BARCELONA, SPAIN - Singapore will continue to work with all players, including Chinese firms, to roll out artificial intelligence (AI) technologies needed for a smart city, even while the United States continues to cut business ties with Chinese AI firms because of their countries' ongoing trade spat.
"That's how we will operate: keep it open," Minister-in-charge of Singapore's Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan told The Straits Times on Tuesday (Nov 19), on the sidelines of the three-day Smart City Expo World Congress 2019 in Barcelona, where he pitched to a global audience Singapore's appeal as a hub for testing and rolling out AI solutions.
"We will insist that all AI in Singapore conform to the highest ethical standards," he said, noting that a black-box concept is a no-no.
"The principles have to be comprehensible. Otherwise you will get a pushback. The outcomes of AI have to be socially and politically acceptable," said Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Global partners are key to Singapore's national AI strategy, first unveiled last Wednesday (Nov 13), he said, bringing foreign investments, skills and knowledge to a small city-state that welcomes new resources.
Last month, the Trump administration added 28 Chinese organisations and companies, including six AI firms, to its "entity list", a blacklist that bans them from trading with the US.
They are China's biggest and most important AI start-ups, including facial recognition technology firms SenseTime and Yitu, and they rely heavily on American suppliers for components such as semiconductors.
While Singapore will not take sides, it is aware that it might have to deal with a situation in which systems developed by US companies may not work with those created by Chinese firms if the trade war leads to separate and incompatible technologies being developed.
A split tech world would have profound implications for the pace of progress, connectivity and even how business is transacted, said Dr Balakrishnan.
Without singling out Huawei, which the US has also banned over espionage concerns, Dr Balakrishnan said: "It is a fallacy to believe that you will achieve security just by excluding any one party."
CIMB Private Banking economist Song Seng Wun agreed: "China firms are among the most advanced in using AI. If we are really serious about our Smart Nation push, then it is inevitable that we work and learn from the best."
But while the uncertainty may be a drag on progress, Singapore believes it has the necessary qualities to be a hub that fosters some AI developments.
"Lots of people can come up with a narrative or branding. But Singapore's unique selling point has always been that we do what we say, and plans are properly formulated and implemented," Dr Balakrishnan said.
Singapore has begun trials of five key national AI projects to enhance border security, urban logistics, healthcare, education and estate management. A total of more than $900 million has been allocated to research and development in fields like AI, robotics and supercomputers through a five-year fund called the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 Plan managed by the National Research Foundation.
The Republic's reputation for efficiency has attracted several firms to set up AI centres here, including Chinese tech giants Alibaba, Huawei, Baidu and Tencent.
Alibaba's AI centre, launched last year jointly with Nanyang Technological University, now has more than 50 researchers from both organisations working in areas such as the diagnosis and prevention of diseases like arthritis and tuberculosis.
Huawei's AI lab, which aims to provide a testbed for AI and 5G applications, including autonomous vehicle navigation, will be officially opened on Friday (Nov 22).
While the US and China continue to sort out their disagreements, the rest of the world can work on establishing multilateral norms, such as agreeing to use AI ethically and responsibly, Dr Balakrishnan added.
Experts said AI use will be responsible and socially accepted if machines do not take over the diagnosis and prescription of treatment for patients, which should always involve a human doctor. Responsible AI use also ensures that the data sets used to train systems, say, to sift out suitable candidates for a job do not discriminate candidates of a particular gender or race.
Should Singapore be concerned that China's style of AI use might not agree with the ethical framework Singapore has put out? Experts said yes.
Maybank Kim Eng economist Chua Hak Bin said the local authorities should ensure that China AI firms modify their programs to accommodate individual country or client needs. "Even so, we should not exclude or discriminate outright against Chinese AI firms because of the fear of their technology," he said.
Mr Alex Capri, a visiting senior fellow at the NUS Business School's department of analytics and operations, warned of risks involving intellectual property thefts and data privacy violations when dealing with China firms. "But firms still gain more from collaboration and open trade than by building walls," he said.
"The China market and its tech firms offer several key opportunities: access to huge amounts of data and massive scale," he added, noting that the use of open-sourced and sandbox technologies will allow for open collaboration without compromising data privacy and protection.
AI showcase in Punggol will feature mini Silicon Valley
Central to Singapore's artificial intelligence (AI) strategy is the 50ha Punggol Digital District, announced in January 2018 by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean.
The district will house a business park being developed by national industrial estate developer JTC to create a mini Silicon Valley, where cyber security and technology firms are located.
The Singapore Institute of Technology's new campus will be in the district by 2023, and will be among the first buildings to be ready there, contributing to some 28,000 digital economy jobs expected to be generated there.
Locating students, faculty and industry professionals together allows greater collaboration. For instance, new ideas conceived in Singapore Institute of Technology could be test-bedded in the companies there, enabling products to come onto the market faster.
Government agencies, such as the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore, currently in Maxwell Road, will also move there.
JTC is working with GovTech, the agency behind tech transformation in the public sector in Singapore, to build a 3D map of the entire estate for predictive maintenance and to explore the use of robots controlled remotely to manage emergencies such as putting out small fires.