With the US and China dominating artificial intelligence development, what chances do smaller nations have?
Over the past two years, a national artificial intelligence (AI) strategy has come to be seen as a pre-requisite for digital competitiveness and an essential pillar of national governance for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. So, Singapore unveiling a new, updated national AI strategy last week has received global attention.
In common with the UAE, Singapore was one of the first countries to announce a national AI strategy, back in 2017. The new one, unveiled by the Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on the last day of Singapore’s FinTech Festival last week, is holistic and zeros in on some specific national goals. Importantly, it also leverages investments already made by the government in education, technology development, infrastructure and innovation.
Developed by the Smart Nation Digital Government Office (SNDGO), the AI strategy not only identifies key areas that can be enabled by AI and the necessary resources to support nation-wide AI adoption, but also aims to set out Singapore’s stall as a leading global hub for the development, testing and export of AI applications. Recently ranked by the think tank Oliver Wyman Forum as the city most ready for AI, Singapore’s play for a greater role in the development of commercial and government AI systems has many things going for it.
Against the backdrop of the China-US trade war, Singapore is geographically and politically well placed to encourage both Chinese and American investment in AI ventures, at a time when cross-border foreign direct investment and venture capital between the two AI powerhouses is at its lowest level since 2014. Meanwhile, the combination of the country’s willingness to implement AI and the small size of the nation itself, make it an ideal testbed for AI developers to try-out their solutions before exporting them to larger countries, where implementation may face more obstacles and have higher costs.
Singapore’s strategy identifies key enablers for AI innovation and adoption, including the development of talent, data infrastructure and creating a progressive and trusted environment for AI. However, crucially, it also picks five core development projects designed to bring early benefits, plus create opportunities for local innovation and investment. By choosing AI-enabled projects that both address national challenges and deliver a visible impact on society and the economy, Singapore is also preparing the proof of concept for its goal of becoming a global hub for the development of AI technologies.
It’s no coincidence that the UAE, Finland and Singapore all first committed to national AI strategies in 2017, alongside large nations such as Canada and China, but well ahead of most of the world. All three countries have populations under 10 million, have relatively large economies and have been able to stay ahead of the technology curve.
The forward-looking policy and smaller size of these countries has helped to make embracing new technologies faster and more achievable than for many larger countries with bigger budgets, often allowing them to leapfrog global competitors.
Finland, Singapore and the UAE were all early pioneers of e-government, helping to develop new digital government processes. They were all also early adopters of new mobile standards and consumer services including mobile broadband.
So, it makes perfect sense that smaller digital-savvy countries should be able to take leadership positions in the fast-developing world of AI.
It is now well-known that the UAE was the first country in the world to bring AI decision-making into government at a cabinet level, naming His Excellency Omar Sultan Al Olama Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence in October 2017. In April of this year, the cabinet approved the UAE’s AI Strategy 2031.
The UAE has also made strategic investments in a number of new ventures to ensure that the UAE becomes not only an early adopter, but also a leading producer of AI applications. Last week Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), one of the world’s largest oil production companies, announced a joint venture with UAE AI group G42 to create artificially intelligent applications for the energy sector.
Other high profile AI investments in the UAE include a world-class AI research institute in its capital, the world’s first dedicated artificial intelligence university and Chinese AI provider SenseTime’s plans to open a Europe, Middle East and Africa research and development centre in Abu Dhabi.
Singapore’s new national AI strategy makes a convincing case for prioritising the development of a homegrown AI industry, in line with the country’s core strengths and challenges. The UAE has its own set of strengths and challenges, and these too, provide a golden opportunity for it to become one of the world’s leading AI producers.
Thousands of retail stores in hundreds of cities across China are already using facial recognition technology to accept payments from their customers. Shoppers find it fast and convenient, in particular when self-checkout systems allow consumers to skip store checkout queues. In fact, it is becoming the new standard for in-store electronic payments, with Chinese shoppers even using face scan payments for buying everyday grocery items such as a loaf of bread.
But, thousands of kilometres away in the British Isles, public distrust in facial recognition technology seems to be intensifying.