How Singapore is using artificial intelligence

Although still lagging 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 global market that is expected to reach US$35,870 million by 2025 from its direct revenue sources, artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer just the subject of science fiction books. It’s already here.

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

When it comes to adopting this emerging technology, Indonesia is leading the way, with 24.6% of companies already embracing AI in some capacity. Thailand comes in second and the bronze medal goes to Singapore.

This is somewhat surprising, considering the city state is normally something of a trailblazer in the region when it comes to embracing new technology.

It doesn’t look like this is set to slow down any time soon because, despite currently coming in third, both businesses, startups and the government in Singapore have been taking serious steps to reposition themselves as leaders in the AI market.

Earlier this year, the national initiative AI Singapore (AISG) announced two new initiatives in partnership with the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and the year before that, AI Singapore was set up with express instructions “to catalyse, synergise and boost Singapore’s AI capabilities to power [Singapore’s] future, digital economy.”

The government has also identified AI as one of the four core technologies essential to the country’s push towards being “digitally ready”.

Embracing the technology could also help the country to overcome some of its current economic challenges of slowing growth, falling capital investment, soft workforce growth and decelerated productivity.

Artificial intelligence has the potential to reinvigorate the state-island’s economy and boost its industrial profits as, according to a recent report by Accenture, AI could add up to US$215 billion in gross value across 11 industries by 2035.

Although there are still some ethical question marks hanging over some AI projects, the technology has long-proven its value and Singapore is ready to embrace the opportunity it presents. 

Below is a list of industries which 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.

Evie.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 US$101.1 billion compared to US$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.

Retail

The way people shop has changed dramatically since the advancement of digital technologies, resulting in a growing number of retailers now integrated artificial intelligence capabilities into the retail experience.

In Singapore, a company called Untitled Project have made it their mission to remake retail with AI. The services it offers help retail companies to improve everything from the supply chain, to providing a customised shopping experience, and enabling predictive modelling.

Using a number of sophisticated suggestion tools and self-learning AI algorithms which, once implemented, allows consumers find their way easily and quickly across the store and ultimately improves their overall shopping experience.

In addition to enhancing the way we shop; artificial intelligence has already helped to shape buying trends throughout the city state.

One startup, Crayon Data, is helping to do this through its ‘Maya’ product offering. It uses big data and artificial intelligence to map the personal tastes of customers to create personalised, digital experiences for them every time they connect digitally with the retailer of their choice.

Furthermore, everyone from your big-name high-street stores to the newest boutiques are experimenting with AI-enabled chatbots to help improve and enhance the experience of their customers long after they’ve left the store.

Education

When it comes to the education sector, artificial intelligence impacts in two different ways.

First, its through technology that is being developed to actively help teachers to educate their students. EdTech is still in its infancy but research has shown that the need exists, and VCs and investors have started to take note, with a precited US$250million expected to be spent on the tech in 2020.

In one preschool in Singapore, robots have already been brought in to help teach the children. KIBO has been designed to allow young children to take on the role of an engineer, constructing the robot and then using wooden blocks to programme sequential instructions from the robot to follow.

The robotics kit needed to build KIBO doesn’t come with a computer, electronic screen or any other digital device that could lead to criticism about the damaging nature of pro-longed screen time on such young children.

This is not the first robot to assist pre-school teachers in Singapore, however. Two humanoid robots called Pepper and Nao were sent to two schools in 2016 to take part in a 7-month trial. To date, 160 KIBO robots have been sent to pre-schools throughout the country.

The second way artificial intelligence impacts on the education sector is through the global need for more AI talent.

Artificial intelligence is one of the fastest growing sectors and currently, no country in the world has the necessary number of qualified workers to meet current demands.

Like a number of other countries around the world, Singapore is looking to change this with a number of different education initiatives.

One such programme is being led by AI Singapore (AISG) and aims to target around 12,000 industry professionals and young students in an effort to build up local skillsets in AI.

The programme is designed to outline the practical use cases associated with AI whilst simultaneously helping AI professionals to boost productivity through the use of intelligent tools.

AISG are also hoping to raise the importance of having government backing for initiatives such as AI-enabled, user-friendly public services to allow people to see just how vital this technology will be to the future of the country.