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AI capabilities can shape industry

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Singapore has unique chance to become global leader in using artificial intelligence and robotics in tourism and hospitality

Few countries have achieved as much success, and on so many different fronts, as Singapore in the past few decades.

From economic growth and access to education, home ownership and healthcare, the list of achievements is a long one.

All this can be attributed to one key aspect: There is always a long-term plan behind any initiative, regulation or policy framework. This approach has especially been a big driver of growth for the tourism and hospitality sector.

Advancements in technology, especially in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, are changing the way the industry operates. This presents a unique opportunity for Singapore to establish itself as a global leader on this front.

The hospitality sector has traditionally been a manpower-intensive industry.

Every aspect of running a hospitality organisation has needed a human touch - from checking in a guest at a hotel and delivering a room-service order, to cleaning the room and checking out the guest, human interaction is what people have come to expect at every level.

The Online Travel Reservation and Management System says that labour costs account for more than half of the hospitality industry's operational costs.

However, the sector's fast-paced expansion, coupled with Singapore's relatively small population, has made it difficult for companies to meet their manpower requirements. This is where advancements in robotics can plug the gap.

Service robots are already making their way into the industry. The Government Technology Agency reports that Park Avenue Rochester Hotel has deployed two service robots called Techi, which clean up after hotel guests have departed; they also deliver trolleys of duvets, pillow cases and towels to more than 300 rooms.

This pair of robots can do the work of three full-time employees, helping to plug the manpower shortage.

The use of robots is likely to move from service to interaction as well. Singapore's home-grown humanoid robot receptionist, Nadine, made her debut at the ArtScience Museum's exhibition earlier this year. Developed by the Nanyang Technological University, it can recall faces and conversations.

The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) recently concluded a crowd-sourcing initiative for innovative solutions to address key issues and opportunities in the sector.

It has asked companies to submit their proposals for solutions rooted in big data and analytics, artificial intelligence, cognitive computing, robotics, material sciences or other relevant technologies. Selected proposals will be funded by STB for up to 70 per cent of the qualifying costs, so they can deliver feasible prototypes for trial and eventual implementation if the trial is deemed successful.

The National Research Foundation (NRF) has said it will invest up to $150 million in a new national programme aimed at boosting Singapore's AI capabilities over the next five years.

Under AI.SG, Singapore-based research institutes will partner AI start-ups and companies developing AI products to grow knowledge in the space, create tools and develop talent to power the country's AI efforts.

The writer is executive director of Messe Berlin (Singapore). This article was published in The Business Times on Nov 9.