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Asia is the next frontier for AI

Apr 24,2018
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Ralph Haupter
*The author is president of Microsoft Asia.

In a few short years, artificial intelligence (AI) has elevated itself from a far-fetched, science-fiction topic to one that is currently dominating our conversations.

AI today is at the center of the digital transformation of organizations and even nations. By 2019, IDC predicts that AI and cognitive capabilities will support 40 percent of digital transformation initiatives.

While we see exciting AI scenarios being deployed across the globe, the Asia region is uniquely placed to play a leading role in the development of AI at scale. There are three reasons for this:

First, AI needs data. The more data that is fed into an AI system, the better it gets. Not only is Asia the most populous continent, it is more digitally connected than other parts of the globe and hence can provide the massive amounts of data that AI systems need to grow.

With imagination and plenty of data, AI can create vast benefits at scale. For example, Microsoft and our partners are helping tourists in Japan navigate its streets with improved ease. With an estimate of over 28 million visitors to Japan every year and the Tokyo Olympics just around the corner, it can be quite daunting for tourists to navigate around Japan — which is where AI can help.

Miko, an AI-powered chat bot, is the star of new mobile travel app Japan Trip Navigator. Created by Microsoft with travel agency JTB and navigation firm Navitime, Miko provides travelers in Japan with real-time information and insights from other users of the apps, as well as help with hotel bookings.

Second, AI needs talent. The development of more powerful and sophisticated AI programs requires a large and strong pool of science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) talents. This talent is increasingly to originate from Asia. According to UBS, by 2025, the combined AI talent pool of China and India alone will exceed that of the United States.

At Microsoft, we recognized the potential to access vital technical talent in Asia 20 years ago when we established Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing in 1998. This has grown to be our largest R&D facility outside of the United States, with hundreds of researchers, developers and visiting scientists working together on long-term technological challenges. We have a similar laboratory — Microsoft Research India — based in Bangalore and these two world-class facilities regularly achieve industry-leading advances in the world of AI. Microsoft Research Asia was recently part of our global team that developed the first machine translation system that can translate news articles in Chinese to English with the same quality and accuracy as a human.

Last, AI needs adoption. One of the unique aspects of Asia is its large youth population that have been born into a digital world. The UN estimates that 60 percent of the world’s youth population is in the Asia Pacific. These “digital natives” are more receptive to digital technologies enhancing their lives. Not only that, many Asian countries are late adopters of legacy technology, enabling them to leapfrog other nations dependent on old infrastructure and embrace new ways of living and working.

We are excited about the future of AI in Asia, and my team and I have prioritized key building blocks to ensure we are able to harness AI optimally in the long run.

We will continue to create partnerships with governments, industry bodies and organizations to develop AI capabilities in this region. This includes helping re-skill the existing work force to thrive in a new AI-driven digital world. We recently invested $33 million in partnership with the Taiwanese government to create an AI R&D Hub in Taiwan to help transform the island’s technology and industrial sector, and launched a national skills program in South Australia to provide digital skills to automotive supply chain workers.

We are also focused on transforming our IT partner ecosystem to bring AI capabilities to the markets, with greater focus on government, education, health care, manufacturing, financial services and retail sectors. To enable this, we are committing $500 million over the next two years to offer joint sales engagements with start-ups, access to our technology and new community spaces that promote collaboration across local and global ecosystems.

Our hyper-scale cloud platform Microsoft Azure will, of course, be at the center in delivering powerful AI capabilities. Today, Azure is available via 15 regions in Asia, offering our customers and partners the platform needed to deliver AI programs at scale securely across the world.

I truly believe this will be Asia’s century. And AI offers the region an unprecedented opportunity for growth, productivity and innovation, as well as the potential to solve some of the region’s most important societal challenges. It will certainly be an interesting ride; so strap in — the revolution is about to begin!