Singapore is the hub of innovation and technology and it is this South East Asian nation that has led from the front in making Artificial Intelligence (AI) socially relevant for its citizens and the world. Singapore with its emphasis on ‘AI for everyone’ has led by example and shown how AI – a relatively new technological tool in the hands of the masses and classes can be a leveler in society. Through the contours of this article, I will discuss how Singapore has attempted to make AI more socially relevant and socially accessible by integrating AI within different spectrums of the economy.

Singaporeans, for starters have made AI accessible to all by focusing on three key pillars – Research, Innovation and Technology. While the research component of AI is likely to focus on ‘catching the next wave of scientific innovations and breakthroughs, the technological component is likely ‘to have an impact on the economy and society with the promotion of bold ideas’. Similarly, innovation is likely to be the driver of change ‘with local AI talents being given proper training and grooming to support industrial growth’. AI Singapore is taking the lead in this initiative and it is playing a major role in transforming lives in Singapore.

The growth of AI has burgeoned to a great extent in Singapore and Singapore has wisely chosen to focus on specific sectors of AI. It is interesting to see how Singaporeans are trying to make ‘AI a part of their everyday life’. The government intends to conduct workshops that will provide information on machine learning and deep learning. Similarly, the government has pragmatically decided to focus on making knowledge related to AI and data sciences available to the people so that misconception related to data sciences can be fundamentally reduced. Schools, polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education (ITE) are conducting workshops in consortium with AI Singapore (AISG) and AI has been included as a key plank within Singapore’s Research and Innovation Enterprise (RIE) 2020 Plan. This is a fairly good starting point to understand how AI is now an integral part of the Singaporean growth story.

At the same time, let us take a closer look at the healthcare sector in Singapore to comprehend how AI is making a real impact in society. The Chief Executive of SGInnovate, Mr. Steve Leonard has fervently argued that ‘AI could prove to be hugely important for the humanity’ giving us a potential road map to understand how AI can impact human lives. AI under the aegis of SGInnovate is using AI to improve the accuracy of the diagnosis (for eg. AI is being used to predict the possibility of relapse among patients. The ‘stethoscope of the future’ is being developed through the use of AI so that doctors are able to see inside the patient. AI in medical research is also an important pivot in this giant project that involves generating humongous amounts of data. It is the research component of AI within the medical field that is likely to seal the deal for medical practitioners within Singapore. At the same time, companies like KroniKare have used AI technology to provide automatic assessment of chronic wounds in diabetic and elderly patients. Similarly, scientists at A*star’s Genome Institute of Singapore have discovered the use of AI to help pinpoint roots of gastric cancer. The list is endless and AI related innovation is underway in some corner of Singapore as I write.

It is quite easy to appreciate the impact of AI and eulogise this technological innovation time and again without any constraint but any discussion of AI is incomplete without taking into consideration the anxiety that AI has generated among the masses. While the reliance on ethical practices in Singapore has further strengthened the social outreach of AI within the country, the emphasis on ‘consumer acceptance’ has substantially reduced significant concerns within the intelligentsia in the country that AI could be a tool in the hands of the elite that can be used to suppress the mass population. AI Ethics Council serves as an interface between the government and the people with members coming from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. This council is likely to play an advisory role in decision making related to AI while ensuring that AI driven technology does not come to benefit a miniscule section of the society. The AI Apprentice Programme and the 100 Experiments (100 E) programme is also likely to play a similar role in making AI accessible to the common man. Interestingly, these initiatives are being supported by well known companies like Data Camp, Intel, Microsoft, ThoughtWorks, Intel and IBM thus allowing the average reader like us to understand that AI is bridging the gap in society in a major way- since AI is bringing big market players in close contact with average citizens on an almost daily basis in the country.

But have these measures really reduced lurking fears among the people substantially ? This is a question that has still not been answered and visible lacunae remain. AI’s all pervasive reach is alarming and has driven people away from AI. This is a potentially alarming development because AI appeared to be a harbinger of hope at the beginning but now AI appears to be a double edged sword. The fear that machines may replace humans has not dissipated and AI’s penetration into every possible sector of the economy has further escalated fears associated with AI across the board. The boundaries are getting blurred every single day as AI continues to enter potentially complicated terrains. Introduction of applications like Viola.AI which give tips and suggestions related to dating judging the level of compatibility between a couple could be potentially psychologically damaging in the future. Similarly, Replika uses AI to create a chatbot in a person’s likeness! The larger ramifications of the penetration of AI into mankind’s personal sphere are unknown and it is possible that AI may be used to answer these questions!

In the end, to conclude, we can say that AI is a form of technology that is likely to stay in Singapore. It is socially relevant and Singaporeans are aware of this fact. However, the positive and negative attributes of AI need to be taken into consideration before the final verdict on AI is given to the audience. Only time will be the best judge in this case.

This piece is written by Anuttama Banerji. Anuttama is Associate Researcher at Govern.

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