A tiny Mediterranean island wants a piece of the global AI frenzy

  • AI
  • Tuesday, 28 May 2024

A man looks out over the Grand Harbour at dawn in Valletta, Malta. Across Malta, businesses, schools and the government are trying to establish the country as an unlikely AI leader and deploying the technology widely in the hopes of solving existential challenges facing the maritime nation. — Reuters

At many companies, there are significant concerns that artificial intelligence will one day take on jobs traditionally done by humans. But at Go Plc, that’s not a fear – it’s the explicit goal.

Go, the leading telecom provider in Malta and one of the largest public companies in the country, is increasingly relying on AI to handle day-to-day tasks. AI tools now create about 20% of all marketing content for the company and about 30% of the code written. Go uses generative AI services to draw up all its legal contracts, which then get vetted by humans. And Go wants all of its 1,100-plus employees to learn to use generative AI to be more productive.

“We are short of lawyers, accountants and coders,” said Nikhil Patil, the Malta- and London-based chief executive officer of Go, referring to hiring conditions on the island. “Only artificial intelligence can help us escape the talent curse.”

Malta may not immediately spring to mind as a country at the vanguard of technological innovation. The tiny Mediterranean island is better known for the lax regulation which helps online gambling companies skirt controls imposed by other countries, and for its refusal to end a golden visa programme that the European Commission says is unacceptable. It was also singled out in the past for failing to effectively crack down on money laundering.

But across Malta, businesses, schools and the government are trying to establish the country as an unlikely AI leader and deploying the technology widely in the hopes of solving existential challenges facing the maritime nation. That includes the threat of climate change, the need to attract more foreign investment and a severe skills gap. In the process, Malta, which has tried to capitalise on tech trends before, may also become a proving ground for the promise and limitations of AI as a cure-all for society’s ills.

“We can harness the power of AI for the public good, not fear it as a coming catastrophe,” Robert Abela, Malta’s prime minister, said last year in prepared remarks to the United Nations General Assembly that were noticeably more upbeat on AI than other European leaders. “In Malta we are already doing just that.”

The University of Malta has turned to artificial intelligence to try to preserve its unique language, monitor its coastal waters with AI-powered drones and adapt school curricula, including developing a program for younger students that involves creating “AI puppets” and “AI-powered stories”.

“AI is playing a transformative role in addressing some of Malta's most pressing challenges such as education, traffic and health,” said Alexiei Dingli, a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Malta. Dingli, a teacher turned entrepreneur, is tackling one of those issues himself. He has raised about US$1.4mil (RM6.57mil) to deploy AI to try to solve the country’s rush hour traffic jams.

There are more than 50 other AI startups in Malta, according to researcher Tracxn Technologies Ltd – no small number for a country with a population of about 500,000. The list includes Ebo, which makes virtual customer service agents, and SmartCow, which offers AI services that can detect accidents and traffic violations.

Malta has tried to make itself into a hotbed for buzzy tech before. In 2018, the country pushed to brand itself as “Blockchain Island”, introducing an early legislative framework for the technology. At one point, Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, was in discussions to operate on the island. Binance has since come under scrutiny by regulators in multiple countries.

Malta jumped on the AI bandwagon earlier than many countries. In 2019, several years before the ChatGPT frenzy, Malta’s Government under then-prime minister Joseph Muscat put out an ambitious roadmap to become the “Ultimate AI Launchpad” by 2030. The multipronged plan called for investing in startups as well as pushing for public and private sector adoption of AI.

But the pandemic halted efforts to infuse AI into healthcare, education and finance. Further complicating matters, Muscat resigned in early 2020 after his aides were linked to a car bomb that killed an investigative journalist. Abela took over as prime minister in his wake and has since redoubled the country’s feverish embrace of AI.

Dingli is working on a revised AI strategy for the Government. In response to the European Union’s tougher AI regulations, Malta plans to introduce concrete measures to address job displacement, enhance AI literacy at all educational levels and adapt its frameworks to ensure the technology’s ethical deployment, Dingli said.

“Foresight in recognising the importance of AI has given Malta a head start in the field of AI, and it continues to be a leader in the industry today,” Dingli said, a statement that might raise some eyebrows among industry leaders in Silicon Valley.

Malta has suffered other setbacks with its AI dreams. In 2022, for instance, the country unveiled virtual citizen Marija at a tourism conference to help draw tourists in by using AI to help them explore the island's offerings. However, the project was abruptly halted as it couldn't keep up with generative AI advancements, according to local media.

Patil, the Go CEO, is working to boost investment in Malta’s broader AI ecosystem. For now, he’s starting small.

Go Ventures, a subsidiary of Go, recently invested US$50,000 (RM234,700) into ToumAI Analytics, a Morocco-based startup that uses AI to understand customer behavior and obtain feedback in seven African languages. ToumAI is now deploying its multilingual voice bots to provide better customer service to Go's subscribers.

Patil said he'll proceed cautiously with investing in other AI startups. "We can't invest just because AI is a new cool thing,” he said. – Bloomberg

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