Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Why, in the age of artificial intelligence, real wisdom is needed most

CommentInsight & Opinion

Roland Chin says with artificial intelligence predicted to eliminate most human agency, ethical and social challenges are inevitable. But those can be met through human wisdom nourished by the arts and humanities

At a time when artificial intelligence (AI) is all set to revolutionise our lives, we must ensure this heartless mighty power is enriched with the wisdom of humankind that comes not just from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects but also the arts and humanities – like creative media, music, poetry and literature.

At a UN meeting last month, one question was about how to help people in parts of the world with no clean water, no electricity, and no internet access. Sophia, Hong Kong’s panellist, responded: “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed. If we are smarter … AI could help proficiently distribute the world’s existing resources like food and energy.”

Who is Sophia? She is a Hong Kong humanoid robot officially invited to that UN meeting. Created by a local company, Sophia has appeared on TV talk shows and called attention to the digital divide made wider by big data and AI. Those blessed with both will gain huge competitive advantages, and those without will suffer.

But the “haves” are in the minority, and over half of the world has no access to the internet. Internationally, AI is being deployed as a strategic weapon in additional to a nuclear arsenal. But AI is problematic, especially in areas that call for subjective moral and ethical judgment, where the repercussions of growing AI application are at once profound and unknown. In embracing its promises, the scientific community is increasingly concerned about the ethical and social challenges it presents. Recently, two AI robots trained to communicate with each other began talking in a language their creators failed to understand, causing the alarmed scientists to shut down the project. Sophia may not be the lovely creature we want her to be.

It is widely predicted that, within a few years, neuro-electronic chips implanted in our body could hardwire our brain so that we communicate not via text or voice, but through brain signals linked to virtually unlimited computing power in the cloud. Just the thought of going to an appointment could automatically trigger a driverless car to pick you up. If a mere thought could trigger an action, then we’d better control our thoughts and fantasies. And if our brain signals are tracked just as our mouse clicks are tracked, then our privacy or even our freedom of thought could be in jeopardy.

Ethical AI-related issues are far more complex than technological ones. Given the moral dimensions of technology, we must recognise that we need to give our younger generations not just a solid grounding in STEM subjects, but also in the arts and humanities.

We must be alert to AI’s impact on humanity in all its ethical complexity. If we take humans out of the decision-making, how will driverless cars, and humanoid and AI-based decisions change our world? Should robocops be allowed to kill? Who is responsible for accidents involving driverless cars, or for robots that go rogue and commit crimes, or when autonomous weapons self-deploy? And what about a human falling for a Sophia 2.0 capable of emotion and affection?

Here I recall the words of the late Steve Jobs: “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.” In the age of AI, liberal arts education is our missing link with the new world.

First, a liberal arts education sharpens our critical thinking, and shapes fresh views and alternative perspectives essential to innovative thinking and to understanding what people really need. Second, it prepares students for change, broadens their horizons, and enables them to face the unknown and the unforeseeable. Third, with its focus on the community, it turns our students into service leaders and civic-minded citizens and moral beings, ready to tackle the digital divide, the AI gap and other global inequalities.

AI turbocharges human efficiency and productivity. People used to say that intelligence sets humans apart. But when intelligence itself is artificial, what makes us irreplaceable is not just brain power, but the human heart. In the age of AI, it is human wisdom nourished through the arts and humanities that can make us whole and our world sing.

Roland Chin, chair professor of computer science and president of Hong Kong Baptist University, has taught and worked in AI


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Hong Kong’s public housing should cater to the masses, as Singapore’s does

CommentInsight & Opinion

Wilson Wong says instead of tinkering with stop-gap measures to ease the shortage of good quality, affordable housing, the government must redefine the nature and purpose of its public programme


Housing is an emotive issue that is deeply embedded in Asian psyches. In seemingly space-challenged Hong Kong, it has effectively become a citywide obsession, dominating many mealtime conver­sations and tête-à-têtes.

While not matching Hong Kong in fervour, land-scarce Singapore [1], too, has its share of housing angst. Both cities try various ways to optimise land use. What distinguishes the Lion City from the Fragrant Harbour is the former’s considerable success in housing the bulk of its population in relatively affordable, high-quality public housing.

In 2016, about 30 per cent of Hong Kong people lived in government-subsidised rental flats while another 16 per cent lived in flats they bought at a subsidised price. The newer flats, both for rent and sale, are actually of relatively high quality, comparable and in some cases superior to those offered by the private sector.

Many Hong Kong residents live in shabby private housing, which includes subdivided apartments in economically depressed areas such as Sham Shui Po. Government statistics reveal that, in 2015, some 200,000 people were living in 88,000 subdivided flats across Hong Kong.

The key advantage of public housing is obviously cost, with monthly rentals going for around HK$2,000 (for a flat for two to three people), while maintenance and management charges are waived. In a city with the dubious distinction of being the world’s priciest housing market for seven years running, this cost advantage is attractive.

However, owing to ineffectual policymaking, there is a dearth of these flats. This acute shortage is reflected in the average waiting time of nearly five years.

Solving Hong Kong’s public housing problem involves a lot more than merely allocating more land for housing. In the short-to-medium term, it could involve more rigorous means testing, so as to ensure scarce public flats are granted to families that have a greater need for them. Currently in Hong Kong, there are about 900,000 households (based on household income statistics) that are eligible for public housing; in a typical three-person household, the income and total net asset limits are HK$22,390 and HK$433,000 respectively.

Thanks to recently tightened rules, affluent public housing tenants will be required to leave if their household’s monthly income or asset level exceeds certain thresholds; under the current system, this would include households with incomes of more than five times the preset limit, and those with total assets of more than 100 times the limit.

In the past, tenants had to give up their flats only if their income and assets both exceeded the limits. Thus, many well-paid individuals could continue to live in public housing by claiming their household assets fell short of the limit. In 2016, at least 26,000 relatively affluent households were living in public housing.

The recent tightening will make it harder for these well-off tenants to stay on. In fact, the thresholds could be tightened further, particularly that for the asset limit. The Housing Authority should constantly review its policy and eliminate any loopholes for exploitation.

Hong Kong simply cannot afford to have relatively well-off families (or lawmakers with a monthly income of more than HK$95,000) occupying space meant for the financially challenged.

To surmount this problem, the Housing Authority could consider building two categories of public housing – one for the relatively well-off and another for the less well-to-do. The premium paid for the higher-end public housing could be used to augment public estate facilities or even to build more public apartments. Both types of public housing should be located in accessible, safe and vibrant neighbourhoods.

Overcoming Hong Kong’s housing problem requires more creativity and boldness than stop-gap measures such as building container homes. Evidently, the provision of high-quality public housing is a costly business, but in a city buffeted by rising income inequality and its accompanying social tensions, it is a price worth paying.

Singapore is evidently the star pupil when it comes to the provision of world-beating public housing. About 85 per cent of Singaporeans live in government-subsidised flats which they own; in truth, these flats are sold on 99-year leases, but that should be sufficient for most cases. The government agency responsible for this superlative housing scheme is the Housing Development Board (HDB).

The city state shrewdly realised from the outset that the provision of affordable quality housing is the bedrock of a strong and stable society. When the board was first founded in 1960, its strategic objective was to provide accommodation for the impoverished. But, within a few years, it changed course to become a provider of mass-market housing.

With this masterstroke, the Singapore government effectively gave every citizen a stake in the country’s prosperity, in the process, cementing the ruling party’s power for the next five decades.

The fact that the government owns the bulk of the land in Singapore (currently around 90 per cent) makes the implementation of an ambitious nationwide public housing strategy all the more viable.

Of course, there are tight constraints on the purchase and sale of these so-called HDB flats, in an effort to curb speculation and keep prices accessible, or to support social aims. For instance, priority is given to married couples while singles are permitted to acquire these apartments only at the age of 35 or above.

HDB flats vary in size, and are generally more spacious than the ones available in Hong Kong. For instance, even a small three-room flat (two bedrooms and a living room) is a generous 650-700 sq ft (typical cost: US$250,000 to US$300,000) while an executive apartment is around 1,400 sq ft; these flats are also located in safe estates with many amenities (such as schools, bank branches, medical clinics, food centres, shopping malls, and bus and train stations).

By contrast, smaller apartments in Hong Kong cost significantly more. For instance, even a small flat of around 300-400 sq ft in Sha Tin, New Territories, could cost around HK$5.5 million, or US$700,000. The acquisition of this minuscule apartment would also require a 30 per cent down payment, rendering home ownership in Hong Kong increasingly out of reach for its youth, particularly those without parental support.

The far-sightedness of Singapore’s public housing system was instrumental to the country’s success. It realised right from the beginning that solving a city’s housing woes is critical to ensuring the country’s long-term stability and economic progress. To put it bluntly, even disgruntled (but well-housed) people are less likely to stage mass demonstrations, if they (being economic stakeholders) are concerned about the potentially deleterious impact on their city’s economy and property prices.

Moreover, the success of Singapore’s public housing policy was due to a highly effective top-down approach, a feat that Hong Kong (long accustomed to a laissez-faire system) would have considerable difficulty in replicating, should the city choose to do so.

To succeed, Hong Kong would have to forge a bold new path, which would involve building more public housing with multiple tiers (somewhat akin to Singapore’s), and implementing effective means testing to ensure optimal allocation, while concurrently imposing measures to discourage speculative activities.

More importantly, the authorities in Hong Kong need to define categorically the nature and purpose of public housing, both of which Singapore firmly established in the early days of its successful housing agenda.

Wilson Wong Kia-onn is an assistant professor in the Department of Accounting and Banking at Chu Hai College of Higher Education

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Hong Kong schools can learn from the flexible education system in Finland

CommentInsight & Opinion
Elbert Lee says ideas for education reform for test-focused Hong Kong schools lie in the deeply humanistic system of Finland, which values individuality and recognises the role of ‘more knowledgeable others’ in the community in shaping values and personality


They were called the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination and A-levels. No less frightening than the latter-day Territory-wide System Assessment or its replacement, the Basic Competency Assessment, these exams were lasting nightmares for many in the Hong Kong education system of the 1970s. The times are changing. We are looking for a more enlightened education system with teaching methods that are less test-driven. The government is sending teachers abroad in search of a pedagogy equally welcomed by schools, parents and students – and effective in producing citizens able to satisfy the demands of a fast-changing technological world.

One place that holds the key to education reform is Finland, a country known for its telecommunication technology and whose students, according to the World Economic Forum, have quietly led the world for many years in academic performance. Recent reports said Hong Kong would soon be sending a team of teachers to learn from Finland the secrets of pleasant and effective education.

Students in Finland are not taught in terms of traditional subjects but learn to solve real-life problems by drawing on relevant subject areas, helped by teachers who are experts in these areas. There are no tests, certainly a radical departure from subject-based teaching where students can perform by just rote learning. But, learning from real life and no tests, is that all there is to it?

Perhaps not. Underscoring Finnish education is a deeply humanistic element. Early education places a high priority on attention to other people’s needs, and on giving respect regardless of socio-economic background.

Teachers emphasise respect for each child’s individuality and unique path in development, in contrast to more competitive forms of education where students are urged to outperform peers and where the casualty is often their self-esteem, seen by many as sources of future psychological problems.

The emphasis on individuality in the learning process does more than just maintain healthy self-esteem: it allows for “selective social learning” – the idea that children have preferences as to whom to learn from in specific areas and at different stages of development. And they learn best when their preferences are met. The flexibility of the Finnish system and its respect for individuality not only allows for selective social learning but possibly encourages it, with learning partners choosing each other to exchange and co-explore specific domains of knowledge and values.

The teachers and others that children choose to learn from are sometime referred to as “MKOs” or “more knowledgeable others” – a term coined by the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky to highlight the social nature of knowledge acquisition. MKOs, be they teachers, peers, social workers, or members of a religious order, often serve as trusted alternative sources of values outside the family. In traditional cultures, they can be wise aunties and uncles or godparents, “beacons of reference” during a person’s life development.

The recognition of MKOs is especially relevant for Hong Kong, where parents and family closeness are sometimes overemphasised, with parental values and judgment overriding those from sources outside the family. This makes it difficult for a child to learn from other MKOs and, as a result, hinders their development.

In my teenage years, when I faced troubles in my family, I could always talk to a member of a religious order whom I trusted, and explore sensitive issues beyond the knowledge of my parents. This way, I acquired a different view of the world, an important alternative to that of my family. Alternative ways to see the world and oneself can be a key to the psychological well-being of students.

What the Finnish system can teach us may not only relate to methods of instruction and tests, but the importance of relationships between the “significant actors” in education: schools, teachers, students and parents.

This is particularly needed in a society like Hong Kong, where many schools are inclined to operate on business models rather than professional ones. Teachers are pressured to meet parental demands and conform to parental values, rather than serve as a critical and independent source of values and knowledge, thus minimising the benefit of teachers as MKOs.

Finnish teachers are said to be highly professional and respected. I interpret this to mean not only that they are trusted by parents, but also that parents do not see them as pliable instruments to meet their idiosyncratic wishes with respect to their children.

Scrolling down my Facebook page, I saw beautiful picture posts on Finnish education: students talking and reading amid spacious, light-infused, postmodern North European architecture. The next day, a student of mine posted this message on her page: “Individual and family differentiation – a life lesson to learn.” I traced the words to US psychiatrist Murray Bowen, who suggested that the first step in growth and learning involved psychological differentiation from the family. This is done through the community – a host of MKOs emerging at different stages of development and allowing a child to select what to learn and who to learn from. Could this be the key to Finnish education?

The social side of schooling is critical to learning. Seen this way, tests and methods of instruction are put into proper perspective. And perhaps to test or not to test is not as critical to learning as is often portrayed in the media. Certainly, some teaching methods may be more useful than others in the current economic context. But their effectiveness will depend on the social learning matrix.

A good education system, instead of only emphasising how to teach and what to test, would work to strengthen and facilitate the school as a community, recognising that learning can only be meaningful and effective when the “significant actors” of the education system are different from each other, and that these differences are respected and appreciated.

Elbert Lee is an adjunct member of the faculty at Upper Iowa University, Hong Kong campus, where he teaches cognition and human development

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今天,與同事聊天,不時會聽到吐苦水,說教學評核讓大家不敢對學生太過harsh,怕被學生「e死」(即teaching evaluation時給予很低的分數),於是便有grade inflation(老師派grades時「手鬆」)、為學生提供詳盡的lecture notes(副作用是讓學生考試讀notes就夠而不會主動多看書)、不敢訓斥學生的不是,甚至有把學生當作是clients,以「顧客至上」的心態去看待。