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Grab to splurge US$150m on AI to build super app

It's to better target users across disparate consumer, ethnic cultures in South-east Asia

Grab co-founder Tan Hooi Ling at the Sooner Than You Think event in Singapore on Sept 5. Grab is in hot competition with rival Gojek to become South-east Asia's do-it-all super app.


SOUTH-EAST Asian ride-hailing startup Grab Holdings intends to invest US$150 million in artificial intelligence and hiring more engineers over the next year, accelerating an expanding business that now includes food delivery, digital payments and digital content.

Grab, in hot competition with rival Gojek to become South-east Asia's do-it-all super app, outlined for the first time a blueprint for its use and deployment of AI.

It will build on the US$100 million it has previously invested in the technology, said co-founder Tan Hooi Ling, and improve its fraud prevention and natural language processing (NLP) tech.

The company believes AI will help it better targets users across Southeast Asia, a region of disparate consumer and ethnic cultures. It credits localisation for helping grow transactions on GrabFood, its food delivery platform, three-fold in South-east Asia in the first six months.

The startup doubled delivery volumes over the same period. "We want to go from AI-powered to AI everywhere," Ms Tan said in an interview with Bloomberg TV at the Sooner Than You Think tech conference in Singapore.

She sees successful technology companies building "great platforms that are very localised to the problem they're trying to solve", and in Grab's particular sphere, "localised languages in South-east Asia are very underserved".

So Grab is working with Microsoft on delivering better NLP and making the region's leader in ride hailing, food delivery, and digital payments even more tailored and accessible to users in the various markets.

Technology companies like Grab are preparing as blazing-fast fifth-generation networks spread, powering complex AI applications and catalysing the emergence of futuristic technologies like self-driven cars.

But Grab, according to Ms Tan, is focused on its customers and their most immediate needs. "We won't just build AI for the sake of AI," she said.

Grab, which is raising more than US$4.5 billion in its latest funding round from heavy hitters including SoftBank Group's Vision Fund, is hiring thousands of people and setting up research centres from Beijing to Seattle.

Grab currently has 2,000 engineers globally, including 300 people working on AI-related areas, Ms Tan said. At the heart of the company's global effort is an ambition to create an all-in-one "super app" akin to Tencent's WeChat for China.

The company's GrabPay service already allows consumers to pick up the tab for rides and order food, and it is expanding into lending and insurance.

In 2018, it debuted a financial technology platform and launched Grab Ventures to fund promising startups. The company is also said to be considering applying for a digital banking licence if Singapore allows it.

Ms Tan concluded by saying that Grab, which is valued at about US$14 billion according to CB Insights, is "very much on track" to match or even slightly exceed forecasts of US$2 billion in revenue for the year. BLOOMBERG