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How is AI benefiting industries throughout Southeast Asia?

Although still lagging behind the main global AI hubs, businesses in ASEAN countries have begun experimenting with the possibilities that artificial intelligence can bring the workforce.

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The proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI) applications in recent years and across different industries has greatly disrupted production and labour processes. 

AI has the potential to create large productivity gains, specially in low-skilled sectors, which could improve the work and lives of people in developing regions across Southeast Asia.

Compared to the main AI global hubs - the US and China - ASEAN states still lag markedly behind. However, Singapore has shown strong commitment to the development of the technology and is currently at the forefront of countries in the region in AI implementation.

In November, the city-state launched its National Artificial Intelligence Strategy and committed over S$500 million (c. US$370 million) to fund activities related to AI under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 Plan.

Malaysia and Vietnam are also showing early signs of AI development, although adoption rates remain low. Many of these countries are aware of the potential the technology has to offer but lack the critical infrastructure to properly capitalise on the benefits.

Dr Chris Marshall, associate VP for data, analytics and AI, at IDC, explains that in the region, with the exception of a few digital native enterprises that have embedded analytics and AI into their business models from the start, only a handful have really deployed these technologies at scale throughout the enterprise.

“There are many reasons for this, such as a lack of skilled resources, lack of data, lack of coordination between key stakeholders, lack of imagination as to what the technology can do. But perhaps the most important issue is the need for a long term perspective and commitment to analytics and AI,” he says.

Businesses need to manage expectations at every level to achieve success, he says. They must also show patience, embedding the technology into business processes to achieve real business value.

This is undoubtedly an area where CIOs can offer their expertise and knowledge.

Here, we take a look at the impact artificial intelligence is having across seven industries in ASEAN countries.

Financial services

Achim Granzen, principal analyst at Forrester, says that AI-infused process automation in the financial services industry (FSI) will streamline customer facing processes, reducing cost and providing a better customer experience. This, continues Granzen, is crucial for traditional FSI players to compete with new digital banks who have adopted AI earlier.

Singapore is leading the technological charge in this arena, but the rest of the ASEAN bloc has been slow on the uptake when it comes to some of the more advanced uses for artificial intelligence.

Financial institutions throughout America and China have already started to develop AI that can be applied to functions such as credit scoring and investment predictions.

Some argue that emerging technology on that level is best left to the fintech startups that the region is continuing to attract.

Singapore based startup CashShield, for example, uses real-time high-frequency algorithms with biometric analysis and pattern recognition to help companies manage the risk of fraudulent accounts and payments.

Claiming to be the world’s only fully automated fraud management system, its algorithm trains itself in real time, functioning without the need for any data scientist or fraud analyst.

However, not every country in the bloc is as technological savvy as Singapore, with businesses elsewhere needing to accelerate basic digitisation efforts; streamlining their data collection, management and analytics processes before they can start feeding the information into complex AI algorithms.

Ultimately, most of the AI developments in financial services will emerge from fintech startups. It’s up to the established institutions throughout the region to keep up with these developments or risk losing their business to digital disruption.

Travel

In the view of James Chua, general manager of Singaporean travel agency Global Travel, the role of AI has evolved dramatically within the travel industry over the past decade.

“AI is now used in a myriad of applications to increase efficiencies and save resources – from automated chatbots to product recommendations and cyber defence,” he says. “Cybersecurity, in particular, provides the most promising use case of enterprise AI in the real world.”

A rise in data breaches incidents in the region has evidenced Southeast Asia’s weakness in the areas of cybersecurity and data compliance. Major breaches in Singapore Airlines and Malaysia’s Malindo Air show that the travel industry is particularly vulnerable.

Global Travel has deployed artificial intelligence to protect confidential traveler information, including passport data and travel plans. Using Darktrace’s cyber AI they are now able to identify and stop cyberthreats on a 24/7 basis. The technology is able to neutralise attacks across the enterprise before they can cause damage.

Chua sees the potential of AI in the travel industry so great that he goes as far as to claim that AI “is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but a necessity for the travel industry in fighting back against tomorrow’s adversary.”

Transport

Ride-hailing startup Grab and the National University of Singapore (NUS) launched an AI laboratory in 2018, aiming to develop solutions that can transform urban transport and prepare for “smarter” cities in Southeast Asia.

The ‘Grab-NUS AI Lab’, which has been set up with a joint initial investment of S$6 million (US$4.5 million), is Grab’s first major AI laboratory and NUS’s first AI laboratory with a commercial partner.

Through the use of AI algorithms, Grab is using data from its rides to build richer maps, understand passengers’ preferences, model of traffic conditions, analyse driver behaviour and detect real-time traffic events.

By combining this data with NUS’s AI expertise, the Grab-NUS AI Lab will map out traffic patterns and identify ways to improve mobility and livability in cities across Southeast Asia.

Healthcare

Healthcare in Southeast Asia varies by country but typically combines state-funded care with private, insurance-led options. One of the biggest healthcare insurers in Singapore, NTUC Income, is using IBM Watson to digitally process almost 15,000 monthly claims.

Private medical group Parkway Pantai has been using AI since November 2018 to generate accurate hospital bill estimates. Using AI and machine learning algorithms from Singapore-based startup UCARE.AI, four of its hospitals are now able to generate personalised bill estimates based on parameters such as the patient’s medical condition and medical practices. It also takes into account the patient’s current age, revisit frequency and existing conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes.

The uses of AI have also been embraced by the government in Singapore, with one state agency using the technology to analyse patient data that has been inputted from a number of different healthcare systems. The system should help to improve diagnostic outcomes and generate greater insights into potential treatments.

Healthtech startups are also flourishing in Malaysia, with many of these emerging companies developing AI-based solutions to help improve the access people have to healthcare professionals. Getdoc, Door2Door Doctor, Teleme, HomeGP, Healthmetrics, and BookDoc are all Malaysian healthcare startups that use AI algorithms to help predict your medical needs, customise your healthcare plan and increase your access to medical advice.

However, similar to the financial services industry, the majority of healthcare institutions throughout Southeast Asia still rely heavily on legacy systems and are often unable to cope with the data demands needed to successfully implement AI technologies.

Education

AI chatbots and classroom assistants are proving useful in the education sector, removing some of the pressure from teachers and allowing them to focus more on the job of teaching and less on monotonous and repetitive tasks.

In the field of AI analytics, universities in Singapore and Malaysia have started to experiment with predictive algorithms designed to reduce the number of school dropouts by allowing for earlier interventions.

For some countries in the ASEAN bloc though, where there is variability in IT infrastructure quality, improving internet access must come before a move to AI.

Retail

Retail is big business in Southeast Asia. Ecommerce alone is expected to reach US$53 billion by 2023. Like their counterparts in Europe and the US, both online and offline retailers in ASEAN are keen to move with the times and offer their customers a new shopping experience that reflects the digital age we now live in.

A growing number of consumers are turning to their phones for help, instead of seeking out a real person. Smart phones now come fully equipped with AI assistants and every retailer from Starbucks to supermarkets now use chatbots to engage with their customers.

“In retail, AI will be all about enhancing customer experience and shopping experiences, whether it's browsing, selecting, or paying for goods,” says Granzen. “Poorly implemented, however, there is a risk of backfiring, when there is no value to the shopper besides the novelty, or their privacy is threatened.”

Gartner says that retailers require AI capabilities as a foundation of digital business strategy and execution to remain viable in the market.

Within the retail sector, AI can personalise purchasing recommendations for customers whilst helping retailers to optimise pricing and discount strategies, alongside demand forecasting.

For example, Lazada (a Singaporean online marketplace that is Southeast Asia’s answer to Amazon) uses an AI driven app that takes away the emphasis from pre-set categories and instead uses machine-learning algorithms to show off products that the user might be interested in based on purchase and viewing history.

HR

AI-powered tools can help enhance HR functions such as recruiting, payroll or reporting.

In Singapore, startup Evie.ai has created Evie, an AI recruitment coordinator that helps with interview scheduling and coordination “while keeping the human touch”. Among the tasks that Evie is able to do is handling the back and forth of negotiations, follow up with candidates, send out invitations and book meeting rooms.

Evie is based in the cloud and only requires Google or Office 365 to operate.

Beyond recruitment, AI-enabled legal services could develop an AI engine to automatically review legal contracts and highlight any issues based on a business’s legal policies and in this way ensuring consistency. It could also manage contract approvals and escalation which would get the right tasks to the right people automatically.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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