Can’t find local AI talent? Let’s train it ourselves
- AI has already taken off in Singapore, but the AI Singapore initiative aims to further accelerate its adoption
- AI Singapore’s programmes will help groom local AI talent, thus increasing the pool of AI engineers and coders available to smaller companies
- Ultimately, AI is likely to create more jobs than it displaces, as well as free up time for humans to engage in more meaningful work In Singapore, projects quite literally driven by artificial intelligence (AI) are already mushrooming all over the country. In October 2017, Singapore’s first driverless truck rolled onto the streets of Jurong Island to help transport cargo between packaging and storage facilities; earlier in the year, the PSA Corporation announced that it will begin testing an autonomous truck platooning system, in which a convoy of driverless trucks is led by a human-driven lead truck.
In addition to autonomous transport, AI has also found its way into the healthcare space—a collaboration between the National Neuroscience Institute and the Nanyang Technological University, for example, aims to use AI to diagnose and classify brain injuries.
These and other such projects predate the May 2017 launch of AI Singapore, a S$150-million government-led effort to harness the nation’s AI capabilities in a coordinated fashion, said Mr Laurence Liew, the initiative’s Director for AI Industry Innovation.
“These earlier projects were initiated without any help from AI Singapore, which is great—it means that companies are adopting AI in a big way even without us. But we think we can do better, that Singapore as a nation can accelerate the adoption of AI even further,” he said.
Mr Liew was speaking on 4 December 2017 at the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Festival, a three-day event organised by INSEAD, Impact Hub Singapore and SGInnovate.
“AI Singapore is not here to dictate what projects Singapore should undertake. Instead, we are here to facilitate AI projects, match companies with AI talents and accelerate the adoption of AI,” he emphasised.
Wanted: professionals and products
AI Singapore’s programmes are targeted across the entire R&D continuum, from funding basic research in AI to developing AI talent for industry needs and nurturing AI startups, said Mr Liew, who focuses on the industry end of the spectrum.
With tech giants like Google and Facebook offering salaries that smaller companies cannot hope to match, many startups and SMEs in Singapore face difficulties when it comes to finding and hiring AI talent. Hence, AI Singapore started 100 Experiments(100E), a programme which matches companies with AI researchers in institutes of higher learning, according to the AI problem they are trying to solve, said Mr Liew.
While 100E will provide these researchers with up to S$250,000 of funding to work on the problem, companies are expected to place a similar amount on the table—although not entirely in cash, said Mr Liew. Instead, companies can also contribute in kind by hiring engineers, who will then be trained and mentored by senior AI researchers as they work on the problem together.
Trained engineers are not the only asset the company will receive at the end of the collaboration. Because 100E will focus on problem statements that are also viable business cases, the company will also get a product. “The deliverable is a minimum viable product (MVP)—this is very different from a traditional university or research project,” said Mr Liew.
Programming for the real world
Although Singapore has AI expertise in its universities and research institutes, it lacks professional engineers who can write production quality software, said Mr Liew. To fill this gap, AI Singapore developed the AI Apprenticeship Programme (AIAP), which will train new university graduates in real-world programming and machine learning applications.
The nine-month programme will consist of three months of classroom learning, followed by six months of on-the-job training through the aforementioned 100E initiative, where apprentices will get to tackle real-world programming problems.
“The nice thing about this programme is that apprentices are likely to have a job at the end of nine months. The company that is putting resources into the 100E is encouraged to employ you, and they probably will want to employ you because you have been working on their problem,” said Mr Liew.
While the first iteration of this programme is targeted at Singaporean fresh graduates, AI Singapore is also looking into what it can do for non-Singaporeans, as well as for PMETs looking to reskill themselves, he added.
The pursuit of meaning
Although AI Singapore’s mission is to increase the adoption of AI, it wants to accomplish this mission with as little job displacement as possible, said Mr Liew. “There must be a plan to upskill or reskill the existing workforce.”
However, Mr Liew believes that in the long run, AI will create more jobs than it takes away. To take advantage of these new roles, it will be important to keep learning, and to come around to the idea that we may not always hold the jobs we went to school for, he said.
By taking routine work off our plates, the technology will also free up time for humans to partake in more meaningful pursuits. “AI will remove a lot of mundane work—you’ll have more time to contribute to the community you are in or do the charity work that you always wanted to do,” he concluded.