How Singapore is using artificial intelligence

Although still behind Indonesia and Thailand, Singapore is committed to make itself the AI pioneer in the ASEAN region

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Self-driving vehicles, dating apps able to give relationship advice, humanoid robots that crack jokes and get upset... With a market expected to reach $35,870 million by 2025 globally from its direct revenue sources, artificial intelligence (AI) is not just the subject of science fiction books but a very real possibility for everyday life.

In the ASEAN region, AI adoption rates are currently on the rise and growth has almost doubled in comparison to last year, according to a study carried out by IDC.

Top AI uses in Southeast Asia include algorithmic market forecasting and automated asset and infrastructure management.

Indonesia and Thailand are the undisputed regional leaders at the time of adopting AI. The bronze medal goes to Singapore, which lately has been taking serious steps to position itself at the forefront of the AI market.

By embracing the technology the country could start defeating its present economic challenges of slowing growth, falling capital investment, soft workforce growth and decelerated productivity.

AI could also potentially reinvigorate the state-island’s economy and boost its industrial profits. According to a recent report by Accenture, AI could add up to US$215 billion in gross value added across 11 industries by 2035.

There’s no doubt that Singapore’s government is talking business when it comes to AI adoption.

Last year, a national initiative called AI Singapore was set “to catalyse, synergise and boost Singapore’s AI capabilities to power [Singapore’s] future, digital economy.”

The programme is driven by a government-wide partnership involving the National Research Foundation (NRF), the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SMART), the Economic Development Board (EDB), the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), SGInnovate, and Integrated Health Information Systems.

It also brings together Singapore-based research institutions and AI startups and companies.

During its launch, the NRF announced that it will invest up to S$150 million (US$111 million) in the programme over a five-year period.

And although there are still burning ethical issues surrounding the AI project and many more will keep emerging as it develops, Singapore is ready to embrace this priceless opportunity for its population and economy.  

Below is a list of industries which today are profiting from the adoption of AI in Singapore:

Healthcare

Healthcare is a field that is already reaping the benefits of AI use in Singapore. AI tools and assistants are now able to detect skin cancers, analyse chest x-rays or perform diabetes screens from a patient’s retina scan.

AI is also showing its value in healthcare research by helping to filter the vast amount of papers and reports that are being produced every year, helping doctors making the best decision when choosing new treatments.

Dr Joanne Ngeow Yuen Yie, senior consultant at the National Cancer Centre Singapore, thinks that the extensive body of available medical literature is a huge cognitive overload for physicians. “Nearly 60% of doctors are walking out on healthcare because they feel overwhelmed”, she said in a recent seminar titled SGInnovate’s Health Futures: AI & Genomics.

In a pioneering study published in April, scientists at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*STAR) Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) developed a new type of AI known as machine learning computer models to accurately pinpoint roots of gastric cancer.

The AI methods and technology developed through this study will aid researchers in understanding the impact of mutations in non-coding DNA in other types of cancer.  

Steve Leonard, CEO of SGInnovate, a government-owned company which is also participating in AI Singapore and which funds deep tech startups, believes that the Asian country is positioning itself at the avant-garde of a healthcare AI revolution.

Taking the example of a Singapore-based surgeon who was able to reduce his patients’ recovery period by using robotics in his surgery and thus freeing up beds for other patients, Leonard said that the doctor was “able to get patients out the same day, when it used to take four days for them to recover”.

The biggest challenge for Leonard at the time of applying AI to healthcare lies in the mistrust and discomfort of some patients who might think that robots are replacing human doctors. “Social adoption is a bigger challenge than the technology”, he said. However, “it’s not replacing the doctor - it’s giving a tool to them; just like the stethoscope didn’t replace the doctor”.

Transport

New legislation coming into effect during the second half of 2018 and that will affect the use of autonomous vehicles in the island-state has recently attracted world attention and made the country a testing ground for this innovative way of transportation.

In 2015, nuTonomy, a self-driving car company that focuses on developing software for autonomous vehicles and mobile robots, began testing self-driving cars in Singapore. Shortly afterwards they partnered with Grab (the most popular shared-ride service in the country) to make autonomous taxis widely available to the general public. However, until this kind of vehicles can be deemed completely safe, all taxis still have a driver in case of an emergency.

Ng Chee Meng, Singapore’s former second minister for transport, reiterated Singapore’s support to autonomous vehicles during a speech at the Committee of Supply Debate last year. “We are focusing on self-driving technology in a big way because they have the potential to dramatically improve public transport”, he said. “Initiatives are underway to develop self-driving buses and to explore how the technology can be applied for use in freight transport and utility vehicles.”

Taking into account that only 15% of Singaporeans own a car, an expansion of the autonomous cars market would significantly reduce the cost of shared rides and taxis.

Vehicle manufacturers estimate that autonomous vehicle technology will only start to take off between 2025 and 2030, a calculation not shared by nuTonomy, which is looking to launch commercial services in the country this year. Rather than creating cars that are designed to be specifically autonomous, nuTonomy wants to integrate their technology with existing cars and speed up the process of introduction.

Separately, Chinese bike sharing platform Mobike, which has operations in Singapore, uses an AI data monitoring platform to make forecasts of supply and demand for bike rentals to help improve the company’s operational efficiency.

Airport operations are also implementing AI technologies, particularly with the use of facial recognition to get passengers from the terminal to the aircraft in shorter times. Innovative CT X-ray machines, which do not require passengers to remove their laptops from their bags, are also being implemented.

Earlier in the year, the Ministry of Transport said that the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) is launching and Aviation Transformation Programme (ATP) that will promote the use of new technologies, including AI, to improve airport operations.

Financial and business services

The finance and business worlds are also experiencing an increase in AI use in Singapore. In these sectors it’s mainly being applied to enhance customer experience and to drive efficiencies.

Financial services are using facial recognition technology to resolve issues of verification and thus speeding lending processes.

Business services, covering a wide range of activities from real estate to accounting and legal, are expected to benefit the most from AI in the country.

AI-powered tools can help enhance productivity with document mining, pattern recognition for fraud detection, information extraction and analysis, thus transforming and innovating ways to generate insights.

Mimetic.ai, a Singapore-based startup, is behind Evie, an AI scheduling assistant that optimises resources with automation. Apart from scheduling meetings and organising diaries, Evie is able to coordinate calls, follow up with attendees and send out invitations.

AI-enabled legal services could develop an AI engine to automatically review legal contracts and highlight any issues based on a business’s legal policies and in this way ensuring consistency. It could also manage contract approvals and escalation which would get the right tasks to the right people automatically.

Manufacturing

With the world’s leading chemical manufacturing sites, the industry remains an important actor within Singapore’s economy.

Over 100 global petroleum, petrochemical and speciality chemical companies are housed on 12 square miles of land.

Today, Singapore is the world’s fifth largest refinery export hub and amongst the top ten global chemical hubs by export volume.

Therefore, it would make sense that Singapore focuses its AI potential in the manufacturing industry.

AI adoption would not only make manpower more efficient, it will also lead to the realisation of the full potentials of existing machinery on the factory floor.

Accenture's research calculates Singapore's manufacturing projected growth with AI in 2035 to increase by 40%: that is $101.1 billion compared to $71.3 billion without AI.

In late 2015, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) started a Future of Manufacturing (FoM) Initiative in close consultation with the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), the Economic Development Board (EDB) and SPRING Singapore under the government’s Research, Innovation & Enterprise 2020 plan. 

The deliberations involved extensive engagement with industry and the trade associations.

The goal of the initiative is to sustain Singapore’s competitiveness in manufacturing and technology innovation so that it is a location of choice for developing, test-bedding and deploying advanced breaking-ground technologies in the manufacturing sector.

The 3 key thrusts of A*STAR’s FoM Initiative are the public-private partnership platforms of Tech Access, Tech Depot and Model Factories, that aim to drive technology innovation, knowledge transfer and adoption across the manufacturing industry.