AI in 2019: Here’s what tech giants are betting big on
From fighting dengue and diagnosing diabetic retinopathy to creating an “artificial companion” for Singapore’s elderly, tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Alibaba share their expectations of AI for the coming year.
SINGAPORE: Expect to see more, not less, of artificial intelligence (AI) in the coming year. And not just as a digital assistant in the form of Siri or Alexa for your mobile devices either.
At least, that is what tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, Alibaba and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) are predicting as the New Year beckons.
From fighting dengue and breaking language barriers to creating an “artificial companion” for Singapore’s elderly, Channel NewsAsia finds out what these companies are brewing in their labs.
HOW WILL AI BE DEVELOPED IN THE COMING YEAR?
One of the themes that kept cropping up was the efforts being made by these big tech companies to “democratise” AI.
Ms Irina Kofman, chief operating officer at Google AI, said in an email that AI has “the potential to not just make it easier to solve a wide range of old problems but it can also help us make new scientific discoveries and address new problems we haven’t been able to tackle before”.
Google has seen the first-hand benefits AI can bring to people’s lives, and is working to make this available for all, she added.
“We’re doing that in three ways: We’re making our apps and services more useful with AI, and we’re also helping businesses and developers innovate with tools like our open-source machine learning framework TensorFlow, and working with researchers to solve tough social challenges like healthcare, environmental conservation, or energy consumption with AI,” Ms Kofman said.
On the last point, the Google executive shared that many of the problems AI can help tackle are far-reaching. She pointed out that about 250 million people around the world are affected by floods, and while forecasting of the natural disaster can help people and authorities better prepare for such events, accurate forecasting is not available.
To tackle this, the US tech giant is working on better forecasting models and is partnering India’s Central Water Commission to roll out early flood warnings starting with the Patna region before expanding to more countries in the future, she said.
Microsoft, too, is banging the drum about making AI accessible to all.
Its Singapore Chief Technology Officer Richard Koh shared that it is adding an AI layer across its offerings to make them more productive for users. An example of this is the inclusion of its AI-powered engine that translates between Chinese, German and English into its Microsoft Translator app for the masses.
“These (services) will help break down communication barriers and enable more digitisation of meetings across markets,” Mr Koh said.
And there is first-mover advantage to be had for those who learn to use AI effectively.
Salesforce Asia-Pacific’s vice president of solutions engineering Rob Newell said the value proposition for AI is about making things simpler and augmenting people’s skills and domain knowledge with precision guidance so they can be more productive.
“In 2019, we expect that decision-makers in enterprises who most effectively advance their understanding and put together the right pieces associated with AI that will establish the competitive advantage to win more business and drive growth,” Mr Newell said.
But one industry insider believes these benefits can be reaped only if the data being used to develop AI are fit for purpose.
HPE vice president and CTO of AI Goh Eng Lim, who became the first Singaporean to be appointed to the National Research Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board, shared how the leaders in AI development will be those who have invested in maintaining a rich store of well-curated data to train machines for the work mentioned previously.
“As methods of machine learning have become increasingly democratised, it is the training data itself that will be the differentiated asset for competitive advantage,” Dr Goh explained.
AI IN SINGAPORE: HOW IS THE SMART NATION REAPING BENEFITS?
Chinese tech behemoth Alibaba acknowledged that Singapore is benefiting from AI by recognising its merits and laying the foundation ahead of time.
This, said Dr Rong Jin, head of Machine Intelligence Technologies at Alibaba’s Damo Academy, is why the company chose to set up its first joint research lab outside China with Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The multimillion-dollar investment was first announced in February this year.
“We are already witnessing the fruits of this collaboration via an artificial companion for the elderly currently under development, to tackle the urgent issues from (Singapore’s) aging society,” the executive said in an email.
Meanwhile, Google’s Kofman pointed to another of Alphabet’s subsidiaries Verily, which is working with the National Environment Agency (NEA) to separate male and female mosquitoes using its computer vision algorithm and AI through Project Wolbachia. This is to suppress the Aedes aegypti mosquito population, in the announcement made in September this year.
That same month, the Google Accessibility team led a programme with more than 30 staff members from the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC) to learn and identify areas where the company can educate caregivers of existing accessibility features that are often powered by AI, she pointed out.
One example of this is Lookout, an app to help those blind or visually handicapped learn about the environment around them.
“With AI technology, we’re bridging the virtual world with the physical world making the day to day tasks and interactions a little easier,” Ms Kofman said.
In the business space, Microsoft’s Koh said it sees AI being explored by organisations in the manufacturing and financial services sectors that are in the midst of digital transformation.
Manufacturing, for one, is using AI to move the industry from mere predictive maintenance to a “new level of predictive intelligence” and renowned engineering companies like Rolls Royce and thyssenkrupp are some of its clients using AI for such transitions, Mr Koh pointed out.
Such pre-emptive capabilities were also picked up on by Salesforce’s Newell, who said applications like combining AI with sensor data to know which robotic arm, for example, is about to fail and should be replaced ahead of time can be used in the country’s manufacturing sector.
WHAT'S AN AREA OF AI THAT WILL SURPRISE PEOPLE IN 2019?
Google’s Kofman believes that while AI has shown how it can benefit society in different fields, the technology is still in its early days. Healthcare, though, will be one area that will likely see breakthroughs in given that more researchers, doctors and organisations are looking at it to solve problems.
She pointed out that AI can solve two pain points in this sector: Helping doctors cope with the “explosion” of data they have to sift through today, as well as manage the shortage of doctors globally.
One example is a team of Google researchers working with doctors in Thailand and India to help diagnose diabetic retinopathy - the fastest-growing cause of preventable blindness - by developing a machine learning system to detect tiny lesions on images of patients’ eyes. They are now working with doctors to turn this into an actual hospital tool.
“We’re hoping that this will help doctors diagnose people early in places where there aren’t enough specialists such as India, where there is a shortage of 127,000 eye doctors,” the Google AI executive shared.
Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Koh pointed to its five-year AI for Good programme to shed light on the diverse projects it is involved in.
Project Premonition, for one, is turning insects into devices that passively collect data from animals in the wild. Each insect bite may collect a few micro-litres of blood that contains the bitten animal’s genetic information as well as any pathogens in its system.
“This data provides researchers with insights into how to act in protection of these species, whether by counteracting disease or mitigating the effects of climate change, to ensure their survival,” Mr Koh explained.