Malta’s education system must prioritise digital literacy in preparation for the AI revolution.
“In our education system, we still do not have formal media education lessons in the syllabus,” digital media academic and researcher Martin Debattista tells The Journal. “Some aspects of digital literacy are delivered as part of the ICT lessons but this is not enough.”
The argument that the young generation know how to use technology does not hold, he says, as this is about the responsible and meaningful use of the Internet, computers, smartphones, apps, social media, and AI that exploits the benefits while keeping the user safe. “This is not about learning where the buttons are and how to play around with your devices but being aware that you can do online shopping safely, that you can do online banking safely, that you can use social media for entertainment and socialise with people in a respectful and responsible way. It is about spotting emails and messages that are spam and fraudulent even though they look like coming from one of the Malta-based banks or our national postal operator,” he points out.
We’ve been using AI without noticing
Digital literacy would just be the foundation upon which Malta can build layer upon layer of AI-driven and AI-enabled apps and services. We are already using AI without many of us even noticing it, observes Debattista. Many online customer-care services of local providers have an AI-driven chatbot with which you chat until the inquiry becomes complex and a human person has to intervene. Earlier this year it was announced that even the Maltese Public Service is preparing to provide AI-enabled customer serives. So the question is not if or when but how.
A few years before we started hearing about and experimenting with ChatGPT, indeed even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the Malta Digital Innovation Authority (MDIA) had launched the Strategy and Vision for Artificial Intelligence in Malta 2030. The strategy aims to put Malta on the world map in terms of exploiting AI to boost investment, innovation, and adoption. Some projects emanating from this strategy have already been announced, including an AI-enabled system for Transport Malta to administer its CCTV, traffic lights, and display panels, and an AI-monitored system at ARMS to make a more efficient use of the limited water and electricity resources in the country.
“It is good to see that the strategy considers education as an enabler of this development, and the number of training courses and qualifications in AI in Maltese higher and further education are increasing in number,” Debattista remarks. “Nevertheless, I would like to see more concrete actions in terms of digital literacy for the general population. Better to be safe than sorry.”
Debattista notes that, as soon as ChatGPT hit the headlines in late 2022, there were several predictions on which jobs are going to be taken over by AI. Copy writing was high on the list and, indeed, we have already seen copywriters, marketeers, and desk reporters becoming redundant in the US. Even in education, educators are having a hard time checking the work of their students and making sure it has not been written by one of the many AI-enabled writing services online.
AI in electoral campaigning
As the country gears up for next year’s European Parliament and local government elections, should we brace ourselves for an extensive use of AI as a tool in electoral campaign marketing? Debattista believes that AI definitely helps the strategist and the writer in producing better, more focused, and more effective campaigns. But, then again, AI does not do anything by itself and has to be ‘prompted’, asked the right questions to give the right output. “I have had countless false responses from AI during my work as an academic and researchers, with ChatGPT, Google Bard and others suggesting me to read books that do not exist!” he says. The names of authors and books are just made up by AI, and the word for this is ‘halluciniation’.
Debattista is convinced that AI will be used in political strategy and marketing, and with the track record of politics in Malta and around the world over the last decades he is pretty certain AI will be used for ‘disinformation’ purposes.
“Just remember the 2016 red Brexit bus that promised the hundreds of millions of pounds going to the EU every week would be instead re-routed to the NHS,” he says, adding that with Brexit the NHS is now in a worse shape. “I am sure that misleading slogan was the product of the human mind. Just imagine AI helping that human coming up with scores of slogans every day, complete with AI-generated images and illustrations, using the voice of the political opponents to create deepfake voices and videos. Many a dictator has managed to get and hold on to power with traditional media. AI would up the game to an unpredented degree. Let’s be prepared.”
Most certainly, fake news and disinformation were not born with the rise of Internet and social media. These have existed since time immemorial, certainly in the realm of politics and military strategy, where propaganda reigns and the truth comes at a premium. There were no Internet or AI when Orson Welles read from War of the Worlds on radio in 1938 and caused a national panic in the US.
Powerful tools in the hands of the uneducated
The difference with social media, Martin Debattista warns, is that the average person now has the technical tools and can quickly learn how to do these devious acts whereas before this was the exclusive domain of the professionals.
“Powerful tools in the hands of uneducated people are very dangerous, for themselves and for others,” he says. “This is what we have witnessed over the last 15 to 20 years with social media and we should be very afraid that AI will put an ever more powerul tool in the hands of these ‘digitally illeterate’, mostly naive, users and, more importantly, in the hands of those who know exactly how to use them for devious means. It’s one thing seeing a humurous AI-generated cartoon saying Donald Trump was the real estate bloke who commissioned the building of the Pyramids in Egypt, but the government-funded troll factories in such countries as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Ethiopia are a more more sinister endeavour. The case of the Ukrainian President Zelensky calling for the surrender of his country at the start of the Russian invasion in the form a deepfake video is just one of many. I am not counting the thousands of TikTok videos where users filter their videos for entertainment.”
Referring to AI generated revenge porn, he said it is mostly a thing for naive users who cannot keep off their fingers from the camera app on their phones. If this porn is the product of AI swapping heads, then it is a very dangerous deepfake and not just revenge porn.
At the end of the day AI by itself is neutral. It is the humans who develop and maintain it and the humans who use it that matter.
AI’s ode to itself
The Journal asked a chat-based AI tool to “write a poem with rhymes about the benefits and dangers of AI”. Here’s what it came up with:
Oh, AI, you marvel of our time,
Your potential vast, your power sublime.
You can heal the sick, and teach the blind,
But in your depths, there lurks a darker mind.
You can help us solve the world’s great ills,
But you can also turn our minds against our wills.
You can automate our tasks, and make life sweet,
But you can also make us obsolete.
So let us use you wisely, with great care,
And never let you lead us to despair.
For AI is a tool, both good and bad,
And it is up to us, to choose the path we tread.
We must teach AI to be our friend,
And never let it become our end.
For in our hands, it holds the key,
To a future bright, or dark and dreary.
So let us use AI with wisdom true,
And build a world where all can thrive anew.
Main photo credit: Pavel Danilyuk