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Ethics & Infrastructure

South East Asia’s Strategy for Sustainable AI Growth


National AI strategies have been announced across Southeast Asia to build the foundations of AI-driven industries. In a Forbes article from 2020 Mohan Jayarman, managing director at Experian Asia Pacific, highlighted the fact that national policies in South East Asia range from cultivation of human talent in AI, to the development of AI-driven industries to unlock new economic benefits. Parallel to the announcement of multiple AI national policies, Mohan further examines the growing concerns over data privacy and AI fairness for populations across the world, particularly how negative experiences left lasting impressions among users and triggered strong objections to the technology. All which could negatively impact the speed of AI adoption.


While development of ethical AI has grown to become a topic of high interest for countries with more established AI capabilities, for example the USA and China, in official Southeast Asian strategies and local media there seems to be little mainstream discussion on how to define and implement the ethical use of AI technology. A quick survey of recent Southeast Asian AI strategy policies shows that among Asian nations, Singapore’ stands alone with their explicit emphasis on the importance of ethical AI, including accountability and fairness. Although not entirely surprising, this lack of ethics could be of concern since Asian countries have a lot at stake. For South East Asian countries it may be tempting to only pursue the economic benefits but this could backfire.


A lack of ethical AI policies could lead to new forms of digital inequality, especially as developments in industrial automation take over existing work procedures. Industrial automation will split the labor force across those with the skills to work with AI and those without, those without the skills will be unable to participate in a new AI economy. Labor replacement could occur in highly-educated service professions as well: image and text analysis and natural language processing will impact white collar work such as lawyers and doctors. Combine this with the much publicized automation of more manual blue-collar work and Southeast Asia as a whole will be facing some serious ethical issues on how to balance workforce participation with AI development.


AI development does not occur in a vacuum, it is highly dependent on a whole ecosystem of digital technology infrastructure, including but not limited to internet access, data collection, data storage, and cloud computing. Without sufficient infrastructure capabilities, it will be difficult to sustain or expand any benefits from AI technology. Southeast Asian economies may end up dependent on foreign entities to provide crucial digital technology infrastructure unless there is parallel investment in developing much-needed digital infrastructure alongside AI technology.


The development of ethics as a service (EaaS) for AI could help close the gap that exists within AI national policy and the implementation of ethical AI. Olivia Gambelin, Founder of Ethical Intelligence explains that “Ethics-as-a-Service is not only a risk mitigator, but it is also a tool for innovation that brings human-centric design to life which could be incredibly impactful on the national level, especially in South East Asia”. Without proper ethical AI design, AI technologies could easily be met with backlash and fail to live up to their true transformative potential. AI national strategies should actively consider how to build an AI industry where EaaS plays an active role in creating a human-centric AI economy that respects human dignity and human rights. Concurrently, continued investment in digital infrastructure is needed to ensure that South East Asian nations get the sustained benefits of AI technology and not just a short term burst.


Wei-Ann Chang,

Researcher at Aiforgood.asia