SG AI #6: Immigration policy, aging and automation, and Malaysian foreign policy

Measures to improve AI immigration policy

In July, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) announced Tech@SG, a program which makes it easier for tech companies to obtain work visas for skilled employees. MTI recently elaborated that qualifying companies must be incorporated in Singapore and have secured US$10m in VC funding, some of which must have come from a MTI-recognised VC in the past three years.

Why this matters: Singapore is not alone in thinking about AI immigration policy. In the past two weeks, the Partnership on AICentre for Security and Emerging Technology, and UK Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee have published reports calling for looser immigration policy. Countries including Canada, China, France and Thailand have taken steps to attract tech talent. For example, Thailand’s SMART visa program is available to skilled workers, investors and entrepreneurs from 10 sectors including automation and robotics. There is a talent shortage in AI, and countries who are able to overcome this shortage will likely be more competitive.

Resiliency to aging and automation

Mercer, a consulting firm, and Marsh & McLennan Insights, a research institute, recently published a report comparing aging workforces and automation risks across 20 economies. The report’s “Aging and Automation Resilience Index” considers 3 factors: a country’s resilience to aging, its resilience to automation, and the adequacy of its pension system. Singapore came in 13th: the highest ranked Asian economy—above Japan, China, and South Korea—but behind countries like Denmark, Australia, the USA, and the UK. This article from Today summarises the main findings. If you’re interested in this topic, we previously featured Microsoft’s report on the future of work in Asia.

Jo: The report suggests that countries consider a ‘Talent Pooling Consortium’ so that older workers may enter the freelance economy to offer specific skills or experiences and be mentors to younger workers. This is a compelling concept, except: (a) it is catered towards workers in highly-skilled sectors who are already in a better position to deal with potential job displacements; and (b) given that flexible work has been criticized for its lack of employment protection, it’s strange that a report focusing on the challenges facing an aging workforce side-steps this issue.

Also, for the time being I recommend taking estimates of job automation with a grain of salt. As I previously highlighted (SG AI #5), many estimates vary because of disagreements on methodology and assumptions about the current state of technology. On top of that, automation estimates focus too much on what tasks can be automated, and fail to account for political factors, social friction, and the multifaceted nature of whole jobs.

Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI)

CCI is a G2G (government-to-government) program between Singapore and China. Following the 2nd Smart China Expo (SG AI #5), the main telcos in both countries have launched a 260GB/s international data channel, and companies including Tencent and GDS are the first customers. It’s not clear what the use cases are, and by extension which data protection laws apply. In addition, Singapore Press Holdings has set up a technology office in Chongqing, aiming to grow Lianhe Zaobao’s audience in China. Zaobao’s current readership is 5 million unique visitors a month, so there is a lot of room to grow.

Why this matters: The data channel fits with the expansion of China’s “digital silk road” in Southeast Asia. For instance, Huawei is working with Myanmar to launch 5G by 2025, and Alibaba has invested more than US$4 billion in Lazada since 2016. As the U.S.–China relationship worsens, it is becoming trickier for small countries to position themselves with one or the other. These partnerships suggest that Singapore has managed to avoid picking sides so far, a balancing act that it has traditionally performed well and will try to maintain going forward.

Updates from Malaysia (by Julian Theseira)
Malaysia launched a new foreign policy framework on 18 September that identifies “shaping the discourse on emerging issues such as Industrial Revolution 4.0” as a foreign policy priority.

Why this matters: Despite being a mid-sized middle income country, Malaysia has a history of engaging in global governance. In the area of climate diplomacy, Malaysia is known for having technical expertise and championing the causes of the developing world. The new foreign policy framework suggests that Malaysia may become more engaged in the global governance of AI. Malaysia could for instance draw on its heritage as a moderate Muslim nation, history of active engagement in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and traditions of Islamic scholarship to contribute a Muslim persepctive to the governance of AI.

SenseTime expanding in Singapore
The Chinese AI company, most known for image recognition, plans to grow its staff in Singapore to 300 within three years. In addition to doing research, I anticipate that some of SenseTime’s technology will be applied in Singapore as well.

(Hopefully) improving travel search in East Asian languages 
AI Singapore (the national program) and Expedia (U.S. travel company) are spending S$360,000 to improve Asian NLP for travel search, starting with Japanese. I’m generally excited to see research being applied in non-english settings, and will keep an eye out for results.

Automated surveillance for workplace safety
AI Singapore, the National University of Singapore (NUS), and the Housing Development Board (HDB) are piloting an image recognition system to identify two common safety issues: workers coming close to non-barricaded edges and walking under heavy loads lifted by cranes. When a violation is detected, a supervisor receives a telegram message. This program fits into the bigger phenomena of workplace monitoring. Foreign workers are often the early subjects of surveillance programs, for example “smart lamp posts” being tested in Geylang.

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