Island of AI: Singapore emerges at the new tech frontier

In a recent ranking of the most cited artificial intelligence research papers, which was studded with the likes of MIT and Google, a perhaps surprising name stood out: Nanyang Technological University. In fact, the Singapore university ranked second in the top ten only to Microsoft.

The Southeast Asian island is proving a popular AI base: China’s Alibaba announced it will base its first joint AI research centre outside of China in Singapore; Marvelstone Ventures, a private equity firm, is establishing a mega hub for AI start-ups on the island; Intel and Singapore last month announced the launch of a joint AI training program; and meanwhile, Singapore’s government has launched a $115 million programme, AI Singapore, to develop AI prowess.

Why is Singapore so in demand? It has already blazed a trail as a leading global financial hub, and many of the factors behind that ascent are now fuelling its emergence as a force in AI.

Singapore is a cosmopolitan, English-speaking society with a culture that celebrates risk and innovation. It has government backing for R&D and it has one of the world’s finest education systems. All these are combining to make Singapore an emerging player in what experts call a “fourth industrial revolution” that will reshape our world.

Underpinning all this is Singapore’s role as a talent magnet. It ranked top in Asia and second to Switzerland globally for the fifth straight year in attracting and fostering talent, according to a study by INSEAD Business School. And this year, Singapore jumped from sixth to third place in Bloomberg’s global innovation index.

The creative energy is nurtured in a compact ecosystem that combines a proliferation of start-up accelerators, strong government support and soaring venture capital interest.

Singapore also has powerful incentives to harness the AI revolution. Labour force growth is projected to slow to a compound annual growth rate of 0.5 per cent through 2035, according to Accenture – so economic expansion will increasingly depend on productivity gains. Intensive development of AI will be key to sustaining Singapore’s inspiring success story. Accenture estimates that AI could nearly double Singapore’s economic growth rates by 2035, adding $215 billion to the economy.

Of course AI will still be dominated by giant economies such as China and the US but two factors will allow Singapore to play an outsized role. One is that China and other major countries are turning to Singapore for AI smarts. Alibaba’s Singapore research centre is a collaboration with Nanyang Technological University. And German software company SAP chose Singapore to host its global machine learning innovation centre (SAP’s innovation chief Guenter Pecht-Seibert calls it “our centre of gravity for execution in machine learning strategy”).

Just as important, Singapore is the innovation hub of Southeast Asia, a region of 600 million people – and Asia’s next explosive growth region. Singapore will both absorb and feed the creative energies of a sprawling and ambitious region. Critically it will find opportunities to test new technologies in a gigantic regional playing field.

That opens intriguing opportunities for Singapore to become a true AI leader, as millions of increasingly affluent, tech-savvy youths eagerly adopt the innovations of the future.

Moreover, Singapore’s government is on a mission to bring AI into the fabric of everyday life. Its “Smart Nation” programme sponsors development of facial recognition technology, connected homes and driverless vehicles. Through “AI Singapore”, the government has co-funded urban AI projects such as allowing public housing tenants to file complaints through a virtual assistant.

Since its founding in 1965, Singapore has shown a genius for riding the spirit of the times and finding success. From a great trading hub it transitioned into a global financial centre. Now it’s placing a big bet on transforming itself again. Pretty smart.