ARTIFICIAL intelligence (AI) is a powerful workforce multiplier that is changing the business landscape. From virtual medical assistance to data analytics, AI enhances productivity and frees up time for tasks that require human insight, by augmenting and automating routine activities.
The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the impetus to innovate and digitalise. This is a crucial factor in the proliferation of AI adoption by companies, as they accommodate remote work arrangements and revamp processes. Technology has become a cornerstone in the new normal.
The EDBI-Kearney AI Whitepaper on the state of AI in South-east Asia was jointly conducted with Kearney, and has afforded insights into how AI can be the growth engine of the region's future. South-east Asia anticipates tremendous development by 2030, with AI projected to deliver a US$1 trillion uplift to the region's gross domestic product. Within each country, the extent of AI's impact will hinge on their adoption rate of AI applications, and stage of development such as the presence of national AI strategies and digital economy foundations involving the support of the governments, investors and companies.
What kind of AI startups does EDBI look out for?
Promising AI startups with the potential to become category leaders would be interesting as they accelerate AI adoption, deepen capabilities and help strengthen Singapore's industry ecosystems. The fundamental qualities would include the following, with examples of our portfolio companies which are operating out of Singapore.
- Businesses with a deep technical bench that applies its AI technologies to persistent pain points in a broad, rather than niche, domain.
These are businesses that have successfully leveraged AI to make significant progress in their domains, thereby potentially transforming industries. For illustration, homegrown Us2.ai (formerly known as eko.ai) uses machine learning to automate the slow, manual and error-prone process of measuring and interpreting ultrasound images of the heart, augmenting processes in early detection and treatment of heart disease.
One of our local startups, Transcelestial, has developed an AI pattern recognition solution which scales up the deployment of Internet connectivity to establish a line-of-sight connection in seconds, shortening the time required to achieve alignment. Its use of AI would be very useful for scaling up deployment for Internet connectivity in remote areas of South-east Asia countries.
Local transport solutions firm SWAT Mobility's machine learning and AI vehicle-routing solution is helping regional companies better plan efficient transportation routes for both riders and factory bus operators, optimising travelling time while reducing the number of vehicles needed on the roads.
Another bright example is nuTonomy - their driverless AI technology drew worldwide attention onto Singapore with the launch of the world's first driverless taxi trial on public roads in 2016. This has further anchored the likes of Delphi, Aptiv and Hyundai in Singapore which has enhanced deep-tech capabilities and created hundreds of jobs for Singaporeans.
- Startups that are able to rapidly productise at scale, with a base model that is versatile and can be adapted for a wide customer base.
A good example is Singapore company Biofourmis which has gone global, using AI to monitor patients' condition post-discharge for wide-ranging medical conditions. Its solution was recently deployed in Singapore and Hong Kong to aid the fight against pandemic through remote monitoring of Covid-19-positive patients to enable early intervention by care teams.
Appier's proprietary AI platform helps enterprises spanning a wide range of customer segments including e-commerce, financial services, automotive and retail to improve online and mobile engagement with their customers.
American firm Seismic has an AI-backed engine that enhances the productivity of sales and marketing teams through the automated generation of tailored and personalised materials across multiple industries, enabling more effective engagement with prospective customers.
- Startups that automate the entire AI and data modelling life cycle from data preparation to deployment, monitoring and maintenance, are also of interest.
By automating this process, startups can deploy AI technologies effectively for organisation-wide and real-world use cases, while improving accuracy of AI models through data collection and analytics.
US-based DataRobot, with its regional headquarters in Singapore, offers a platform that helps businesses build, deploy and manage machine learning models for wide-ranging use cases with open-sourced algorithms that continuously learn based on data collected. In addition, Vesta, a US-based fraud detection platform company, leverages a rich trove of data to iteratively train its decision models to help online merchants, major telcos, payment processors and acquirers protect against fraud and optimise revenue.
How can Singapore reap the benefits of AI?
Singapore has been quick off the blocks in the race towards being an AI powerhouse by 2030, demonstrating a strong commitment to transform the economy. The National Artificial Intelligence Strategy in 2019 identified key areas for AI development, while the Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2020 plan committed over S$500 million to fund AI activities. Political will has also been instrumental, and is further propelled by both private sector investments and the flourishing startup ecosystem.
Both a national AI strategy and active financial investment are critical in reaping the economic and social benefits of AI. However, these alone are insufficient. Stronger collaboration between public and private sectors will enable AI to reach its fullest potential. Governments, investors, corporates and research and development institutions can foster this connection by integrating promising AI-driven solution providers with local industries. By focusing on actual use cases, this relationship will sharpen the technological tools and ultimately deliver positive and sustainable business impact that translates into economic gains.
As an example, US-Israeli tech firm WalkMe uses its AI-powered platform to help companies across industries better adopt digital solutions using a transparent overlay that helps users to complete tasks easily with any digital software, mobile app or website. With EDBI's support, the company is partnering a local government entity to assist with digital transformation across 100,000 employees in the public sector.
We also believe that the community of regional investors can do more to help catalyse AI development and adoption by actively leveraging their expertise and network to help AI startups grow within their respective ecosystems and even expand to other international hubs, creating a financial and developmental win-win for all parties involved.
At EDBI, we help advance our portfolio companies' vision and catalyse their expansion both within South-east Asia and globally from Singapore, by bringing valuable insight and connections as a catalyst for growth including market, technology and ecosystem access, talent support, chief executive officer mentorship and strategic financing.
Training and building capabilities are key to addressing the challenges of AI adoption
Thus far, Singapore has been preparing its workforce to take on jobs of the future, and AI is one of the focus areas. Various training programmes and incentives are offered to individuals and businesses to upskill and reskill themselves digitally, such as TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) and Professional Conversion Programmes (PCP). Most recently, IBM Singapore announced it will be training about 800 mid-career professionals in AI and cybersecurity over the next year.
Even amid the pandemic, several capability-building programmes were launched to build AI capabilities for Singapore enterprises to capture the immense growth potential of AI for the long term. AI Singapore is providing co-funding for companies to embark on creating AI solutions and the Monetary Authority of Singapore is strengthening the adoption of AI within the financial industry through grants and co-funding schemes for companies to adopt AI to enhance their operations.
These various training and capability-building initiatives contribute to helping businesses better develop and deploy AI applications and at the same time, build a strong Singaporean core of tech talent that translates into exciting job opportunities.
As we approach 2030, the impact of AI will be most effectively achieved through consistent emphasis on advancing solutions with a positive and sustained business impact, through the concerted collaborative efforts of governments, investors, AI providers and users. EDBI is confident in the transformative potential of AI on the economy and in improving lives as we build momentum to support promising startups in developing and deploying AI-driven solutions in Singapore.
The writer is chief executive officer and president of EDBI.