It seems Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is a term that everyone uses or comes across in this day and age. After all, it is said that we are in the midst of a Fourth Industrial Revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we live, work and relate to one another. It is a revolution that, according to Professor Klaus Schwab who coined the term, will see the proliferation of mobile computing, intelligent robotics, autonomous vehicles, and genetic editing, among many other innovations.
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AI as a concept refers to computing software or devices being able to essentially think for themselves, and to make decisions based on the data they are fed. AI systems are often complex and powerful, able to process voluminous amounts of information extremely quickly in order to produce a desired outcome. Everything from our smartphones to home appliances, and machinery to enterprise software have some form of AI capability.
Current Capabilities and Future Potential
Sophisticated algorithms enable AI systems to perform all manner of computing tasks much faster and more efficiently than human minds. AI is driving advancements in research and development, and use-cases in myriad industries around the world. It is capable of functionalities such as speech recognition, image recognition, deep learning, planning, problem solving and sentiment analysis.
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Some of the most notable real-world applications of AI are IBM’s Watson, which is being used to power research in a huge range of fields. In healthcare, Watson is used for R&D in fields such as oncology and genomics, and improving the role of medical imaging for better patient care.
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In finance and wealth management, robo-advisors are a fast-emerging trend. Estimates for the future robo-advisory market range between US$2.2 and $3.7 trillion in assets to be managed in 2020. By 2025, this figure could rise to over $16.0 trillion, three times the amount of assets managed by BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager to date. The emerging 4th generation of robo-advisors (dubbed Robo-Advisor 4.0) is expected to entail fully-automated investments managed by self-learning algorithms able to manage a portfolio based on changing market conditions.
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In the business of corporate lending, be it SME loans or funding of entrepreneurs, AI and in particular machine learning is proving useful in assessing the creditworthiness of a business or individual based on data points such as the value of collaterals, likelihood of future inflation and prospects for growth. Even alternative data like a business’ or individual’s digital footprint can be used to process loans in cases where there is little to no credit history. Automating more of the loan process also aids lenders in reducing administrative costs, while the faster processing of loans enhances customer service.
AI being a dynamic field, experts are already trying to predict future trends. With deep learning already making strides, it is expected that we are going to see machines that can develop capabilities or understanding without being provided this information from the outside. This essentially describes a transition from supervised learning – where humans tell machines what to learn – to unsupervised learning – where machines either make predictions or learn about a data set without being told what to look for.
AI-powered smart assistants are a common presence on mobile devices now, with the likes of Siri, Cortana and Alexa becoming a part of everyday life. Currently, they provide information such as traffic reports, and are also used to control smart home devices from the lights to the television. In future, AI-driven virtual assistants will be able to anticipate one’s needs and fulfil them without even needing to receive instructions. Grocery deliveries or appointments to the hair salon, for instance, can be automated.
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AI Development in Singapore
The rise of AI undoubtedly has major implications for a globally-connected and knowledge-based economy like Singapore. A 2017 report by research firm Accenture said that with the successful adoption of AI, Singapore could double the size of its economy, while also boosting productivity by 41% by 2035. Recognising the potential and competitive edge that AI possesses, the city-state’s government is playing a pro-active role in catalysing the development and use of AI. And it is putting its money where its mouth is.
In March 2019, it was reported that a national research fund will set aside an additional S$540 million for the creation of AI systems. This financial top-up to the fund – called the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 Plan – will contribute to the development of other projects that will deepen the country’s expertise in digital technologies and automation. The five-year fund, which was announced in 2016, is managed by the National Research Foundation. The additional funding will see a total of $900 million allocated to R&D in fields like AI, robotics and supercomputers.
A related challenge to inculcate AI capabilities is the need for talent. According to retired Israeli Major-General Isaac Ben-Israel, the father of Israel’s booming cyber-security industry who also sits on the board of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), “while you can temporarily fill the talent gap by using foreigners, you must develop your own (people) to meet national demands over the long term.”
To that end, a multi-stakeholder national AI programme called AI Singapore has started a three-year programme to equip more than 12,000 Singaporeans, including professionals and engineers, with AI knowledge. Furthermore, in 2018, AI Singapore announced an ‘AI for Everyone’ programme to teach the basics of the technology to 10,000 Singaporeans ranging from secondary students to working adults, along with an industry-centric ‘AI for Industry’ programme targeting working adults.
In the domain of Intellectual Property (IP), Singapore’s national IP agency is to fast-track AI-related patent applications to support the country’s digital economy goals. The agency announced that applications will now take as little as six months to be processed instead of the usual two to four years. It added that this will make Singapore the fastest country in the world for such procedures. Examples of AI-related inventions that would qualify include those pertaining to autonomous systems, image, speech and voice recognition, and natural language processing.
Impact on SMEs
Given the significant impact AI is making on Singapore’s burgeoning digital economy, SMEs are impacted in myriad ways – the viability of their business models, availability of markets, increased global competition and relevance of manpower skills. AI-driven automation is already beginning to replace processes previously done manually on the factory floor, while machine learning and data analytics are needed to process increasingly large amounts of data if one is to understand customer needs and develop market-competitive products and services.
While AI indeed poses numerous disruptive challenges to SMEs, it should be seen as a tool that can help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of systems and processes, ultimately helping create better products for the market.
Singapore’s Minister-in-charge for Smart Nation Vivian Balakrishnan said as much in March this year, that to scale-up development efforts, the government is working to open up access to data and AI tools so everyone can experiment. It especially wants to support SMEs to adopt AI and work on government use-cases.
There are plans to expand public and private sector collaborations, with one example being ‘100 Experiments’, a programme run by AI Singapore that partners companies to solve actual business problems. For example, an SME can present a problem for which no commercial off-the-shelf AI solution exists, but can potentially be solved by researchers in Singapore and AI Singapore’s engineering team within 9 to 18 months. If accepted, AI Singapore will provide 1:1 funding of up to SGD$250,000 per project. The SME, in turn, is required to match the funding amount through in-kind resources (AI/engineering/IT/domain manpower) and cash contributions.
In line with Singapore’s style of governance, efforts to embed AI capabilities and adoption are currently very much a government-driven affair. If Singapore is to truly become an AI Nation, it will require all other stakeholders, including SMEs, MNCs, educational institutions and the community-at-large, to take ownership of this endeavour which indeed has begun to change the way we live, work and relate to each other.