Editor’s note: ORIGIN Conference is TechNode Global’s premier international content track about the latest development in the Southeast Asia tech and startup scene. ORIGIN Conference this year was held in Macao on May 11, as part of the BEYOND Expo Week.

The ORIGIN Conference’s “How is AI shaping Southeast Asia’s Next Gen” panel featured business leaders representing startups and technology leaders from China and Singapore. These are William Chao, VP of iFLYTEK Open Platform BG; Oliver Tan, CEO and co-founder of ViSenze; and Ivan Lau, CEO of Pantheon Lab. Recursive CEO and Co-Founder Tiago Ramalho moderated the panel discussion.

The discussion explored the unique strengths of Southeast Asia when it comes to AI solutions, government policies proposed to strengthen the AI ecosystem, and the industries that are most suitable for AI adoption. The panel also tackled the challenges associated with artificial intelligence as well as the need for AI education and skills development.

Of note, the panel highlighted the need to make AI inclusive and accessible to everyone. It is important for the technology not to be monopolized or taken advantage of by just a few big companies. Likewise, it is crucial for people to be aware of the technology and its impact on society.

Oliver Tan, CEO and co-founder of ViSenze

Retail and e-commerce are the fastest adopters of AI because of the different AI applications in these industries. There are internet AI (AI on the cloud), business AI, perception AI, and autonomous AI. Consumers regularly leave traces of data as they look for and buy products. Their actions are covered by these different kinds of artificial intelligence technologies. Meanwhile, sellers also accumulate various information about their customers. Essentially, the industries that collect data find it easier to integrate AI into their operations.

In Southeast Asia, where people have different languages, there is a lot of opportunity for AI applications. AI can help connect people with different languages and cultures. This diversity is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity for AI companies that are looking for opportunities for their commercializable AI products.

On the topic of AI policy and regulation, it is regrettable that Southeast Asia does not have a strong collective voice on the international stage for AI standards or the crafting of AI policies. The region needs to do better. Only a few countries have come up with their AI policies and strategies, particularly Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The Southeast Asian region has not moved collectively when it comes to AI. Also, it is important for the region to work on its digital infrastructure, legal regimes, data-sharing policies, and government involvement.

It is important to have AI literacy. AI should be introduced in schools to orient the next generation about this technology. Education is vital in making sure AI benefits everyone. It all starts with education.

How to make AI more inclusive? That’s a tough question. The news about AI taking over jobs is the opposite of being inclusive. It creates fear. It puts AI in a bad light. In Singapore, we have established a national AI framework based on four principles: human centricity, transparency, fairness, and explainability.

We engage different members of society in planning the national AI strategy so there are multiple levels of participation, so people do not feel that they are not a part of the nation’s AI strategy. We cast a net as wide as possible to cover everyone in different strata of society. Admittedly, though, these things are easier to do in a small country like Singapore with only around five million people. The task is far more challenging in larger countries.

When it comes to AI’s future, the most exciting to me are the large language models and generative AI capabilities. These technologies can be combined with other technologies to achieve perception AI or more advanced technologies that have the potential to transform the way we interact in the real world. In shopping, for example, AI can help simulate the experience of actual physical shopping by providing the means not only to see things and verbally communicate but also to touch or smell things virtually.

William Chao, VP of iFLYTEK Open Platform BG

Now is a great time for AI. However, AI adoption and implementation face serious challenges. First, there’s the challenge of policies and regulations. Governments have enacted various data policies. Another challenge is computing ability. For organizations to be able to use AI in their respective operations, they need to invest in powerful computing equipment, something that many in Southeast Asia find difficult.

It is also challenging to find AI talent in Southeast Asia. We have cooperated with universities in China and Singapore, but still, there are not enough potential AI employees. We need more. iFLYTEK is based in Hefei (Anhui, China), a developing city, and it has been a problem for us to find AI talent. We need more talent in our other locations like Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen. This is a problem we can also observe in Southeast Asia, like in Indonesia and Malaysia.

AI is not our destination. Our destination or goal is to make life better and our work more efficient. AI can be a tool to make these happen. In education, medicine, manufacturing, and other domains, we use AI to make operations more efficient. Also, AI is useful in creating better customer experiences and facilitating better communication between people.

I believe AI should become like water and air. We may not see it but we regularly use it. You won’t realize it’s there. It becomes a mundane part of life that everyone needs to use instinctively. It must not become a burden or something people would fear.

Ivan Lau, CEO of Pantheon Lab

Southeast Asia is quite fragmented, which is challenging for economic integration. Countries have different ethnicities, languages, and appearances. It can be difficult to penetrate different markets because of various barriers. This is something AI can help address by providing solutions that allow consumers and businesses or businesses and other businesses to interact better.

In Malaysia, for example, we heard about the problem of finding the right talents to work in different markets, like getting a Thai person to advertise (Thai products) in Malaysia. This problem can be solved with the help of the latest AI technologies. We see a lot of opportunities in commercializing our digital concierge solutions to address these challenges.

In terms of what governments can do to advance AI, I think governments should work on the education side. It is important to have talents who have AI proficiency. Also, the general public should be educated about AI to help everyone understand what it can do for them.

How can AI be inclusive and accessible? I think it is important to have the appropriate education programs. Also, it is important to develop front-facing solutions that help fill the gaps like in addressing the talent shortages and skills mismatch. It is important to improve the knowledge about AI to help people understand its impact on their lives and how they can be part of the AI-embracing new society.

Looking forward, there will be a huge market for AI in the future. AI technologies will improve further, so they become more like humans in being able to converse naturally, for example. AI may also help fill the gaps in the need for more talent especially in the front-end industries, which younger people tend to veer away from.

ORIGIN Conference: Why is Southeast Asia Prime for the Next Decade?