracting and developing talent. The Government will welcome companies of all sizes and across all industries: from start-ups to scale-ups to established global tech leaders.

Malta will definitely need to build AI skill-sets in the future workforce. But the potential for technological job displacement is also a major concern for policymakers. Will jobs in Malta be automated and will people be left behind?

What I can say for certain is this: people will not be left behind. The government will ensure that Malta’s current and future workforce will be prepared for work in an AI-driven world as it will create new jobs across various Maltese sectors. AI will be used to help Malta’s citizens and business get ahead, and not vice-versa. We are committed to pursuing the Malta AI Strategy with Malta’s citizens to ensure stakeholders are engaged and any concerns are voiced and addressed. We aim to build trust in how AI works and enhance the general readiness to adopt AI solutions in our everyday lives.

Where do you see Malta in this AI world in 10 years’ time?

Our mission was to be amongst the top 10 nations with the highest-impact AI programme. Very recently, the Global AI Index carried out by Tortoise Media ranked Malta’s National Artificial Intelligence Strategy in 10th place out of 54 countries, significantly surpassing countries such as Estonia, Sweden and Austria amongst others.

In 2030, Malta will be recognised as the Ultimate AI Launchpad. It will be a global hub for AI applications and niche R&D with a vibrant start-up community. Following Malta’s lead, most countries will require AI systems that comply with international regulations and standards on AI systems which it has helped shape and develop. In 2030, AI solutions will be a highly valued and trusted part of everyday life in Malta.

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