|Xuedong Huang, technical fellow in charge of Microsoft’s speech, natural language and machine translation efforts. (Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)
In a few short years, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been thrust into the limelight – elevating itself from a far-fetched, science-fiction topic to one that is currently dominating many conversations between customers, partners and industry leaders across Asia. The convergence of big data, ubiquitous and powerful cloud computing, along with breakthroughs in software algorithms and machine learning, have made exciting new scenarios in AI deployment a possibility.
Today, AI is at the center of the digital transformation of organizations and even nations. By 2019, IDC predicts that 40% of digital transformation initiatives in the region will be supported by AI.
(Read here about how digital transformation will contribute more than US$1 trillion to Asia Pacific GDP by 2021, where AI is a primary catalyst for further growth)
With imagination and plenty of data, AI can create vast benefits at scale. In Japan for example, where Miko, an AI-power chatbot and the star of new mobile travel app Japan Trip Navigatoris helping tourists in Japan navigate its streets. Created by Microsoft in partnership with travel agency JTB Corp and navigation firm NAVITIME Co, Miko provides travelers in Japan with real-time information from official sources as well as insights from other users of the apps. Miko can also help with hotel and other bookings on the app.
What’s more, one of the more advanced and interesting capabilities of Miko is that it is imbued with image recognition functions using Microsoft’s Cognitive Services AI platform, enabling her to provide information to users through the photos that they have taken.
Asia will be key to AI development globally
There are three reasons why Asia is uniquely placed to play a leading role in the development of AI at scale.
1. AI needs data: AI is dependent on data to perform; the more data that is fed into an AI system, the better it gets. Not only does Asia have the world’s largest population, it continues to be a region that is more digitally-connected than other parts of the globe and hence can provide the massive amounts of data that AI systems need to grow.
2. AI needs talent: Whilst we anticipate the mass adoption of AI this year, there is still a long way to go for more powerful and sophisticated AI programs to be developed. To do that will require a large and strong pool of science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) talents that technology companies and research bodies can tap into to advance AI capabilities. And this talent is increasingly likely to originate from Asia. According to UBS, by 2025 the combined AI talent pool of China and India alone will exceed that of the US.
3. AI needs adoption: As stated, the more data that is fed into an AI system, the better it gets. One of the unique aspects of Asia is its large youth population, that have been born into a digital world. The UN estimates that 60% of the world’s youth population is in Asia Pacific. These “digital natives” are more receptive to digital technologies enhancing their lives. Not only that, but many Asian countries are, historically, late adopters of legacy technology, enabling them to leapfrog other nations dependent on old infrastructure and embrace new ways of living and working.
Microsoft’s AI investment in Asia
With the immense growth potential of AI in Asia, Microsoft has identified four key building blocks to ensure people and organizations are able to harness AI optimally.
- Developing AI capabilities: The AI revolution will not happen without world-class STEM talents driving R&D, and creation of programs and applications. Collaboration among governments, industry bodies and organizations to develop AI capabilities in this region will need to be a focus. A good example of this is Microsoft’s investment of US$33 million in partnership with the Taiwanese Government to create a AI R&D Hub in Taiwan to help transform the island’s technology and industrial sector.
- Developing partner ecosystem: Microsoft is focused on transforming IT partner ecosystem across Asia to enable them to bring AI capabilities to the markets. In fact, they are committing $500m over the next two years to offer joint sales engagements with startups, along with access to our technology, and new community spaces that promote collaboration across local and global ecosystems.
- Creating the AI platform: Microsoft continues to strengthen its hyper-scale cloud platform – Microsoft Azure – and its ability to deliver AI programs at scale securely across the world. Today, Azure is available to customers in 140 countries worldwide via 50 Azure regions across the world, more than any other cloud provider, which includes 15 here in Asia. This offers customers and partners the platform needed to deliver
- Re-skilling Asia’s workforce: Microsoft is committed to working with public and private organizations to help re-skill existing workforce to thrive in a new AI-driven digital world. For example, the recently launched National Skills Program in South Australia provides digital skills to automotive supply chain workers whose roles were displaced by the closure of the Holden manufacturing plant in Elizabeth in late 2017.
Industry experts believe this to be Asia’s century. And AI offers the region an unprecedented opportunity for growth, productivity and innovation, as well as the potential to solve some of the region’s most important societal challenges.
It will certainly be an interesting ride; so strap in – the revolution is about to begin!