As China and the United States compete to lead the race for Artificial Intelligence (AI) superiority, Southeast Asia is developing some of the most cutting-edge designs.
Some of the most innovative uses of AI are found in Indonesia, Thailand Vietnam and Malaysia
“Analysts claim AI will unlock business opportunities and improve efficiency. A recent report by McKinsey, a global consultancy firm, estimated AI adoption in Southeast Asian factories could increase profits by as much as US$311 billion per year. McKinsey noted one-third of the region’s major corporations mentioned terms such as “AI” and “machine learning” in their annual financial reports last year. By contrast, only 6 per cent of them did so in 2011.”
Lingga Madu, age 32, a software engineer, has a vision for his company to make more by charging less. Madu grew up in Jogya, where a daily wage of USD$3 ranked it as one of the poorest cities, and remembers how the latest fashions were out of reach for most people.
In 2014, he started Sale Stock in Jakarta, which ties fashion design and AI to sell fashion clothing at an affordable price.
The AI data mining includes marketing and client behaviour, and analyzes designs that will sell, enabling the production to focus on those designs and savings.
Madu says that those savings enable the company to sell their products at two-thirds of the price. Sale Stock actually has more data miners than fashion designers.
“We are actually an AI company; we just happen to sell clothes,” Madu said.
Chatbots answer questions online. “One human agent can handle one customer at a time, while chatbots [could handle] thousands or even tens of thousands of customers at the same time,” said IrzanRaditya, co-founder of Kata, a Jakarta-based chatbot developer.
Raditya said his clients have saved at least 30 per cent in operation costs by “hiring” chatbots for customer services instead of relying on human agents.
One such client is Telkomsel, Indonesia’s leading telecom network operator, which now uses chatbots to answer 96 per cent of its inquiries.
Most companies are reluctant to talk of layoffs due to robot implementation and AI. They prefer to discuss “job upgrades” and retraining, although the types of upgrades and training is also not discussed.
Bumrungrad International Hospital is the first hospital outside the U.S. to employ IBM Watson in its Oncology department, which uses AI to analyse scores of data and make recommendations for individual patient care based on cancer treatment guidelines.
A company called Sero is using AI to develop a crop intelligence database of diseases. Farmers take photos of sick rice crops and upload them, and Sero uses them to teach computers how to recognize diseases.
It already is capable of identify 20 crop diseases with70-90% accuracy.
Ultimately, it will be able to recognize a disease, and recommend the best, most efficient treatment, sending the recommendation back to the farmer via smartphone app.
This will reduce the farmer’s expenses by saving money on treating crop disease with unnecessary chemicals, and may improve health overall.
AI is about computers, people and money and the best combination of these to enhance a business.
If the computers using AI are doing the job faster, won’t that mean fewer jobs for people?
So far, market observers note that less jobs just doesn’t bear out. Data mining, for example, is a job that humans cannot do efficiently or in the quantity that a computer can do.
In Malaysia, the government just increased a goal of 1,500 data professionals to 16,000 by 2020, due to the high demand for jobs, actually created by AI talent needed.
“The journey just started and it will be very hard [to replace humans with AI],” said Tak Lo, founder of Zeroth, an Asia-focused AI start-up accelerator based in Hong Kong.
Raja HamzahAbidin, a partner of investment firm RHL Ventures in Kuala Lumpur, agreed. He cited the “reluctance of companies embracing change [and] an abundance of cheap labour” as major barriers facing the region in AI adoption.
In places like Singapore, where labour costs are relatively high, one in five manufacturers are already considering deploying robots and AI solutions, according to a 2017 survey.
There are still a lot of questions. Firms note that there are areas where there is a lack of data to assist in machine learning, and AI developers will need to balance collecting data with privacy concerns.
Start-up companies that require funding are not seeing investment in new technology, as firms and individuals question whether the new, novel technology will even work.
Talent shortages still abound, even as more people are moving into technology fields. “I have to fly to Silicon Valley to bring back talent,” said Madu, of Sale Stock.
While luring talent away from the U.S. takes time and effort, Madu said the good news is that “they all know e-commerce is picking up in Southeast Asia and something big is coming”.