Where Are We Going With Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?

16 Dec 2016

By Patrick Haverman - I just came back from Wuzhen, a nice ancient touristic town in Zhejiang province. Since president Xi attended last year’s “world Internet forum”, it has gained the attention of the Internet World. The ideas of these conferences are not only focusing on applying big data in justice systems, poverty and living standards, but also inspiring us to think about how technology will transform the next generations in the future. It gave me a lot of food for thought on several topics of the future.

One of the sessions focused on the application of big data and smart tools in the judicial procedures, and as UNDP has been working for many years with the Supreme People’s Court of China, I was actively participating. During the session organized by the chief justice of China, Mr. Zhou on “Rule of Law and Building Smart Courts”, judges and experts from China, Samoa, Bolivia, UK, Russia, Vietnam and Kazakhstan had a good discussion on this topic. The presentations from the Chinese side were impressive. In this big country with its 1,3 billion people and numerous judicial cases each year, it is incredible that 91 million cases have been put together in the biggest judicial database in the world, that the 3,500 courts in China are all connected, and that with the use of the big data for references and smart tools such as automatically pre-filled forms, the judges can save up to 30% of their time. Many courts in China are already piloting e-courts where you don’t need to be physically in the court, but just dial in. And some are using AI and big data mining to study trends and come up with standardized answers. The progress of China on “smart court” is impressive and clearly identifies itself from other countries like Samoa where the majority of the judicial system is still paper based. Judges and experts at the conference agree that we should make progress on the smart courts, and in the end lead to more transparency and efficiency. 

During the session, I presented our 17 SDGs and emphasized on SDG #16 “Peace and Justice”, the most related SDG to the work on smart court. I also shared with the audience our practice on applying big data and smart tools in the development work—our big data research with Baidu and Tencent on Poverty and Philanthropy.

Then I got intrigued by the implications of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. In addition to the discussion on smart court, it was also very interesting to meet the mayor of Palo Alto. It does not happen every day that you meet a mayor, and the lesson learned is again that change happens at the municipal level, where citizens and local government agree on taking action. The Mayor gave clear examples how “his” city was zero emission, promoting electric vehicles and renewable energy. Definitely a lot of mayors and cities can learn from this.

In these uncertain times, with some parties openly discussing their commitment to the Paris Agreement, we do need to stay alarmed and feel more determined to deal with global challenges. On the way to the airport I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts “Hidden Brain” about the disappearing Alaska— a glacier there has become 1 mile shorter in the past 30 years. More facts show that climate change is not a scientific discussion, and most people actually all realize this.  Every day more scientific papers come out. Global warming is happening, and it is happening faster than we think. But the fight against climate change is more about a social / political discussion. You want to use your mobile but you don’t want the telephone tower in your neighborhood; you want to travel by train but the track should not go through your village; you want to do something about climate change but it should not have too many costs to your own life or you feel you have paid already enough and now it is time that others pay. We are all faced with these contradictory thoughts, which make us stagnant on the way to combat climate change. The podcasts illustrated this with an example that you have been standing in a traffic jam for half an hour and when you arrive at the spot you see that the delay was caused by a matrass falling on the road. Out of research it shows that nobody stops and get the matrass of the road. Climate change is that matrass on the road. 

The solution is to not see climate change as a scientific decision, but somehow approach it as a war. How is it possible that individuals are willing to sacrifice so much during the wartime, risking losing their lives or their legs for the greater good? How can we convince the citizens of the world to join this war and leave their own interest behind and all together strive to maintain the planet as it is to leave it to our children and grandchildren?

Then back to the conference, we may also think about how technology could help us close these gaps and find solutions to climate change and many other development challenges. 

I also attended a session on Internet connectivity. Raj Reddy, the professor of computer science and robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, made a passionate presentation about making sure that the bottom 3 billion, which currently are not or very sparsely connected to the Internet are included and will be benefitting from the progress being made. China has currently connected half of its population to the Internet, how will it connect the other half is the challenge, the solution lies particularly in the speech recognition. If computers can listen to your voice (in whatever language) there is no need to read, write or type and that could possibly connect millions of people who are currently missing these skills. A passionate plea which the UNDP fully supports, the Internet should not make the gap between have and have not bigger but should contributing to more equality in society.

Finally I dropped into the speech of Baidu’s CEO who described 3 mega trends and their efforts to work on AI and the self-driving car—The three trends are 1) Internet of things: interconnectivity, connect as many things as possible; 2) sharing economy: why buy something if you only use it part of the time, why own a car if 95% of the time it is standing idle in the parking lot  (and what about the mobike, I love this product designed in the idea of sharing economy!); 3) artificial intelligence: in 2030 50% of the cars sold will be partially or fully self-driven. The world will change rapidly.

It was an interesting and somehow mind-boggling day. Where are we heading and who will be benefited? How do we make sure that the bottom 3 billion people will be part of this race and are not left behind? Will we get artificial intelligent judges and self-driving cars?  In my view, this is unstoppable, as you can see the trend from the big companies’ investment. The important question we as UNDP we should think about how to make sure that not only the private sector sells more products and benefits from this trend, but this big data technology and artificial intelligence can also benefit society at a large scale, for example, to enable civil servants to use the available data and technology to make the best decisions, and increase transparency of decision making.  As for the lingering question about the jobs in the future, AI could lead to a loss of jobs and governments should seriously look into providing every citizen a minimum income no matter they work or do not work (as there was some discussion on this in Scandinavia). The working hours will also change. Will we be going from a 40 hour workweek to a 20 hour work week, while with the improved healthcare system we all grow older? Will we be working from 30 to 80 as we all become 120 years old? These are the questions unanswered, but worth seriously start looking for answers together.

It was an interesting trip with fruitful experiences, nice encounters and a lot of open questions for the future, you have some good advice for UNDP how it should prepare for the future and what role it can play? If you are in the Beijing area I invite you for a dinner to discuss more, do contact me if you are hungry (for a good discussion).