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Exploring potentials of AI
Published on: Saturday, November 11, 2017

By Datuk Seri Panglima Wilfred Madius Tangau
Sophia made headlines in the tech world a fortnight ago when she was welcomed by Saudi Arabia as its newest citizen.

“I would thank very much the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I am very honoured and proud for this unique distinction.”

Sophia expressed joy in her thank you speech on stage at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, the capital city. This news caused a stir and was covered by the media with much fanfare, because “Sophia” was not a human.

“This is historical to be the first robot in the world to be recognised with a citizenship.”

The robot was developed by Hanson Robotics, a Hong Kong-based company. Although it sparked a debate of whether a robot citizen would enjoy the same rights as a human citizen has, this move was certainly a success in gaining international publicity, especially for artificial intelligence (AI).

Sophia’s extraordinary capability of conveying a range of human facial expression, for example, smiles when she is happy and frowns when she is displeased, is possible thanks to AI. She is programmed to “learn from the humans around her”.

AI is a field in computer science that enables machines to imitate human intelligence.

You might have heard of the term “machine learning” too. It is considered a subset of AI, where the machine is able to keep improving its performance without human interference in telling it exactly how to achieve its goal.

Just like many other science and technology areas, the use of AI is not as distance as you might think.

Malaysia has one of the highest social media penetration in this region. Facebook has reported that 80 per cent of Malaysians who are connected to the Internet are also on Facebook. A third of the world’s population are now on social media. In Malaysia, 20 million of us are!

When you scroll the timeline of your Facebook or Instagram, you might have seen advertisements that, one may feel, eerily, know your interest. AI analyses your behaviour on social media and then helps business owners to match their content to their target market.

In other applications, AI can be used to improve efficiency in manufacturing, detect diseased crops in agriculture, identify objects at construction sites via images taken by drones, make predictions on outbreaks in healthcare, detect fraud in finance, recommend purchases when you shop online based on your purchase history, tailor lesson plans for individual students and even care for our elderly.

While it is not possible to discuss the potential of AI exhaustively here, there are several local AI developments worth noting.

Concerning healthcare, the dengue fever brought by Aedes mosquito is the most prevent disease in the country.

There are 328.3 cases per 100,000 population, the highest record in 2016 is Selangor at 50.9 per cent.

A Sabah-born doctor has developed a mobile app that predicts dengue outbreaks.

According to Dr Dhesi Baha Raja who developed AIME (Artificial Intelligence in Medical Epidemiology), the app works by gathering and extrapolating data that would warn of a dengue outbreak two to three months in advance, at more than 80 per cent accuracy and within a radius of 400 meters.

He and his team have been recognised by numerous institutions and governments, including as among the top eight young health innovators by Harvard University. They worked with the Brazilian government last year to identify possible dengue and Zika hotpots ahead of the Rio Olympics.

Dr Dhesi’s success is indeed Malaysia’s pride, a brilliant example of how technology can be applied for a proactive and not reactive approach, for societal wellbeing. He is part of the newly formed Special Interest Group on Machine Learning, an initiative under the Academy of Sciences Malaysia. The group hopes to gather existing experts in AI and bridge them to the public and private sector, and engage the civil society in AI.

The group, headed by Tengku Mohd Azzman who is the Vice President of the Academy, met me in early November to brief me on their research work, and the development of AI in the country.

A second AI work example is by Prof. Loo Chu Kiong of University Malaya. With support from Mosti, his team developed a robotics using AI for its cognitive and analytical abilities, enabling online-to-offlinefood and beverage service at the university.

Lastly, Dr Aznul Khalid, also of University Malaya, is working on Natural Language Processing that would eventually be commercialised as a chatbot platform. This platform is a virtual agent that can understand conversational text including typed slangs, dialect and even Manglish, to interact with people, mostly employed by businesses.

By 2018, two billion people of 80 per cent of smartphone users would be using messaging apps on their devices.

When communication via text becomes increasingly mainstream, industries would adapt to consumer behaviour by coping for the increase in demand in interacting via text. The potential of AI is really limitless.

Moving forward, there are concerns about the deployment of AI causing job losses. Concurrently there are concerns that Malaysia is not coping as quickly as other more developed countries in adopting AI.

The government needs to collectively consider how emerging potentials from technologies such as AI can be driven via national policies. But as the case has always been, I maintain that we should rather look at how AI can help our workforce to be more productive and competitive. Entrepreneurs should not be afraid to explore AI to avoid being left behind. Though essentially, we as an individual, a human-being, should decide for ourselves the relationship we desire to have with technology.

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