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Busting AI Myths: Is Singapore Headed in the Smart Direction?

AI is an area that is still severely misunderstood by the public

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BY David Sanderson - 23 Jun 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Singapore has long been known as the Lion City and the Garden City, but with its introduction of new initiatives to boost artificial intelligence (AI) and data science, it’s clear the nation’s next moniker may be the Smart City.

As Singapore’s government turns to AI and data science for answers, the National Research Foundation (NRF), a unit under the Prime Minister's office, will be investing up to $110 million over a period of five years in these sectors. The initiative, coined AI.SG, was announced in early May and is aimed at developing the country’s AI capabilities. It will involve various government agencies, such as the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), Economic Development Board (EDB), and Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS).

Various local research institutions and start-ups in the AI sector will also play a part.

The possibilities vs. perils of AI

AI is an area that is still severely misunderstood by the general public. And as with anything unknown, people fear it and wrongly believe what they see in Hollywood (i.e. robots are about to steal everybody’s jobs and take over the world or kill them aboard a spaceship). Common misconceptions should be addressed.

Here are three myths about AI that should be busted:

1. AI is just like in the movies

In movies, we’ve seen AI go crazy onboard the spaceships Prometheus and Covenant. However, the reality is still nowhere near the capabilities and functions presented on the big screen.

For example, one innately human trait is curiosity, which is also fundamental to learning. While Hollywood depicts AI as sentient beings, the actual level of learning is currently more focused on recognizing complex patterns—in large volumes and at great speeds. However, it is still confined within the limits of programming; while you can program a robot to react to a drop in temperature, you cannot program it to “feel” cold or “wonder” why it is cold. One day, perhaps, but definitely not today.

2. AI cannot solve the big problems

As with any technology, AI was built with the aim to solve problems. Professor Ho Teck Hua, deputy president of research and technology at the National University of Singapore, says, “It [AI.SG] will focus on using AI to solve major problems that affect the society and industry,” such as reducing vehicle travel time by 10%.

On a larger scale, computers like IBM’s ‘Watson’ are able to predict new diseases, and more importantly find possible new treatments, simply by actively searching for and reading text. This supercomputer that’s powered by AI can do the above and look at images to establish patterns and trends with astonishing detail, all in a very short period of time—a feat which no human can do.

3. AI will take your job

There’s no denying it. With AI comes automation, and one of the hardest hit are the assembly lines on factory floors. However, what many are ignoring is the creation of new, more interesting and creative work, as opposed to repetitive tasks or manual work.

There will still be a need for humans to help maintain and fix these automated machines. Within business, we’ve seen AI cut down manual processes in half and free staff to do more creative work like strategizing.

Human resources will be able to see what personality types can match or best fit an organization, cutting rehiring and retraining costs drastically. The possibilities are endless. Among our clients who are within the digital advertising space, we have seen a decrease in up to 50% of time spent on mindless data mining and cleaning work, thanks to automation.

Knowledge is power

While investment into the development of AI and data science is commendable, the first step should be in educating the general public. As the late Roy Amara - researcher, scientist, futurist and president of the Institute for the Future - once said, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

This is particularly important for Singapore, a nation whose population is aging. Not everyone has the same level of adoption and understanding, especially when it comes to new technology. Before Singapore can truly be a Smart City, it will need to take her people into consideration and empower them in stages to get “smart” too.

David Sanderson is CEO of Nugit, a Singapore-based data analytics firm.

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