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ASEAN's AI OPPORTUNITY


A Practitioners Thoughts on AI and its Implications for the ASEAN Region


Her name was Eliza and she was the reason my interest in AI was piqued when as a teenager. Eliza was an early “chatbot” where I could just type in a line of code from computer magazines or books on the 8-bit computers popular in the late 80’s.


AI has had a habit of coming and going over time, and through my subsequent decade-plus career working with various software vendors in ASEAN I have been constantly, and lately, increasingly, exposed to various facets of AI. Most recently I have been impressed with the advances of AI assisted healthcare delivery and data powered smart cities.


I have seen, first-hand, the power of AI to do good and also some of the risks it engenders. AI is now crucial in, for example, providing diagnoses in the medical imaging field, yet at the same time, AI can reinforce existing biases. Another risk for example is equality of access to credit, especially in the context of sparse datasets which are an issue in an area as diverse, and with potentially significantly under-represented cohorts, such as ASEAN. Ideally, AI should be used for the betterment of humanity, but that will not happen without a conscious effort in this direction from all stakeholders.


In ASEAN obviously the challenges, and the context will be different from North America or Europe. In the ASEAN region, AI can have a major impact in many fields such as agriculture as in flood prevention and crop optimization. AI can have a large impact on urban mobility in the form of traffic optimization. In healthcare some of the applications we are seeing are in reducing disease burden and increasing access to care. In finance we are seeing applications for microlending and in education there is the potential to provide access and personalization. With a lot of computing power now moving to the edge, especially on the mobile phone, there are numerous use cases where AI, especially image recognition functions, has been deployed in a variety of verticals comprising smart city projects.


Despite the myriad of benefits and the beginnings of regional cooperation there currently is no harmonized set of regulations especially in regards to data access, use, and ownership. This fragmentation could hinder the ability of solution providers to scale regionally and achieve profitability. Other challenges are related to the very diverse economic, social and demographic make-up of the region, starting with infrastructure, access to technology, education, and ability to finance and monetize AI-related projects.


Then, there are real and valid concerns about some of the effects AI could have on employment. Both robot processing automation and AI pose global challenges in this regard, and Asia could be especially vulnerable due to the relatively large percentage of the workforce engaged in such jobs. While certain governments like Singapore have engaged in effective retraining and upskilling programs, this is not the situation across the entire region, so more will need to be done. AI should complement and not eliminate the workforce and if there is a perception that AI is not a force for good, it will not achieve buy-in from the populations in the region.


The region’s stakeholders including solution providers, research organizations, governments, and end users must have a robust dialogue to address the problems AI raises in the region. The ASEAN Smart City Network is a good example of such an initiative, and hopefully more progress can be made with regards to regulation and definitions of ethical implementation of AI in the local context.


Written by Julian Petrescu an Expert & Contributor for Aiforgood Asia. Julian has been working in health tech in Asia for the last 10 years, in China and in the ASEAN region.



 

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