SINGAPORE: The National Research Foundation (NRF) will be investing up to S$150 million into a new national programme aimed at boosting Singapore’s artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities over the next five years.
Called AI.SG, the initiative will see Singapore-based research institutes partner AI start-ups and companies developing AI products to grow knowledge in the space, create tools and develop talent to power the country’s AI efforts. This was announced by Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim at the opening of InnovFest Unbound event on Wednesday (May 3).
"AI.SG will do three key things – first, address major challenges that affect both society and industry. Secondly, invest in deep capabilities to catch the next wave of scientific innovation. And finally, to grow AI innovation and adoption in companies - an initiative most pertinent to our business community," said Dr Yaacob.
"We have identified three focus areas of application for AI.SG: Finance, city management solutions and healthcare."
It will be driven by a Government-wide partnership comprising of the NRF, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO), the Economic Development Board (EDB), the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), SGInnovate as well as the Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS).
A second initiative, also announced by Dr Yaacob on Wednesday, is a new Singapore Data Science Consortium. This group will strengthen collaborative research links between institutes of higher learning, research institutes and the industry in data science research and development to address real-world challenges.
Anchored by the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and the Singapore Management University (SMU), it will also train Singapore's local talent pipeline with deep data science capabilities.
"AI and data science are key frontier technologies that the Singapore Government will harness and build capabilities in. In the longer run, such investments will enhance the economic opportunities for all Singaporeans," said Dr Yaacob.
“TURBOCHARGED ENGINES FOR SMART NATION INITIATIVE”
Funding under the AI.SG initiative will be disbursed based on efforts that address specific problems and problem statements directly - such as devising a platform that reduces commuting time by 10 per cent islandwide through monitoring and altering traffic flow. It is envisioned that such problems could also be tackled not just by a single team of specialists or researchers, but a pool of expertise across various disciplines - thanks to strengthened research links under the Data Science Consortium.
This is different from the typical model of research, where funding is usually obtained through grant calls for work in particular disciplines or broad fields such as machine learning or data science.
It is hoped that these moves would pool resources and expertise across the various sectors, and any advancement in technologies in the fields of either AI or data science could potentially contribute to the other. This could, in turn, speed up the innovation pipeline and keep Singapore competitive in the digital economy.
"In a way the timing cannot be more perfect," said AI.SG executive chairman Professor Ho Teck Hua. "I also see these two initiatives like they're the turbocharged engines for the Smart Nation initiative that we've launched quite some time back. Both will give a lot of energy and new opportunity for us to do some extraordinary good."
Prof Ho added that several national-scale projects will be tackled in the coming year, and these are projects that target and impact a wide swathe of Singapore's population. The projects include a personal digital financial adviser for the country's ageing population and the War on Diabetes - an intelligent platform that would allow patients to monitor and manage their medical conditions from home.
"We're probably going to tackle three to five grand challenges within the next five years, and we hope we'll be successful in two big ones,” said Prof Ho. “It'll be wonderful.
“And when I say success, I really mean that it will affect many, many lives in Singapore. At the same time the outcomes are highly measurable – there's no doubt in the value creation itself."
Prof Ho added that the move will also look at boosting about 100 smaller efforts within the space.
"These are well-defined projects,” he said. “We're hoping we'll actually use this as a way to show (businesses) how to use data in a way to improve operations. Or even help a start-up who does data science do better science."
MINDSET, MANPOWER CHALLENGES AHEAD
However, the professor, who is also deputy president (Research & Technology) at NUS, noted that challenges lay ahead.
"We can figure out the solution for a grand challenge. (But) ultimately, will the solution be embraced by individuals who are affected by the grand challenge," he said.
"For example in healthcare, we can figure out the best personal assistant or software for diabetes patients, (but) would these patients embrace the technologies so that they can improve their own health? That adoption, that ability to embrace the technology, is something that we have to take as a main challenge for us."
CEO of IHiS Bruce Liang - one of AI.SG's collaborators in the domain of healthcare and wellness - said a structural shift in skills is also required as Singapore builds its competencies in the digital economy.
"How do we teach, say a healthcare colleague, to think of how to use algorithms to solve a problem? We're not talking about having him to code, but to think of how to use appropriate algorithms to solve a problem," said Mr Liang.
He added that AI.SG and the Data Science Consortium could highlight the need for this structural shift, and laying out of the scope of what the initiatives could do.
"I don't think this is squarely in the space of technologies, but computational thinking should be the bread-and-butter among the core competencies of most professionals in this country. It’s not just a tech problem, but it's actually a core competencies and cultural problem as well, because those are not the mainstream skills that we've developed from young," said Mr Liang.
"From the education standpoint, from the culture standpoint, all that needs to be dealt with."