Singapore positions to catch the AI wave
Fusionopolis, Singapore: A*Star’s HQ
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Singapore positions to catch the AI wave

Amit Roy Choudhury — March 2018
The Asian powerhouse looks to a surge in productivity and growth by becoming a hotspot for artificial intelligence capabilities. We get an insider’s perspective from A*STAR’s Professor Tan Sze Wee.

Analysts around the globe are rushing to quantify the potential impact of artificial intelligence on industry and society. In Asia alone, UBS estimates that by 2030 AI could create additional economic value of between $1.8 trillion and $3 trillion annually. And politicians and business leaders are convinced that those who make the biggest bets now on AI will be the ones to benefit most.

Modelled the effect of AI on 33 economies, researchers at Frontier Economics last year found the largest uplift in economic growth by 2035 will not be seen by the GDP giants of US, China, Japan or any European country but by Asian powerhouse Singapore. AI will increase the city-state’s workforce productivity by 41%, concluded the Accenture-backed study, as annual growth nearly doubles to 5.4%.

Such bold predictions are informed by a rising tide of AI activity in Singapore over the past 18 months that includes the launch of ambitious government programs, large-scale investment commitments by global tech companies, major regional businesses and venture capital groups, and the emergence of a vibrant AI start-up community.
Pole position

Singapore has always punched above its industrial weight by making the right calls on business and technology trends, and using its combination of a rich talent pool, a technology-receptive cosmopolitan society, world-class infrastructure and a robust regulatory framework.

One of the most significant initiatives designed to give it a head start in the development of AI capabilities has been the setting up of AI Singapore (AI.SG), a program that brings together the country’s main government agencies and research establishments, academic institutions and a growing ecosystem of AI start-ups and business early adopters. The aim is to ferment expertise and create the tools and products that will fulfill Singapore’s AI ambitions.

The government-wide partnership — spanning the National Research Foundation (NRF), Smart Nation and Digital Government Office, Singapore Economic Development Board, Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore, SGInnovate and Integrated Health Information Systems — has set three major goals:
• to bring AI to bear on the major challenges of society and industry
• to invest in deep AI capabilities that will deliver scientific innovation and breakthroughs
•  to broaden the adoption and use of AI and machine learning across industry, with a focus on raising productivity, creating AI products, and streamlining the passage of solutions from labs to the market.

To support such goals, NRF alone has committed to invest up to S$150 million ($114m) over five years in AI.SG.
Call to action

Professor Tan Sze Wee, Executive Director at A*STAR’s Science & Engineering Research Council, is one of Singapore’s technology thought leaders and a key driver behind the AI push. Working under Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry, A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) is the lead public agency that drives mission-oriented research in Singapore, overseeing 18 biomedical sciences, physical sciences and engineering research entities, and is naturally a research partner in AI.SG along with the country’s top universities.



The time to act is now, Prof Tan asserts, noting that traditional business models are already under threat from digitalization and globalization. “To stay ahead, Singapore needs to embrace AI and IoT,” he says.

“With AI.SG, we are trying to create a platform that will make data available to both academia and start-ups so that they come up with solutions using AI that deliver better services and products,” Prof Tan adds.

AI.SG has set a target to deliver 100 AI projects and proofs of concepts that will address real-world problems. These ‘100 Experiments’ (100E) will take as their focus significant industry-identified problems, brought forward by a project sponsor (any Singapore-registered company or government agency), for which no existing commercial, off-the-shelf solution exists, but for which existing AI technologies can be quickly built.

100E will fund academics and researchers with up to S$250,000 ($190,000) to work on the project sponsor’s problem statement. The project sponsor is expected to match that funding 1:1 with 70% in-kind (engineering manpower) and 30% in-cash. The idea is to go from the problem statement to minimum viable product within 12 months.

Prof Tan emphasized the nature of its work involves a large component of co-creation. “The problem statements [for projects] are framed by companies and we then involve academics and solution providers. As the solution develops, we transfer the know-how to companies,” he says.

Prof Tan says that AI in Singapore has three near-term industry focus areas centered on healthcare, Fintech and transportation. 
Human-centric AI

Exploring Singapore’s priorities for research, Prof Tan notes that current AI systems are a bit like black boxes. “They lack common sense, don’t understand people’s underlying needs or that people are unique individuals,” he says. “Moreover, they don’t know social and cultural norms.”

Prof Tan explains that Singapore wants to address this by developing human-centric AI products with “a deep understanding” of people and regional differences. This understanding will help in developing speech and language, video and image, data analytics and social and cognitive computing abilities that are uniquely applicable across Singapore’s diverse population, as well as in other Asian contexts, he adds.

An example of such human-centric thinking for AI systems is evident at Standard Chartered Bank, one of several industry players participating in the AI.SG initiative. CEO for the bank in Singapore, Judy Hsu, highlights one area it is looking into is the application of AI to gain a better understanding and serve the real-life banking needs of seniors. Singapore has a rapidly aging population and “AI can play a significant role in enhancing financial services, including retirement planning based on contextual data,” she says.
Little red dot; big in AI

With manufacturing contributing 20% of Singapore’s GDP, Prof Tan also notes that using AI to boost productivity is a top priority. He says AI could be applied to make Industry 4.0 applications much more efficient, with machine learning being used in areas such as predictive maintenance and maintenance schedule optimization.

He highlights how biomedical applications will be another strong application area. For example, AI systems will be able to identify a particular type of tumour by comparing it to a vast image database of previously classified tumours or to use machine learning to make sense of vast amounts of heterogeneous biomedical data such as patient records, images, data from wearable devices and text.

Singapore’s wealth of AI initiatives is also attracting some of the world’s leading AI talent. China’s online retail giant Alibaba last year said Singapore will be the first of seven new R&D centers worldwide into which it plans to plough $15 billion, with AI as a key focus. And private equity firm Marvelstone Ventures has committed to setting up the “world’s biggest AI hub” in Singapore where it plans to incubate 100 start-ups every year.

With that kind of momentum, ‘the little red dot’ (as Singaporeans sometimes call the city-state’s rendering on a world map) is set to fulfill even the most bullish predictions about its AI-powered future.

• Professor Tan Sze Wee was a keynote speaker at the Fujitsu Asia Conference in Singapore.
First published February 2018
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