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Hong Kong has a chance to shape AI based on its own values

by Tunae
  • While artificial intelligence can reflect biases and put livelihoods at risk, existing models in Asia prove it can be tailored based on local needs
  • Guided by ethics, Hong Kong’s application of AI has the potential to serve marginalised students, improve healthcare access and optimise traffic flows
As artificial intelligence (AI) seeps into every facet of society, Hong Kong stands at a crossroads. Will we shape AI on our own terms, or be shaped by it? Current discussions focus on attracting AI investment and talent, without sufficient attention to where and how AI should be applied.
Other Asian cities are developing tailored AI models aligned with local contexts. Singapore has taken a unique approach with Southeast Asian Languages In One Network (SEA-LION), an open-source AI model designed to address the cultural mismatch of Western AI. It incorporates Southeast Asian languages, knowledge bases and sociocultural norms. Meanwhile, mainland China recently unveiled an AI system integrating President Xi Jinping’s ideology, showing how AI can become a tool to promote state agendas.

These models exhibit an inventive creativity in shaping AI to reflect the needs and priorities of their populations, rather than passively adopting an off-the-shelf technical tool. They offer examples of how AI can be localised in aspects ranging from language and terminology to underlying value systems and problem-solving methodologies.

Like any tool, AI is not neutral – it reflects its creators’ agendas and biases. Our collective goal should be to apply innovation towards major social priorities, not just solely for private motives driven by profit.
Hong Kong must brace itself, as the approaching AI shift could unsettle swathes of roles spanning retail, construction and more, limiting the options of those who are less skilled. Even if the impact is slow and gradual, it is still a worry, given that AI and automation have already increased downward wage pressure for those without higher education.
As the Industrial Revolution showed us, new technologies could wipe out entire classes of jobs and livelihoods, leading to prolonged misery even while benefiting society as a whole. In England, industrialisation was once a zero-sum battle where the gains of capitalists came at the expense of the impoverished class.
A demonstration of the digital human assistant for human resource at a booth during the Career Connect Expo in Hong Kong on May 7. AI and automation have already increased downward wage pressure for those without higher education. Photo: Bloomberg

Market-driven technological change is a double-edged sword. Our way of life is not at immediate risk from AI’s rise. As sceptics like Robert Gordon point out, even if “the [automated] car drives up to my house, how does the package get from the car to my porch? Who carries it when I’m away?”

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AI is still in its infancy; as of now, it has only expanded the realm of what computers can do. But the most profound economic impact and productivity gains from its maturation and widespread adoption still lie ahead.

According to American futurologist Roy Amara, humans tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short term and underestimate the effect in the long run. We must therefore remember that even though widespread AI adoption may take time, the transition could still inflict generational upheaval, exacting a heavy toll on livelihoods. A balanced perspective of AI requires weighing its differentiated impact on industries and the workforce – a boon for specialised workers, and a bane for those with less skills.

A collaborative approach can guide AI’s assimilation and localisation to where it is most needed. For instance, Hong Kong’s transport sector could be transformed through AI optimisation of traffic flows, predictive maintenance for public transit and dynamic pricing systems to reduce congestion.

Applying AI chatbots and virtual assistants to streamline government services like licence applications and immigration processing could vastly improve convenience and accessibility.

On May 31 at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, a person engages with a camera-based health and wellness monitoring application. Photo: Dickson Lee

In healthcare, AI could help to improve care delivery and enhance overall access. Precision medicine powered by AI can provide targeted therapies and early interventions. Telemedicine relieves overloaded facilities while virtual nursing assistants mitigate the shortage of physical nurses.

AI diagnostic tools can expand access to quality healthcare and shorten waiting times. By focusing on improving access, equity and consistency of care, AI could have the potential to start addressing long-standing healthcare challenges across different demographics.

Education and community services also stand to be enhanced by culturally relevant, locally developed AI systems tailored to Hong Kong’s curriculum and pedagogical approaches. AI tutors can provide customised language learning support to marginalised students, ethnic minorities and low-income families. Chatbots and intelligent tutoring systems designed with multilingual and multicultural awareness can make quality education more accessible.
In the community, AI translation tools can aid the integration of minority groups by breaking down language barriers. AI-powered matching platforms could also better connect volunteers speaking languages like Nepali or Urdu to assist the needs of marginalised groups. This is crucial given that, in 2011, about one out of five students from Hong Kong’s Nepali and Pakistani communities dropped out before Form Five.
A child at a tutorial centre in Jordan that serves ethnic minority students learns to write Chinese characters on October 11, 2023. Since the profit-driven development of emerging technologies like AI can come with a heavy social toll, Hong Kong must embrace the technology as a means, not an end, to unlock the city’s potential. Photo: Cindy Sui

Applied ethically, AI can help bridge societal divisions and equip youth from all backgrounds with skills to unlock their potential. This requires recognising technology as a means, not an end, guided by the human values of equity.

There is likely to be some trial and error involved, with uneven impacts, as we work to redistribute the gains of AI equitably. We must therefore brace ourselves for these disruptions before we settle on the approaches best suited to local needs and sensibilities.

The use of AI may sometimes seem mystical, but we should not miss out on its phenomenal potential. As we stand at the dawn of a new revolution powered by AI, Hong Kong has a rare opportunity to pluck wisdom from the historical and technological haze.

By learning from past innovations, while grounding our approach in ethical principles, we can transcend the pitfalls of short-sighted techno-solutionism. Our city’s future depends on recognising AI not as a threat, but as an opportunity for the benefit of all.

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