Singapore ramps up AI drive with inter-agency unit

Singapore government announces plan to establish an "inter-agency taskforce" to asses how the country should develop artificial intelligence (AI) as a strategic capability and be a global testbed for the deployment of AI applications.

Singapore is ramping up efforts to build up its skillsets in artificial intelligence (AI) and become a global hub where such applications can be tested and deployed. To help the country get there, a new unit comprising various government agencies will be set up this year to review how Singapore should develop AI as a strategic capability. 

In the coming years, with the data generated from Singapore's expanding digital infrastructure, services would become more personalised and tailored to individual's needs as well as be more responsive. Citizens, too, increasingly would expect their government to be able to respond in a similar way, said Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's Minister-in-charge of Smart Nation Initiative, who was speaking in parliament on Thursday at the Committee of Supply 2019 Debate. 

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One way to do this was to make better use of AI, which Balakrishnan said could improve lives and economies. He noted that AI, in particular deep machine learning, had revolutionised the industry in recent years. AI, in fact, already had made an impact in daily life, he said, pointing to voice recognition, GPS automation, and credit card fraud alerts. 

"AI, data analytics, robotics, and automation are crucial ingredients for us to restructure our economy," the minister said. "We need to achieve a quantum leap in productivity by creating new engines of growth. The government needs to upgrade its technology stack so it can be more responsive to citizens' needs and demands in an increasingly competitive marketplace."

He said Singapore had been building a foundation for AI, such as the National Research Foundation's setting up of AI Singapore to bring together relevant research institutions and AI startups and GovTech's plans to set up a Centre of Excellence in AI and data science to help other agencies deploy AI technologies. 

In January, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran also released a Model AI Governance Framework that outlined key ethical principles and practices in AI deployment, including in customer relationship management and risk management in autonomous decision-making. The document offered guidelines to help organisations ensure decisions made or supported by AI were "explainable, transparent, and fair to consumers" and that AI applications were "human-centric". 

Singapore now needed to "double down" on these efforts, Balakrishnan said, pointing to the government's plans to establish an inter-agency taskforce this year. "[The new taskforce will] study how Singapore can develop AI as a strategic capability and become a trusted global hub for test-bedding, deploying, and scaling AI solutions, especially in a highly urbanised city like Singapore," he said. "For citizens, this means new and better services, whether from govt or private sector."

He noted that AI could be tapped, for instance, to optimise traffic lights network and predictively maintain public infrastructure and identify potential problems before things broke down. He said AI applications could be deployed in finance, logistics, and cybersecurity, and added that there already were local companies developing products in these areas and other domains. 

"We hope to co-create with these companies in the development of new AI solutions," he said. "To scale up AI development, we're looking to democratise access to data and AI tools, so everyone can learn and experiment with AI solutions. We want to support SMEs (small and midsize enterprises) to adopt AI and work with the government on relevant use cases."

Through a recently introduced programme 100 Experiments, Balakrishnan said the government was aiming to help organisations solve their business problems with AI and build their own AI team. 

The scheme also offers funding for applicants as well as AI apprentices, who will co-train the companies with industry and domain experts. 

The Singapore government would look to build up local AI know-how and equip the nation so everyone could benefit from AI, the minister said. This meant computational thinking and data literacy would need to be taught in schools, and adults could be trained in data science and AI skills.

Balakrishnan said: "Think of AI in the future the same way you think of word processing today. It's a general purpose technology and we want our workforce to be able to use AI tools and participate meaningfully in a future AI-driven economy."

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