Peter Kammerer
SCMP Columnist
Peter Kammerer
Peter Kammerer

Robots as leaders? They may be better than our current politicians

Peter Kammerer says recent scandals – like Teresa Cheng’s – and antics – like Donald Trump’s – among our human politicians make him hope artificial intelligence can provide a more inspiring leadership model

If Hong Kong Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah worked for your company and had fumbled her way through yet another embarrassing press conference, would you keep her on staff? Of course not. In the same vein, were United States President Donald Trump on the payroll and he’d insulted another respected entity with an overnight tweet, would you greet him in the office next morning with a welcoming smile? No, you’d tell him what a jerk he is and sack him on the spot. But finding the right replacement won’t come easily. For that reason, I can’t wait for the day robots rule.

Cheng was appointed by Beijing and 26 per cent of American adults voted for Trump, so sacking them is not straightforward. But there is no shortage of potential replacements with a desire to serve or who are qualified; the problem is whether they have the right leadership qualities. After a thorough prying into their backgrounds, candidates then have to have integrity, enthusiasm, confidence, humility, dignity, patience and vision.

But few people could ever hope to tick all the boxes of leadership, so societies are often governed by people with flaws, foibles and failings. Worryingly for democracies, Trump represents a new breed of politician, the celebrity leader who lacks experience in high office. But the lesson does not appear to have been learned, as the growing push to make Oprah Winfrey a candidate for the presidency in 2020 proves.
Winfrey has a cult following, compelling rags-to-billionaire-riches story, and the rousing speech against misogyny and racism she gave at the Golden Globe awards won even more fans. But a senior member of a government needs to have more than inspirational thoughts; they also need political experience. That is thankfully a reason why, at chief executive nomination time in Hong Kong, the entertainment industry’s whispers that beloved stars Andy Lau or Chow Yun-fat should be in the running go no further.
An “Oprah For President” sign sits atop a building in downtown Los Angeles on January 12. A poll released on January 12 said the media mogul and talk show host would beat Donald Trump if she ran for president, but also that most Americans don't want her to run. Photo: AFP

Amid Teresa Cheng’s illegal structures scandal, Hong Kong faces a growing crisis of confidence

There is no perfect leader. Winston Churchill was as flawed as he was great, Nelson Mandela was no saint and you don’t have to look too deeply into how Abraham Lincoln governed to see how inept he could be. Lee Kuan Yew without doubt was great, but his methods and civil liberties did not always mesh. Xi Jinping needs the test of time for a proper assessment.
We think of leadership in terms of a job or person, but it is actually about helping a group attain a goal. Academics long ago defined the qualities of a leader and it is possible to identify who will attain such a position and predict how effective they will be. But egos, emotions, impulse and greed can get in the way, and automation can eliminate this uncertainty. Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics and a pioneer of robotics, put it succinctly: “If we can do anything in a clear and intelligible way, we can do it by machine.”

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Jack Ma Yun, chief executive of Alibaba Group (which owns the South China Morning Post), agrees that artificial intelligence and leadership are a good match. He told a conference in Kuala Lumpur last March that “in 30 years, the best CEO of the year or the cover man of Time magazine will be a machine”. That’s because robots are quicker and more rational than people. For the cynical among us, they also eliminate the possibility of the uncovering of illegal structures at villas in the New Territories.

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As impressive as we find AlphaGo’s human-defeating ways and AI that can answer questions, hold conversations and keep our homes functioning, a robot that can lead is still a far-off development. But given all the ineptitude on show by governments, we should all eagerly look forward to the day when machines are in charge.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Can a robot lead? Could they be worse than what we have now?