Singapore looks for answers to key challenges in AI, data science

Government unveils a new scheme, investing up to S$150 million over five years, to use artificial intelligence to resolve challenges affecting society and sets up data science consortium to drive the sector.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

The Singapore government is turning to artificial intelligence (AI) and data science for answers, as it introduces new initiatives to boost these sectors and resolve challenges the country faces.

The National Research Foundation (NRF), a unit under the Prime Minister's Office, would be investing up to S$150 million (US$107.43 million) over five years in a new initiative aimed at developing Singapore's AI capabilities. Called AI.SG, the scheme would involve various government agencies including the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), Economic Development Board (EDB), and Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS), as well as gather local research institutions and startups in the AI sector.

Through AI.SG, the government hoped to resolve major challenges affecting society and industry, said Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim during his address Wednesday at Smart Nations Innovations -- Innovfest Unbound 2017 conference. The initiative also would look to drive AI adoption and innovation among businesses, in particular, the finance and healthcare sectors as well as in city management.

IHiS and its partners, for instance, were trialling AI applications that could--in three years' time--enable medical professionals to train in simulated emergency situations and interact with virtual patients in augmented reality-based environments, Yaacob said.

IHiS CEO and Ministry of Health CIO Bruce Liang said in a statement: "Healthcare is currently both a knowledge and human-, touch-intensive industry. Coupled with the progress in the digitisation of Singapore's healthcare over the years, we see significant applicability of AI in the future for safeguarding the health of Singaporeans.

"AI could play a big role in supporting prevention, diagnosis, treatment plans, medication management, precision medicine, and drug creation," Liang said. "Healthcare manpower, augmented with AI tools, could better address increased healthcare demands in the future."

AI.SG also would collaborate with companies to improve productivity and develop new products through AI, with the target to produce 100 AI projects and proofs-of-concept. In addition, it would be working with the new Data Science Consortium to tap data to boost AI tools as well as use AI to automate and develop data insights.

Also unveiled today, the Data Science Consortium would be set up by the NRF alongside the National University Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore Management University (SMU), and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

The group would aim to boost the country's capabilities in data science and analytics and foster research collaboration between institutes of higher learning, research institutes, and market players. Again, the goal here would be to drive the adoption of data science and analytics to resolve real-world challenges, said NRF, adding that the consortium would be looking to train local talent in data science.

The Data Science Consortium also would partner the EDB and IMDA to engage companies, including local enterprises, SMBs (small and midsize businesses) and startups, across six sectors: finance, healthcare, customer and retail, manufacturing, logistics, and transport.

According to NRF, more than 50 percent of Southeast Asian data centres were located in Singapore. It added that the ability to analyse complex data and predict relationships would allow the country to create "data-driven solutions" that could improve Singaporean lives and offer products and services for regional or global markets.

Elaborating on the need to take "calculated risks" in investing in new capabilities, Yaacob noted: "For the digital economy, it is imperative that we make strategic decisions on where and how Singapore will harness frontier technologies to develop capabilities that will power our future economy.

"These technologies have begun to disrupt and more importantly, redefine the ways we live, play, and work. They also bring immense opportunities for growth, if we could harness them and build new capabilities," the minister said.

He added that, beyond manpower, Singapore would continue to enhance various aspects of the local ecosystem to support enterprises' efforts to innovate, including ensuring "a conducive regulatory environment" and that connectivity infrastructures remained robust.

"We know the way ahead would not be easy. Hence, it will be all hands on deck for the government to help businesses succeed in the digital economy," he said, adding that efforts would include encouraging startups to venture into "frontier tech areas".

Too much support won't do local startups any good

Providing too much support, however, would not benefit startups and could, in fact, lead to their downfall.

There always should be some level of discomfort and distress, so startups would be motivated to want to improve things, said Olga Maslikhova, co-founder and managing partner of Phystech Ventures. If things were going well and startups had abundant access to help and funding, there was a tendency for inertia to set in, she told ZDNet on the sidelines of the InnovFest conference.

Pointing to the likes of Facebook and Google, Maslikhova said these companies had emerged in an environment where the government might have offered funding programmes to support technopreneurs, but these were relatively low. Instead, the startup ecosystem thrived on strong entrepreneurial spirit and founders who wanted to solve business problems.

Governments could attempt to build the perfect environment and incubation to support startups, but it would be impossible for them to create the personalities to sustain the ecosystem, she said.

"The Singapore government has done just enough for the industry to [develop], bringing in fundings and introducing good initiatives such as the smart city project," she added. "It's up to the companies to come and get involved in these programmes and deliver the results."

The local business community also should be more open to adopting and testing products from startups, Maslikhova said, noting that most tended to be cautious and preferred to keep a low-risk strategy.

Failure could be beneficial if companies were able to extract valuable insights from it and applied these to improve their operations. No company had succeeded without failing and taking risks, she said.

Maslikhova has more than nine years of experience in early-stage investments and co-founded Phystech Ventures in 2013, which is an early-stage venture capital firm. She manages an IT portfolio focused on Internet of Things (IoT), cybersecurity, and education tech, and shuttles between the company's offices in Singapore and Boston.

The VC firm focused on nurturing potential startups in Central Eastern Europe and North America and helping these companies build their footprint in Southeast Asia. Maslikhova said it chose to do so because it would prove more challenging to identify startups in this region.

She explained that most young businesses here tended to think local, instead of expanding overseas, and added that it was easier to find "unique" technology outside of Asia. It would then bring these technologies into the region and match the startups to customers and partners here, she said.

She noted that while there was a high concentration of startups in the e-commerce, retail, and fintech sectors, startups with strong intellectual property (IP) on platform technologies and IoT paled in comparison.

"We feel we're bringing international companies with unique expertise and engineering here and helping them build their partnerships and customer base as well as hire local business development and sales teams," Maslikhova said.

This, though, could change in the future, she said, noting that Southeast Asia was a big and diversified market and provided a sizeable domestic market for startups in the region. In comparison, demand for technology in markets such as Russia or in Central Eastern Europe was small, driving startups there to look elsewhere for scale, she added.

To provide a more conducive startup environment, she suggested that the Singapore government looked at ways to ease administrative processes for startups including foreign entities to set up and operate in the country.

Echoing calls from other VCs on the need for simpler paperwork and making it easier to hire staff, Maslikhova said most startups did not have the resources and time to fulfil tedious requirements just to set up a local presence. Their founders also typically were engineers or data scientists with little experience or knowledge handling business administrative tasks.

"If you make it more flexible and ease the paperwork, early-stage startups may find it easier to come here, especially considering Singapore is well positioned to be the hub [to support operations] for Southeast Asia," she said.

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