BARCELONA: Singapore hopes to be a “living laboratory” for developing artificial intelligence (AI) solutions globally - an ambition that plays to its strengths, according to Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative Vivian Balakrishnan.
Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Foreign Affairs Minister, was speaking at the opening session of the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona on Tuesday (Nov 19), where he made a pitch for Singapore's attractiveness as an AI hub.
For example, testing solutions in Singapore would be facilitated by agile regulations, as the country has just “a single layer of government”.
“We understand science, technology, engineering. We get it and we're able to make decisions quickly, pivot instantly and seek opportunities that new technology will provide,” said Dr Balakrishnan.
He added that the digitally literate population and “excellent first-world” digital infrastructure are key advantages.
His pitch comes on the back of Singapore’s new National AI Strategy, which seeks to intensify AI development and deployment across the country.
PROGRESS ON SMART NATION FASTER THAN EXPECTED
The plan is the next step of the country’s Smart Nation initiative, which kicked off five years ago in a bid to harness the benefits of digital technology.
Speaking to CNA on the sidelines of the event, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore has made good progress on these initiatives - in fact, “faster than what (he) anticipated”.
However, efforts have to keep surging forward, as challenges lie ahead, especially when it comes to achieving the country’s bold AI ambitions.
The biggest hurdle is a shortage of manpower with relevant and updated skills.
“This gap is something which we need to fill urgently,” said Dr Balakrishnan.
“Of course, we will also be part of a global network and we work with overseas partners but that is no replacement for having a hard core nucleus of Singaporeans on top of the game.”
Another part of the equation that is still missing is “smart money” - or investors with deep expertise, he said.
Dr Balakrishnan called for more venture capitalists, angel investors, and mentors “who have not just money, but networks and insights and perspective to share”.
IMPORTANCE OF TAKING A HUMAN-CENTRIC APPROACH
Dr Balakrishnan also emphasised the importance of taking a human-centric approach, to ensure that new technology has a positive impact on people.
He said: “The first paramount concern always has to be jobs, meaning what are the new jobs that I've created? … What skills, what education, what exposure will our own local Singaporeans need?”
With privacy and safety at the forefront of discussions on AI, he also assured that Singapore is committed to ethics.
This focus should not be seen as a “roadblock to development” but rather a “competitive advantage”, as good governance builds trust, he said.
“You think about a car - if you didn't have brakes, you can't drive a very fast car.”
REMAINING OPEN IS KEY
When asked how US-China trade tensions would affect Singapore’s digital development goals, Dr Balakrishnan reiterated that Singapore’s attitude is to remain “open and inclusive and fair”.
He added that there’s no telling “how things will pan out“.
“In the meantime, there’s a need for small and medium-sized countries not to stay still and wait for this contest to be resolved, but to move forward,” he said.