Algorithms For Happiness

Liu Feng-Yuan predicts that the world will be hyper-personalised. Is this a good thing?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
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The late Italian physicist Enrico Fermi once asked: “Where is everyone else out there?” This became known as the Fermi Paradox and presents the idea that, based on statistical probability, there should be at least a billion Earth-like planets capable of hosting 100,000 intelligent civilisations out there.

One concept that explains this paradox and the lack of intelligent life is The Great Filter. At its simplified core, it essentially means that any intelligent life hits a brick wall and gets wiped out. A possible future Great Filter candidate is a cataclysmic natural event, such as a meteorite or a huge gamma-ray burst.

So, while I was discussing the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI) with Liu Feng-Yuan via Zoom, a thought struck me: what if the Great Filter is AI? After all, visionaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have continuously sounded warning bells about the risks.

Liu is the CEO and co-founder of Basis AI, a Singapore technology company that offers scalable and accountable “turnkey AI solutions to help enterprises accelerate AI adoption”. The former Director of Data Science and AI at the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) teamed up with twin tech wunderkinds Linus and Silvanus Lee to start Basis AI in 2018. By early last year, the early-stage start-up had raised just over S$8 million in seed funding from Temasek Holdings and Sequoia Capital India.

There are multiple definitions of AI, but the one we know of today is machine learning, where an algorithm absorbs and crunches hundreds of millions of data points to spit out a recommendation or produce a result. For instance, each time you select a Netflix recommendation or purchase a product from Amazon, an algorithm absorbs that input or data to curate its understanding of you.

Unlike Hawking and Musk, Liu is a lot more bullish about AI. “I think the fear about AI comes from pop culture and the fact that people don’t know much about it. So, when I explain AI, I simplify it. At its heart is essentially statistical formula powering algorithms. So, whether it’s Skynet or Netflix, complex statistics are going on. If you think about it, statistics are just Math. What’s there about Math to be scared of?”

The other main concern about AI has been its impact on the real world, which has already started rearing ugly heads – echo chambers on social media platforms, feed recommendations that limit one’s world view and so on.

Thankfully, like any statistical formula, data scientists can program diversity into these algorithms, says Liu. “But this something that needs to be a conscious effort by these system builders.” Unfortunately, given the time we live in right now, most algorithms are designed to keep us addicted as they administer a dopamine hit each time you scroll and receive another post you like or get recommended a Netflix show you’ll probably enjoy.

Eventually, Liu believes that, with the advancements in AI, the world will become a hyper-personalised experience for each human. For example, in education, Liu envisions a world where each child will be able to learn at their own pace. An AI system will then create a more personalised test tailored to each child’s ability. In e-commerce or even physical stores, prices of products and services can change according to a shopper’s perceived threshold and value.

“But what does this mean for the community? What does this mean for engagement? What does this mean for learning? If you’d ask me whether I wanted to learn Shakespeare in junior college, I would have said ’no’. But I’m glad I was forced to sit in that class with other people. And maybe it’s good that I was in a Math class with peers who were not as good as me so I could learn how to teach and understand humility. There are reasons why you don’t want to hyper-personalise everyone’s experience. And I think this debate will evolve over the next 50 years as more and more people use AI,” opines Liu.

Nevertheless, like any tool in the right hands, AI can empower human progress. Liu predicts that the financial services and healthcare industries are two areas ripe to be transformed by AI. Both generate immense amounts of data every day – perfect for AI systems to crunch and learn from to generate results.

However, despite these incredible advancements, Liu thinks the world will continue to be unhappy. Despondency is perhaps the median human condition.

“Are people any happier with their lives with all the investments we’re making in technology? In the beginning, we get endorphins and then they tail off. I wanted to end by saying that, while the future is indeed exciting with all these different technological pursuits, I’m not sure if it’s going to make us any happier.”