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AI's the firm way to go

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Artificial intelligence is helping businesses learn, automate systems and produce better work outcomes

We all have seen the headlines: "Google's AlphaGo defeats world-class Chinese 'Go' player", "IBM's Watson is tackling healthcare with artificial intelligence" and so on.

Artificial intelligence (AI), which is essentially a set of tools and programmes that makes software "smarter" in a way an outside observer thinks the output is generated by a human, is starting to break out on the global stage.

For most in Asia, AI in its most basic forms is already evident in daily lives. Personalised product recommendations on e-commerce platforms like Taobao or Flipkart and voice assistants like Siri or Google Now are just a couple of examples.

Still, far-reaching changes lie ahead.

With exponential growth in computing power and favourable supply side factors, such as the advent of advanced algorithms, a vast pool of indigenous AI-related talent and massive government-funded infrastructure development, both the breadth and depth of AI adoption in Asia is set to sharply accelerate in the coming decade, creating an economic value between US$1.8 trillion (S$2.5 trillion) and US$3 trillion a year by 2030 in the region.

Closer to home in Singapore, the government, through the National Research Foundation (NRF) will be investing up to $150 million into a new national programme aimed at boosting the nation's AI capabilities over the next five years.

The initiative labelled as AI.SG, will see more collaboration with companies and start-ups to power the country's AI efforts.

Enterprises forecasted to be most affected by AI in Asia include financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, retail and transportation.

Renowned data scientist Andrew Ng has said AI needs to be a company-wide strategic decision. Companies that don't strategically invest in AI will slowly lose market share to those whose core businesses are built around AI.

For enterprises, there are four trends in AI that stand out:


The ability to learn without being explicitly programmed, machine learning has been around for a long time and is well understood.

What is different is the relatively recent emergence of tools, such as Apache Spark, that enable processing of large data sets.

Data scientists can also collaborate and rapidly deliver high-impact and high-value business assets, without worrying about managing compute resources, security or data replication.

A classic example of machine learning is detecting fraudulent log-in attempts. Instead of explicitly specifying every rule and every possible fraud case, machines learn by processing thousands of examples.

The advantage here is that once the initial model has been created, it can keep evolving, becoming more accurate.


Due to improvements in computer graphic cards and releases of popular frameworks, deep learning has some excellent results in specific narrow use cases with actionable intelligence.

This makes it possible for firms to home in on new business opportunities. Also, raw-processing costs are falling, lowering the barrier to entry for everyone.

Firms can shorten model training time with online learning and focus on optimising networks for specific use cases.


Another trend is having humans evaluate results from AI. AI is still far from having human-like abilities of comprehension, reasoning and intuition.

Human-AI teaming will result in better outcomes than either alone would provide. For instance, in healthcare, combining AI and human experience can reduce false positives and increase patient satisfaction.


More systems operate and adapt to new circumstances with little to no human control, changing the landscape of the workforce.

Besides autonomous cars or drone delivery, there's automated financial trading or automated content curation systems, such as creating automated news digests for sports.

But, more importantly, driving the business includes the ability to diagnose and update internal systems such as security vulnerabilities, which is key in the world of rapidly evolving cybersecurity threats.

The writer is Hortonworks' 
vice-president and general manager for Asia Pacific.