We Singaporeans are constantly living in fear of change or displacement from our rightful stations in our own society. Somehow we still survive. I’ve often wondered if it’s because those fears are unwarranted or is it because we have been meekly acquiescing to the new normal, backing deeper and deeper into the corner that we have been painted. There is a constant fear of foreigners taking away our jobs, pushing up our property prices and COEs. Many who have tried to raise the issue have been branded as racists or xenophobes. Indeed, we could have lost an excellent lawyer and a good minister for suggesting English tests for new immigrants that his 96-year-old grandmother would not have passed. Our grandmothers may not run faster than these new citizens, but many of them can certainly speak better English.
Not all our competitors are humans. There are now robots that can fry rice and make coffee. As the technology develops, the necessity to employ humans will shrink. Our cooks and kopi aunties may need to worry as the lease and the maintenance cost for these sophisticated machines could be higher than their salaries plus levies. But there is a difference between provider’s necessity and customer’s preference. In many services, we still prefer the human touch, for instance when robots start giving massage and performing surgery. For the moment at least, our government has not invented any names to call people who discriminate against robots.
Next AI. Machines have taken one step further. We once thought that computers can’t think creatively or learn on their own. That has changed. The photo you see above is an image I created using Stable Diffusion. If I didn’t say, you may think that it’s a photo and the “model” is a real person. No, it took the application in the cloud less than a minute to generate this images with a few text prompts from me. Will this help artists, photographers and models? Probably not, but it certainly helps people like me. I just designed a new cover for my book Like a Dewdrop using AI.
Should we rejoice or panic? Well, there is a saying that it’s not AI that puts someone out of a job. It’s the one using AI that puts people out of a job. The survivor is the one who harnesses AI to his advantage. I’m no psychic or Nostradamus, but I wrote about AI more than 30 years ago. It’s a short story that was never published. If I were to tell the story today, I would begin with a billionaire music producer who has signed up hundreds of pop groups and is so prolific that he is able to produce a new hit for his groups every other day.
Flash back to a nerdy computer programmer. Let’s call him NS. I still remember the character’s name as I modelled him after a nerdy classmate. NS was in love with a beauty queen but failed to impress her. Let’s call her BQ. Then, after many sleepless nights hammering away at his computer, NS created a program that could write love poems. To make up for his nerdy and unromantic shortcomings, he thought he could impress his BQ with poems created by his program.
Before BQ could respond, NS was kidnapped! He was brought to a recording studio to meet up with a budding producer who had just hit the charts with his first album.
Producer wanted NS’ program and was willing to pay a princely sum for it. He wanted lyrics and he wanted them fast. Meanwhile, he had a monkey playing randomly on a piano in his studio. The humans would write down a melody from the notes played by the monkey. Unfortunately, the animal couldn’t write the lyrics. That’s when the computer came in.
This was how they could come up with new songs faster than anyone in the industry. The public had been unknowingly singing and dancing to songs written by a monkey and a computer.
NS got rich from the deal and BQ begins to find him romantic. The end.
Not to show off, but in my 20s then, I’ve already envisioned a brave new world where music is created by animal instinct and artificial intelligence. Interestingly, I didn’t see technology taking away jobs but being harnessed to make money from undiscerning consumers. I’m not afraid of AI as long as I could be someone like NS or better still, the producer.