A testbed for Artificial Intelligence at scale
An interview by Richard Foster-Fletcher on the creation of a National AI strategy
In October 2019, Malta unveiled a forward-thinking 10-year national Artificial Intelligence (AI) strategy. They are one of the first countries to release a nation-wide strategy. Professor Alexiei Dingli was instrumental in making this happen and he very kindly agreed to spend some time with me so that I could discover more about the intentions, the plan and goals of this strategy.
Alexiei Dingli is the Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Malta, and one of the architects of its national AI strategy. He very kindly agreed to spend some time with me so that I could discover more about the intentions, the plan and goals of this strategy. We talked about digital governance, emerging technologies and how one of the most forward-thinking small nations in the world plans to use AI for its people.
Creating the national AI strategy.
Professor Dingli pointed out that Malta has always been at the forefront of technology. A small but densely populated nation, Malta is not rich in natural resources. Human capital, however, is in plenty, and digital technologies provide the best opportunity for growth and diversification. Malta is a small country with big ambitions, big AI ambitions. The National AI Strategy lays out a 10-year roadmap on how the country can take advantage of opportunities presented by emerging tech. Since Malta cannot possibly compete with economies like the USA or China, the plan is to create a niche, which will help it become a global leader. It is the formulation of this plan which led to the birth of the AI launchpad.
Malta’s Niche: A Testbed for Tech
The AI launchpad is a big part of the National AI Strategy and is designed to leverage the country’s unique features. Malta is small in size but has all the dynamics of a large country. It has the potential to be well suited as a testbed for experimental projects that can later be launched at a larger scale across the world.
The idea of the AI launchpad is to create distinct sandboxes where companies can come and test their solutions and products. The launchpad initiative, along with low corporate tax, access to emerging markets in Africa, a tech-savvy workforce and yes, the amazing weather, should be enough to attract some of the top-tier companies working in the AI sector today. At least that is what the government hopes it will do.
Politics and Hollywood
While Malta has been doing very well, with one of the fastest-growing economies in the EU, it would be foolish to ignore recent political controversies. Former President Joseph Muscat was an enthusiastic evangelist of AI and technology, and his resignation has seeded some doubt about whether the present administration would be as supportive. Professor Dingli however, is confident that technological progress will continue at pace, especially as the AI initiative has already been endorsed by the cabinet and given the budget.
The bigger roadblock, he feels, is the one in the minds of the people. Hollywood, and most of the pop-culture in general, tends to portray AI as a world-ending malevolent force. Not exactly ideal when the government is trying to push AI as the engine of growth. Also, where there is no hostility, there is a lack of knowledge. While creating the AI Strategy, Alexei mentioned, they talked to a number of stakeholders — both individuals and organisations. It soon became clear that not only did most people not know what AI was, but many of them also were not aware that they were using AI in their daily lives.
The need of the hour, Alexei believes, is education. In fact, this is the one thing that Alexei feels he would have done differently — starting the education process even earlier. He feels that the government needs to dispel the underlying fear that AI will take away jobs and destroy livelihoods. Yes, some jobs will become obsolete as AI becomes better, but that hardly means the end of society. It simply means that reskilling and training will become even more important.
Starting from the Bottom
My discussion with Alexei left me intrigued to see how this vision and passion about the possibilities of AI will manifest into global collaborations and exciting projects. What I liked to hear is how Malta is approaching AI not just as a technical or economic game-changer — but rather a societal change. We already discussed the need for change in perception, but Alexei told me how children are being given tablets and laptops by the government to ensure they become comfortable using technology. Teachers are being given books on AI, along with basic training, to get them excited about the possibilities. There is this bottom-up approach, including lifelong learning and training, which makes it very clear that Malta does not see AI as just another technology. Their objective is to seamlessly integrate AI into the Maltese society and I think there’s a lot we can learn from this in the UK.
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Prof Alexiei Dingli is a Professor of AI at the University of Malta. He has been conducting research and working in the field of AI for more than two decades, assisting different companies to implement AI solutions. His work has been rated World Class by international experts and he won several local and international awards (such as those by the European Space Agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the United Nations to name a few). He has published several peer-reviewed publications and forms part of the Malta.AI task-force which was setup by the Maltese government, aimed at making Malta one of the top AI countries in the world.
Richard Foster-Fletcher is CEO and Founder of NeuralPath.io, a strategic AI consulting practice. Formally with Oracle Corporation, Richard runs the MKAI Community (Milton Keynes Artificial Intelligence) and is the host of the Boundless Podcast. Richard interviews leading researchers and executives in the disciplines of futurism, AI and business strategy.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.