Tony Stark’s personal AI helper JARVIS from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an omniscient assistant that can do pretty much anything. Be it auto-piloting Iron Man’s suit or tracking down bad guys, the possibilities seem to be endless in the fictional world.

Although the capabilities of JARVIS are a little exaggerated for our current levels of tech, Stan Lee’s creative vision doesn’t stray too far from the goals of efficiency that today’s AI innovators are pushing towards.

Experts gathered to share their thoughts on how AI adoption can move forward in Asia at the recent AIxGOV panel.

AI across sectors

The global pandemic has slowed down economies and changed our way of life permanently. Organisations have pivoted quickly to all things digital, including AI.

For instance, healthcare clinics in Singapore have used AI to assist with administrative tasks like patient scheduling and staffing, the Straits Times reported. Ports used AI to steer maritime vessels away from collisions, Fujitsu wrote.

GovTech Singapore has also tapped on Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud and uses machine learning and AI technologies to power chatbots. These provide improved citizen experience for conversational interactions with the Singapore government ministries and agencies.

AI is making waves in research as well, shared Dr Bernard Leong, Head of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, ASEAN at AWS. The urban analytics lab at the National University of Singapore spearheaded research in geospatial data analysis and three-dimensional (3D) city modelling.

The lab’s work underpins the development of smart cities and provides scientists, architects, urban planners, and real estate developers with data insights. These insights help parties make informed decisions about projects ranging from energy modelling to urban farming. To meet rising global demand for its data analytics and planning tools, Urban Analytics Lab turned to AWS.

Asia’s AI strategies

Singapore is one of the bright innovators in Asia leading the charge for AI tech. It launched a national AI strategy in 2019, and will focus on bringing AI into transport, healthcare, education, and security.

A close neighbour in the region – the Philippines – is following suit. It launched a national roadmap this year to accelerate the adoption of AI.

The country will establish a National Centre for AI Research, which will build up the capabilities of businesses to help them make use of AI. This will include setting up national data and research cloud centres, reported BusinessWorld.

It is “something that we will need to embrace, if not we will get left behind,” Dr Franz de Leon from the Philippines’ Department of Science and Technology said. The nation will have to focus on closing the digital divide between urban and rural areas for AI to truly make a difference, he highlighted.

Currently, the Philippines has started research across sectors – including agriculture, manufacturing and healthcare, he added.

Lessons for implementing AI

Grand plans are now in place. Next up, how can Southeast Asia bring them to fruition?

Building up public trust is important in order to smooth out the adoption of any new tech, including AI, said Oliver Tian from Asia Pacific Assistive Robotics Association. But AI remains “taboo” for many today, he noted.

“It’s still that magical black box that we don’t understand what happens inside,” he added. Raising awareness through educating the public is key to increasing AI adoption.

It’s also crucial for firms to help staff understand AI better. DBS, named World’s Best Bank for the past three years, is allowing AI experimentations in its offices.

Last year, more than 3,000 DBS employees learned advanced machine learning skills on AWS DeepRacer, which teaches participants how to build an AI model through a simulated 3D car race.

The exercise highlighted how these skills are “not just confined to the data scientists and data engineers,” noted AWS’s Dr Leong. AWS is now working with DBS to explore training and certification, he shared.

Solutions need to be “locally sensitive” as well, de Leon added. AI tools that may find success in one context may not necessarily translate well to another, he explained.

Fighting data bias and threats

As AI becomes more integrated with more aspects of our lives, governments need to be wary of the risks associated with this tech, de Leon said. These risks may include malicious interference with data inputs or data poisoning, he added.

This introduces a “question of balancing” between maximising commercial gains and protecting the interests of citizens, he explained. Governments will need to implement relevant policies that can defend their citizens against these ever-present threats.

From improving safety to advancing healthcare, AI is set to do great things. As Asia gears up for the coming AI revolution, it will need to pay attention to its digital divides, making algorithms transparent and data bias.

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