Artificial intelligence is advancing in Southeast Asia

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ASEAN countries, with their young and tech-savvy populations, are accelerating the development of new applications of AI.

By Anna Affranio

The push to invest in artificial intelligence is growing in Southeast Asia, and the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the trend for public and private organizations to adopt such solutions. But what is Artificial Intelligence?

We refer to Artificial Intelligence (AI) as the ability to instruct machines to perform skills similar to human reasoning. These functions are used widely for industrial and commercial purposes (e.g., optimizing logistics, inventories or sales), but also for policy purposes.

AI is already widespread in Asia, where China is the second largest country in the world, immediately behind the United States, in terms of its use of these technologies. Here, major companies such as Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are constantly looking for new and creative ways to integrate AI into their services. But Southeast Asian countries are no different: according to consulting firm Kearney, artificial intelligence could contribute $1 trillion to the ASEAN economy by 2030. 

The uses of these technologies are many, ranging from entertainment to surveillance. For example, Malaysia's Fly FM radio station unveiled Aina Sabrina, the country's first radio DJ equipped with artificial intelligence. In Thailand, on the other hand, the city of Bangkok has launched a network of CCTV cameras powered by artificial intelligence to prevent motorcyclists from jaywalking and ensure compliance with traffic laws.

The adoption of AI in a wide variety of fields and its extraordinary development, however, due to the implications they entail, is not without risks. Indeed, there is concern about the exceedingly dangerous potential that this technology could have in the wrong hands if not properly regulated. For example, protesters in protests in Myanmar fear being tracked with facial recognition technology, thus exacerbating repression because of the increased ease of identifying and prosecuting opponents to the military dictatorship. Indeed, some human rights activist groups say the use of artificial intelligence to monitor citizens' movements poses a "serious threat" to their freedom. Moreover, politicians and civil society have expressed particular concern about the dangerous potential of this technology in a process of "industrialization" of disinformation. 

Thus, it seems clear that plans need to be formulated to manage this disruptive phenomenon. Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia were the first countries to launch a national strategy for artificial intelligence, while the other countries are expected to follow suit. At the regional level, however, much of the work is yet to be done. A spokesman for Singapore's Ministry of Communications and Information said the country will work with other ASEAN states "to develop an 'ASEAN Guide on AI Governance and Ethics' that will serve as a practical and actionable step to support the reliable deployment of responsible and innovative AI technologies in ASEAN." This will also need to include training new talent to be prepared for the implementation of this technology, but given the average age of the Southeast Asian population, which is young and already digitally savvy, the potential pool to draw from is very high.

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