SINGAPORE (Sept 5): Singapore has to take a “targeted, purposeful approach” in its artificial intelligence efforts as it lacks the resources of superpowers such as US and China, says Minister for Communications and Information, S Iswaran.

“Our focus really will be around domains which are relevant to us,” says Iswaran at Bloomberg’s Sooner Than You Think technology conference on Thursday. Some of these domains that the city state has fixed its sights on include healthcare, education and transportation.

More than just developing successful application solutions that can be used in Singapore, Iswaran says these solutions should also be able to be scaled across the region.

“We have issued what we called ‘grand challenges’ for AI. We want private sector to come in and be partners with us in finding solutions to these ‘grand challenges’,” he adds.

The way Iswaran explains it, the flow of data needs to be free to be able to derive value from it – the same way Singapore has been a beneficiary of free and open trade. And he believes public and private sector partnerships can help allay fears over the breach of confidentiality and data security in cross-border exchanges.

“Many countries are concerned about confidentiality and security of data… There are security considerations which are legitimate, but we also feel should not be a barrier to the flow of data,” says Iswaran. “If you curtail the flow of data, you curtail the value derived. And, actually, [flow of data] is good for the country’s own interest.”

Already, tech leaders in Asia have warned that ongoing trade tensions between the US and China are fragmenting the global industry and threatening collaboration in key research areas.

To combat these broadening risks, Iswaran says Singapore needs to find like-minded partners across the world and continue to build bridges despite enduring geopolitical tensions. He highlights recent digital economy agreements that Singapore has inked with New Zealand and Chile.

The minister acknowledges that Singapore is unable to compete with the sheer scale and level of resources that countries such as the US and China possess. “We take a very targeted, purposeful approach in terms of what we’ll fund,” he says. And more than just financial funding, he says Singapore will also work towards mobilising talent – “not just Singapore talent, but global talent” – for the application solutions.

“That’s why we’ve put out the call for international talent, called Tech @ SG, in order to draw in the capabilities to work on interesting promising areas for application in which we think we have a lot of promise in,” he adds.

Even as Singapore has embraced AI, one of the biggest worries it has triggered has been the potential loss of jobs. But while the government has pushed re-training and re-skilling initiatives to help workers displaced due to digital disruptions, the head of a government-owned firm nurturing deep tech startups in Singapore paints a more sobering picture.

Speaking at the same event, Steve Leonard, CEO of SGInnovate, says there are still important points to discuss and debate. “There will be job displacement and it is going be asymmetric. I’m a big believer that there will be more loss than gain in the immediate term, and I don’t think that people can easily be re-trained and re-skilled.”

“Some say tax the robots and create a different source of revenue for those that are ‘left behind’,” Leonard adds. “[But] the more we can be honest, it leads us to the discussion of universal basic income, for example.”