Why Singapore has become a thriving hub for AI

While robots have been a mainstay in industrial manufacturing for decades, the next phase of the digital revolution will see them move into more face-to-face functions – where a human touch will be critical to their success. The development of intuitive, human-like technologies will not happen without a coordinated effort by Singapore’s businesses, government agencies and citizens who are willing to adopt AI technology into their everyday lives. Government leads the way in AI adoption Singapore’s forward-thinking government is one of the early adopters of AI, which is a key factor in driving AI development and adoption in the country. For instance, the Singapore government has joined hands with Microsoft to develop intelligent chatbots that can deliver a set of tech-based human-like customer services. The bots will eventually respond to personalised queries in a conversational manner, taking away the need for customers to scroll through numerous pages on government websites. Last November, nine government agencies competed in Botfest 2016 organised by Microsoft. The event was designed to generate ideas about how to use AI and machine learning to deal with the troves of information on government websites. Richard Koh, chief technology officer of Microsoft Singapore, said the project with GovTech Singapore signalled the government’s readiness to become early adopters of AI technology. “We are now beginning to witness the early days of a transition to the next big platform shift in computing, one that is fuelled by advances in AI and around a behaviour that is most natural to humans – conversations.” Koh said that every company is now a technology company and there are enormous benefits to be gained by embracing AI. “By harnessing the power of AI and data, organisations can dramatically improve customer and staff experiences, lift productivity, transform their products and services, and even venture into new business models,” he added. Singapore consumers embrace AI Consumers in Singapore also believe that AI will bring positive impact to their everyday life. A 2017 Accenture survey showed that Singaporeans are increasingly ready to embrace AI, with 35 percent of the population now ready for hyper-personalised services. While a smaller number of people currently own voice-enabled devices, of those that do, 71 percent use them on a regular basis. Singaporean bank DBS recently teamed up with U.S.-based Kasisto – a spin-off of the same R&D institute behind Apple’s Siri technology – to create the banking chatbot in POSB digibank. The AI-driven chatbot is powered by KAI, Kasisto’s conversational AI platform, and it enables customers to do their banking via conversations on mobile, web, and Facebook Messenger. The customer simply types a conversational phrase into the app, such as ‘How much money do I have in my account?’, and the bot retrieves the answer. Customers can also get information on DBS products and services, insights on spending, and make credit card or other payments. Jeremy Soo, head of Consumer Banking Group (Singapore), DBS Bank, said that conversational banking was simply moving in the direction of how customers use social media. “We know that our customers are spending time conversing on their favourite mobile messaging apps, and we are immersing ourselves in the customer journey by making it easier and more convenient for them to engage us,” he added. Dror Oren, co-founder and CPO of Kasisto, said: “The world is always changing, but today we’re experiencing some very significant shifts in consumer experiences and expectations, shifts in consumer loyalty and affinity. AI has an important role in meeting these challenges. We see a future where conversational AI is just how you get things done. It will be second nature for consumers to interact naturally and intuitively with companies via intelligent conversations.” Singapore’s digital ecosystem crucial to AI development A significant financial investment in infrastructure is vital for Singapore’s digital advancement. In 2016 alone, the country awarded S$2.82 billion (US$1.98 billion) worth of info-comm technology contracts through the government’s Smart Nationinitiative, two-thirds of which was devoted to investment in physical infrastructure, including expanding cabling and networks, high-speed Wi-Fi and IT security. The recently announced Jurong Innovation District will allow businesses, researchers, students and advanced manufacturing and engineering start-ups to develop and test their innovations in a dedicated industrial site. The project will involve more than 100,000 citizens alongside entrepreneurs and technology companies finding solutions to the problems of the future in what the government calls a ‘living innovation centre’. Alongside these major projects, the city-state encourages public-private partnerships between business, academia and government through the National Research Foundation. It’s also set to increase its own data storage capacity by 25 percent – a move that will allow public and private AI applications to draw from the huge reserve of open data. In addition, Singapore’s talent pool enables multinational companies to find the required skill sets to match growth opportunities, thanks to the country’s outstanding education system, and a technology sector rich with public-private initiatives. For instance, German multinational software corporation SAP opened its new innovation centre for Machine Learning in Singapore last November, and the number of PhD students and talented data scientists available here was the main reason for the choice of location. The centre is also part of SAP’s global network that has already been working with students to promote science and technology, in order to deliver solutions to cancer patients. With a thriving digital ecosystem – underpinned by its infrastructure, policy and enablers – Singapore is fast becoming a hotspot for AI experimentation and innovation. Strong investment in digital infrastructure, a growing pool of IT expertise and a hyper-connected population mean the country is making outsized gains in a new technological landscape, making Singapore fertile ground for MNCs to grow their business. Edited by Sophie Chen and Goh Wei Ting