Artificial intelligence is the trending tech topic of the year and Singapore’s government doesn’t want to miss out. That’s the motivation behind AI.SG, a new initiative announced during the Innovfest Unbound conference by minister for communications and information, Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim. It aims to bring together government agencies, universities and institutes, investors, industry people, and startups to advance AI research, development, and practical use in Singapore.
AI.SG brings together six of the country’s most prestigious government-related players: the National Research Foundation (NRF), the recently founded Smart Nation and Digital Government Office, the Economic Development Board, the Infocomm and Media Development Authority, SGInnovate, and healthcare IT firm Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS).
NRF said it will invest up to US$107 million over the next five years in the project.
Making the case for AI
The problem the initiative is addressing goes like this:
AI is a complicated and broad area, which means it is expensive both in terms of experts working on it and infrastructure needed. So Singaporean companies can’t afford to start their own AI programs individually or form the teams of experts needed to do that. At the same time, aspects of the technology, from machine learning to image recognition, are already so prevalent their value can’t be ignored.
While plenty of startups work on various AI applications in the city-state, they more or less have to either work on their own or self-organize if they want to share resources and knowledge. Universities need help getting their research to the market and creating products from it. And government agencies need to access and understand all this knowledge and showcase it to the rest of the world.
AI.SG wants to tackle these challenges by focusing on three things:
Address major challenges affecting society and industry
As examples of this, the government mentions things like better traffic management but zeroes in on healthcare-related applications. This sector’s importance for Singapore is highlighted by the participation of IHiS, which focuses on improving healthcare through data science, computer science, machine learning, analytics, and more.
“AI could play a big role in supporting prevention, diagnosis, treatment plans, medication management, precision medicine, and drug creation,” says IHiS CEO and Ministry of Health chief information officer, Bruce Liang.
Invest in readiness for the next wave of scientific innovation
More forward-looking, this aspect will focus on cultivating talent and resources to work on advanced AI-related technologies that could result in more “human-like” systems. Enhanced learning abilities and cognitive science are some of the examples mentioned.
The NRF plans to devote its Fellowship (for early-career researchers) and Investigatory schemes (for established, mid-career academics) to attract and train scientists and support research and studies.
Get more companies to use AI and machine learning in Singapore
This goes both for companies who can improve their business by using AI as well as companies that are working on AI and want to get their products to market. The goal is to deliver 100 AI projects and proofs of concept that solve “real-world problems.”
Sectors of focus include, unsurprisingly, finance as well as the abovementioned healthcare and city management solutions.
It’s a worthy cause and it’s just in time, too. Last year, market intelligence firm Tractica predicted that AI revenue will surpass US$16 billion by 2022 and reach US$36.8 billion globally by 2025. This covers quite a broad range of AI applications, including machine learning, computer vision, natural language processing (NLP), and more.
In Asia, innovation in this area is currently driven by Chinese giants like Baidu, which invested US$430 million into AI research and development in the last three months of 2016. The company opened its own Silicon Valley-based AI lab in 2014 and, despite losing AI heavyweight Andrew Ng a couple of months ago, it doesn’t intend to slow down.
Good news for startups
Singapore’s startups are ready for a more organized, collaborative effort to grow AI in the Lion City. Oliver Tan, CEO of computer vision #startup ViSenze, thinks it’s high time something like this took place in Singapore, particularly if it translates to more funding, specialized talent, and collaboration between AI developers.
“Funding is of course one of the good things to have, but especially the collaboration with government agencies,” he says. Developing prototypes and minimum viable products can be both risky and expensive for a company, so sharing the load in this regard can be a boon for many smaller startups.
A better funded and more collaborative ecosystem will naturally attract more talented people, Oliver points out. “If we’re able to attract AI people, especially scientists, computer vision people, evangelists, problem solvers, to come here because there’s funding and diversity, it generates that network effect that draws people in,” he says. “It shows this country is serious about AI and everybody benefits.”
Mimetic.ai is the creator of Evie, an AI-powered office assistant. Co-founder Praveen Velu agrees with Oliver that funding, talent, and the opportunity for startups to collaborate and learn together with universities and government institutions are the ideal potential outcomes of AI.SG.
“Running an AI startup in Singapore means you’re working with these fundamental disadvantages – getting access to funding and good talent,” Praveen says. The government’s literal stamp of approval on this field should help change the way a lot of people see the space from the outside.
“When we first started, in 2014, no investor would consider such a speculative technology,” he says. He hopes this can change with Singapore basically “doing marketing for this field in the region.”
“[AI.SG] is a reflection of this idea that the Singapore government is always trying to think about what is next,” says Steve Leonard, CEO of deep tech company builder SGInnovate, which is part of the initiative.
SGInnovate will be doing a lot of the startup and investor connections through its existing networks as well as new ones. AI startups already working with the company would be able to tap into the larger networks of universities and corporates to improve their capabilities. Conversely, larger entities looking for particular insights or expertise can zero in on the right startups.
“If we have three or four entrepreneurs working on [a particular area], are they better off combining forces and building something that as a result might be more competitive globally than what individual teams could build? I don’t know the answer, but we must ask the question,” Steve says.
A concern is that startups propped up by these networks could be hamstrung on the global market. Oliver thinks that’s not the case.
“There’s no monopoly of AI ideas, of technology,” he says. “We are all better off collaborating with other startups who are strong in each of their domain areas.” For example, if a startup is doing image recognition but hasn’t worked on facial recognition at all, it would need to either completely rebuild its processes and tech to do it or it could collaborate with someone who’s already working on this particular track.
Steve agrees with that sentiment. “We’re not asking companies to give away their IP – but if you don’t know what else is going on out there, then you’re gonna sell yourself short,” he says.