How AI can save our humanity

Kai-Fu Lee argues in a TED video that AI will be hugely beneficial for society by automating away mind-numbing jobs and driving people towards more meaningful roles – such as those that require a high degree of judgement in the face of complexity (e.g. economists, CEOs) and those which require empathy (e.g. teachers, etc.)

By and large I agree. In fact, economists such as David Autor have argued for a long time that automation as a whole will lead to “job polarization”; AI probably widens the scope of jobs that will be impacted, but the logic is essentially the same. (Parents should take note – your kids need to do more than memorize those times tables.) However, this will be cold comfort to the workers of today who will simply not be able to adjust to the new landscape for the remainder of their working lives. I expect to see anti-automation movements, similar to Luddites against machines during the Industrial Revolution. GPUs and remotely-located servers are a bit hard to destroy with a wrench, though, so this opposition will come virtually – through lobbying and regulation.

I recommend taking a bit of time to watch this video – it expresses its viewpoint quite succinctly.

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I had the chance to attend a panel discussion with the cast and crew of Crazy Rich Asians, which has been seen as a win for representation in the US but has also been quite controversial locally. Director Jon M Chu was there and for what it’s worth, I think he did a fantastic job with the movie. To be clear, this is not a ‘Singaporean’ production. It is an American movie made largely for Americans. But it was still inspiring to see the actors I grew up with on the silver screen, not to mention the Singaporean accent and even smatterings of Singlish.

Behind the Garage – Autonomous Vehicles drawing lessons from the battery storage industry

Ride-sharing companies use surge pricing to balance supply and demand. When prices go up, drivers already on the road can “chase the surge” and be induced to drive to a particular area. This helps reduce imbalances over space. Surge pricing also goes up during peak periods (e.g. in the mornings and evenings). This could help reduce imbalances over time, for instance, by bringing more casual drivers on the road just when they are needed.

As the driver pool gets more professionalized, I suspect that time imbalances will be harder to solve. There just won’t be enough casual drivers around willing to dip in and out of the market.

However, this time imbalance reminds me a lot of the challenge facing solar. When the sun is out, excess electricity is generated. At night, electricity is consumed. Supply is predetermined by the rotation of the earth (and cloud cover) – there’s only so much that pricing can solve.

The industry is solving this through “behind the meter” solutions – ie batteries which are housed in private individuals’ properties, together with solar cells. These store energy when excess electricity is generated, releasing it back onto the grid when it’s needed. It is possible to conceive of a world where private storage capacity could contribute – on demand – to public consumption when needed. Regulation seems to be moving in the right direction.

With autonomous vehicles (AVs), I could also imagine some sort of “behind the garage” system, where individuals own AVs which are dispatched to a transport system when not in use. The transport company would in effect act like a grid, but for cars.

I’m not certain that we are near that scenario yet but I think a system like this, if implemented, could give a good compromise to individuals who wish to have the convenience of their own car but the opportunity to lease it out to offset costs.

(Image from: Greentechmedia.com)

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Last year I broached the idea of having small group discussions on topics of interest with Lam Yishan, a close friend. We originally called the project “Feed” – the idea being that we would gather with a guest speaker who would share about what he/she was doing, and in return everyone else would buy dinner. In other words, we wanted to “feed” both the mind and the belly!

We kept our gatherings small and curated. If our speakers were interested in meeting individuals of a certain profile (investors, CEOs, people from government), we actively worked to get them to participate. Having good wine certainly helped. As for food, we opted to go for excellent local cuisine – New Ubin Seafood was a favourite. On one occasion, Xinwei (my wife) fired up to Big Green Egg for some excellent grilled steak.

These were humble gatherings, and we hope to keep it that way. We believe that the most meaningful interactions come in small format events, rather than large conference and expert panels. We like things which do not scale. (And of course, having a full time job makes it difficult to do anything too involved!)

We’ve created a small website to explain what Project Feed is about. I don’t expect it to become anything large, but organising these events continue to be great fun and very personally enriching. I’m hopeful that we will be able to continue building connections for a long time to come!