AI.SG, the seed for Singapore’s new economic pillar?

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Up to S$150 million will be invested into AI.SG by The National Research Foundation over the next five years. This announcement came in a speech by Minister of Communication and Information Yaacob Ibrahim at the opening of Innovfest Unbound. AI.SG is guided by three key objectives, and aims to boost Singapore’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities, said Dr Yaacob.

“First, (the program will) address major challenges that affect both society and industry. Secondly, invest in deep capabilities to catch the next wave of scientific innovation. And finally, to grow AI innovation and adoption in companies – an initiative most pertinent to our business community.” said Dr Yaacob.

This initiative creates an optimistic outlook for the AI industry in Singapore. At the same time, this jumpstart in AI could be the seed for Singapore’s niche industries such as cleantech and its smaller players to thrive. (Read: Cleantech’s Energy Boost: Artificial Intelligence)

However, the AI.SG program may not be all-encompassing for all forms of businesses to come onboard the AI train due to Singapore’s usual pragmatic approach.

While the government would like to achieve the right product-market fit through addressing societal and industrial challenges, there may be resistance to uptake of possible AI solutions. Such resistance is one of the key reasons why the cleantech model did not work in Silicon Valley. While solar energy was positioned as a sustainable energy that would create a better environment for their future, the inability to keep prices lower than natural gas, on top of other factors, impeded its success. The idea did not appeal to consumers who do not see a worthwhile investment in changing their lifestyle or habits for a future prospect they cannot envision. With that said, there may be unexplored possibilities for AI to satisfy the growing desire for instant gratification. These possibilities, however, may only come to fruition if our society adopts the right attitude and awareness to give AI the chance to work together.

Secondly, the government’s bid to invest in deep capabilities should be accompanied with tech business. With multiple AI initiatives from Singapore’s universities and a capable pool of AI professionals, our country may be the right place to spearhead AI advancements in Asia, as the realm of AI requires not only technical but highly experienced teams. This would help reduce the risk of falling into the technology trap and making the common mistake of placing a lower regard on actually running a profitable business.  Needless to say, a lot goes into building a sustainable business – understanding the market, differentiating yourself, competent leadership and a profitable business model are the obvious few. Perhaps we can champion and learn from the likes of homegrown tech companies such as Garena, Razer and Carousell, looking to them for examples of what it takes for a tech company to thrive in Asia.

Lastly, for Singapore to grow its AI innovation and adoption in companies would mean embracing and supporting the capabilities of big players like GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) and BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent), as these companies are granted an undeniable advantage with their worldwide repository of data and processing power. They have the capacities to get on board strong industry leaders and computer scientists. However, for AI to potentially become a reliable economic pillar for Singapore, the tougher, but perhaps more rewarding way, is to grow and harness talent at a grassroots level such as through SMEs here, with the hopes of growing our own tech giant.

Singapore now has once in a lifetime opportunity to turn this landscape into a classic David and Goliath story. Currently, Singapore is ranked first in the Global Entrepreneurship Index for the ease of doing business. However, it is no secret that we may not be fully utilising the available business opportunities and support, as we rank a lowly 24th in displaying innovation and entrepreneurship on the index. It is thus imperative that we leverage on our country’s favourable business environment, and explore the possibilities that AI can bring to enable our future economic pillar. To do so, we need to forgo the occasional cry of automation stealing jobs, and instead embrace risks to broaden our perspectives and think about how we can create quality jobs and the right ecosystem for Singapore’s next lap, like we did for our current economic pillars.

By Sherlyn Goh, Marketing and Partnerships, Lignar Labs

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