Called the worst pandemic for a century, Covid-19 has also forced an unprecedented wave of digital adoption with technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) set to transform societies, according to industry commenters at conferences such as the World AI Conference (WAIC).
Co-organised from 2018 by several government ministries of China and the Shanghai Municipal Government, WAIC has become a focal point for tech startups, scaleup companies, and AI industry players as well as scientists, entrepreneurs, and government officials, and regularly features examples of notable AI-driven initiatives.
Recently, an inaugural Southeast Asia edition of WAIC co-hosted by AI ecosystem pioneer Skymind highlighted the Malaysian state of Johor’s bid to push AI initiatives to drive economic and social benefits.
In his keynote presentation, Johor chief minister Dato’ Ir Hj Hasni Mohammad outlined some of the steps to use AI to fast track 4IR (4th Industrial Revolution) advances. These include KIDEX (Kulai Iskandar Data Exchange) at Sedenak. Expected to be ready by 2023, the 700-acre project and is one of the main components of Malaysia’s data hubs, and is attracting local and overseas investment interest, he said.
Malaysia as next AI frontier
“US$4.2B worth of investment is expected during the next five years,” he said. “Johor will further strengthen its AI, cloud computing, big data analytics, IoT (the internet of things), and blockchain capabilities.”
Digital adoption across key sectors will follow as well as a special digital economic zone built up from a private-public collaborative model. He said that Johor was well-positioned for further growth with US$11.96B worth of eCommerce transactions in 2018 and 3.9% annual growth.
Reflecting broad concerns about addressing the global shortfalls for digital talent, he added: “We will also ensure robust talent development as part of our moves to become an innovation hub to boost industries with technologies.”
Speaking on AI-driven innovation, Dzuleira Abu Bakar, CEO of Technology Park Malaysia commented that adapting to a new normal included facing a long hard recovery. To move forward, AI forms an important part of powering that recovery.
She cited PwC’s estimate in 2018 that AI advances “will increase global GDP by up to 14% in the period up to 2030, the equivalent of an additional US$15.7 trillion contribution to the world’s economy. Around US$6.6 trillion of that of the expected GDP growth will come from productivity gains that include the continued automation of routine tasks and the development of increasingly sophisticated tools to augment human capabilities.”
“Malaysia is uniquely positioned to capitalise on this as well all know. In fact, our main opportunity lies in leveraging ASEAN as a platform and a foundation for growth,” she added. “Malaysia has access to ASEAN, the world’s fifth-largest economy [as of 2018], a market of 630 million people ad a GDP of around US$3 trillion. The ASEAN market is expected to skyrocket to US%5.2 trillion by 2025.”
Preparing for the New World
Dzuleira then detailed some of the hurdles that Malaysia needed to first address. These include accelerating digital adoption as only 15 to 20% of companies have actually embraced IR4.0.
“A 2019 IDC study revealed that Malaysia’s workforce was unprepared for IR4.0; while we have one of the highest manufacturing output levels in the world, we are actually lagging behind other countries in terms of employee productivity, R&D and a workforce with higher education degrees,” she continued.
Lack of awareness and the impact of IR4.0 and its technologies thus reducing the chances of exploring opportunities and the disruption of business models as well as a shortage of the necessary skills and knowledge that is required to adapt to IR4.0.
Accelerating digital adoption, especially through AI, is becoming increasingly urgent, agreed Sivan Umapathy, Telekom Malaysia Group’s chief information officer.
In his keynote about AI as a game-changer to the new world, he outlined TM’s role as Malaysia’s largest telecom and converged communications services and enabling Digital Malaysia by 2030. Components of this include enabling a digital society, digital business, and digital government.
“We are helping to enable this through three key strategic positions: connectivity excellence, solution excellence, and customer excellence,” Sivan continued.
He explained that connectivity excellence currently includes managing 5G infrastructure in collaboration with Digital National Berhad, which oversees the implementation of the MyDigital, Malaysia’s 10-year big to revitalise its digital economy.
Driven on a platform of collaboration, solution excellence includes partnering with Skymind to accelerate AI adoption in Malaysia, he said.
“The ultimate goal of course is customer excellence,” he stressed. “Telekom Malaysia is one of four chosen cloud service providers to the government [under the MyDigital initiative], driven by our extensive data centre portfolio.”
He further said the end to end hybrid cloud solutions operated with multiple cloud partners by TM ONE offers secure hyper scalability through TM ONE Cloud Alpha.
Umapathy added that the partnership with Skymind would open up more rapid AI adoption to a wide range of customers from SMEs to individual users. “Integrating TM’s Cloud Alpha capabilities and solutions with Skymind’s expertise would, among other advances, anchor the AI capabilities of big data and machine learning [ML] to enhance customer service excellence with better insights. ”
These moves are to engender the wider aims of digital society, digital business and digital government, he concluded.
Skymind has chosen Malaysia as one of its important bases from which to tap and develop AI talent and AI-related ecosystems. Adam Gibson, Skymind Global chief technology officer touched on today’s trends and potential solutions for the future.
Opening with the theme of ‘What does it take for people to actually use AI today?’, he explained that AI models are getting bigger.
AI model is a program that has been trained on a set of data to perform specific tasks such as recognising certain patterns that are getting bigger.
Very powerful processors are now needed for larger AI models involving up to a trillion parameters and are expensive. For example, a billion parameters could involve a cost of US$1.5 billion, Gibson said.
Reproducibility of results from processes run by companies like Google is difficult and constrains the development of AI, he said, adding that we need to move to a cheaper alternative.
Other expensive challenges lie in concept/model drift which may not reflect real-world changes. For example spam filters, fraud and anti-money laundering systems need to be retrained and code updated to mitigate newer threats.
“Potential solutions to these challenges could lie in concepts such as deep learning compilers, which recompiles code to something a computer can understand – zeroes and ones; the equivalent is now being built for deep learning models,” he said.
“Making deep learning run efficiently on any chip would make it easier for us to switch to different providers of hardware and also make it easier for bigger models to run on slower devices,” said Gibson, which would open up AI applications to smaller companies and users.
Finally, open-source tools will make it easier for anyone to set up production stacks, he said. The tools are AI-ready published as open-source by different companies and would open up cutting edge research in the AI field.
Industry icon Datuk Yasmin Mahmood, chairman of Skymind Holdings Berhad then moderated a session then probing socio-economic benefits of AI and the governments’ role in enabling and regulating AI.
Yasmin said: “PwC believes that AI will potentially uplift the GDP of SEA to the tune of US$1 trillion by 2030. But governments on the other hand find themselves having to play both the roles of enabling this innovation as well as playing a regulatory role.”
Aside from the economic and business highlights of this discussion, societal benefits such as heightening public safety and quality of life and, especially critical today, generating new jobs and digitally enhanced industry sectors.
In an effort to push through the challenges referenced in this conference, the Malaysian government announced its new National 4IR policy at the beginning of July 2021. While welcoming the move, early industry reactions included the need to boost skilling and upskilling of talent as a vital component in securing emerging opportunities in the 4IR era.
Hype aside, the bottom line is the landscape for innovation is rapidly evolving: Malaysia needs to prioritise and accelerate plans to spur a rapid recovery, and build a bridge to future growth in the international digital arena.