There’s good news for those of us in Asia who are cheerleading homegrown innovation, especially in fields like AI that are so important for future industries. Countries like South Korea, Singapore, Japan, and Taiwan are hotbeds of AI innovation.
That’s important because the increasing sophistication of automated systems will have far-reaching implications for work and employment. While Taiwan has some work to do to catch up with its three Asian peers, I think it has all the ingredients to become an interesting AI hub in its own right. All four are representing Asia’s AI prowess to the world.
Japan’s government plays a major role in supporting AI research. The country boasts a world-leading innovation environment. This could be even better if it paid more attention to education policy, in particular to the promotion of soft skills and support for lifelong learning (something Singapore excels at).
I have observed through experience that Japan has advanced AI adoption and has very lively debates on the impact of AI to the economy and society. It is also trying to prepare feasible scenarios and solutions for future use cases, while other countries like Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore are still promoting basic knowledge and AI concepts.
Taiwan has some of the best talent around the region, and it comes cheap as well. If you want to establish a data center in Northeast Asia, Taiwan is a good choice. That’s why Google, IBM, and Microsoft, three of the world’s leading high-tech companies with big AI budgets, are all expanding there this year.
The country’s engineering talent is easy to train for cutting-edge fields like AI, and the government is looking for new high-tech fields to grow its GDP to a target of US$613 billion this year. Taiwan wants to move away from over-reliance on manufacturing, and AI development is one avenue.
The Economist Intelligence unit recently compiled their automation readiness index, and South Korea again ranks number one (with Germany, Singapore, and Japan close at its heels). This shows that South Korea has big potential to be the leader for an AI-driven economy.
However, while the country has a strong background in manufacturing and high tech, AI has become a controversial issue. In April this year, researchers boycotted the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the country’s top university, after it opened what they called an “AI weapons lab” with one of South Korea’s largest companies.
Singapore is pioneering many promising experiments in continuous education and labor market policy. The country offers adults credit toward training courses through individual learning accounts and encourages firms to invest more in lower paid workers. As a result, the country scores top marks for labor market policies, alongside South Korea.
I think Singapore’s strengths as a leading AI player reside in its ability to remain a neutral player that can invest in and incubate AI technologies and businesses (rather than being dragged into an overly nationalistic flexing match of the sort we see between the US and China).
Singapore also finds its own AI positioning aligned with its inherent strengths (e.g. its history as a maritime hub). This leads to questions about how Singapore can best work with the industries it has a natural advantage in and exposure to.
Finally, the need to drive initiatives that create an entrepreneur-friendly environment will help it become the Asian hub for AI talent and growth by placing emphasis on things like healthy work-life balance.
While I want to keep this piece focused on Asia, I do want to look west very briefly. I think there are four up-and-coming AI hubs on this side of the world that we need to keep an eye on. These are Germany, the UK, France, and Canada. I think it’s important to consider these four hubs, as too often the debate gets caught up solely on US vis-a-vis China, which is not always helpful nor representative of the true state of global AI affairs.
The UK boasts a strong industrial and digital strategy that promotes AI and robotics R&D and focuses on linking companies, top universities, and research centers. The country also recently announced a big investment in AI worth approximately US$1.3 billion with companies like Microsoft, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, IBM, McKinsey, and Pfizer.
France’s fast-track visa program for technology entrepreneurs and its US$11.6 billion AI fund, has made it an important leader (and cheerleader) in the field.
Canada, on the other hand, is an exciting AI hub that is working with industries to invest in emerging technologies of which AI is very much at the forefront.
I want to acknowledge the importance of the US and China as global AI hubs; that is something we cannot ignore. But at the same time, I want to advocate a stronger awareness of important regional leaders in Asia such as South Korea, Singapore, Japan, and Taiwan. These economies will be the engines of growth for much of Asia over the next decade and it’s important they take on leading roles in AI.
But I also often travel to the West and have been impressed by the levels of commitment from government and industries shown toward AI.
These are all positive signs that a global balancing act is underway in terms of AI dominance, which will help keep competitive spirits alive for the foreseeable future and help ensure no monopoly will arise from this important field.
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