Algorithms could power us to Thailand 4.0 – and dictatorship    

your say September 11, 2018 01:00

While Thailand is still working on getting the “4.0” digital economy in motion, developed countries are already booting up their “5.0” era.



The tools they are using for this transformation are algorithms – but there’s a downside. The new software is creating digital government that can be authoritarian and dictatorial, aided by citizens’ unquestioning trust of software “reasoning”.

One example comes from the US, where education software secretly tracks students’ online activity. The programmes use the data they harvest to improve student learning by pinpointing when children are feeling happy, bored or engaged. Facial-recognition software could soon add to the machines’ ability. 

Stakeholders in education are starting to worry that these advances make possible greater manipulation and control of young minds, and also might lead to personal-data breaches. (See “How (and why) ed-tech companies are tracking students’ feelings”, Education Week, June 12.) 

This is relevant for us here in Thailand, where EduTech start-ups being launched as part of the 4.0 drive will eventually need ethical rules, drawn up by government and society. 

A real-life example of  “stampeding” algorithms came with a recent news report in the Netherlands. Someone’s car was stolen and the theft reported at the police station. In the non-digital era, authorities and companies would have been informed, resulting in “case closed”. But not now. After a while the car owner received urgent bills for car tax, insurance, and mechanical check-up. The individual tried to correct this by contacting several institutions, but they were all “hiding” behind the mighty algorithm. “The system says the car is still in your name, Have a nice day”, was the message he received. After several years of this, an unsatisfactory agreement was finally reached.

The solution is more sophisticated “human-centred” algorithms that respond accurately to individual cases rather than general scenarios. But to build this digital infrastructure and avoid the ethical and authoritarian pitfalls it brings, Thailand needs far stronger educational foundations.  

This means forging a flexible workforce around strong knowledge of core STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – plus English. There is no time to waste: Thailand will miss the Fourth Industrial Revolution unless it can boot up STEM and vocational education and do it soon.

Dirk Sumter

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