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‘Smart cities that fail to master AI will be left behind,’ says Singapore

Singapore, ranked the smartest city in the world in certain polls, has warned cities they must get a handle on artificial intelligence (AI) if they are to succeed as ‘smart cities’, trusted by citizens and enterprises to manage data correctly.

The warning came at Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona today (November 19), as Singapore, awarded city of the year at the 2018 show, shared the stage with local politicians from Barcelona and Madrid at the 2019 kick-off.

Vivian Balakrishnan, minister for foreign affairs for the government of Singapore, set out Singapore’s own AI strategy, as a geographically-constrained but tech-savvy city state. “This technology will change the world, and cities that master AI will get ahead — those that don’t will be left behind,” he said.

“The fact computers and systems can now see hear, speak and understand is transformational. It will transform our economy, disrupt our politics, alter the nature of our jobs — and it will define the next phase of our ‘smart nation’ journey.” 

Balakrishnan made clear Singapore cannot compete with industrial powers like China and the US. “You have to remember how small Singapore is — just 700 sq kilometres, 30 kilometres from east to west. Which means we will never have the oceans of data China has, nor the unique ecosystem Silicon Valley has, with academia, venture capital and industry.”

Instead, smaller nations, and smart cities by themselves, should play to their strengths, he said. For Singapore, as city and nation, that means a single layer of government, to make technology deployment and policy-making simpler. It’s policy makers are technically competent, too. “We are led [in government] by a mathematician and coder.”

 The rest of the government is digitally-minded, also, he said. “We understand science, technology and engineering. We get it, and we are able to make decisions quickly, pivot instantly and seek opportunities that new technologies will provide.” 

Society, at large, embraces technology, too, of course. Mobile penetration is at 150 per cent, with smartphones in the hands of up to 90 per cent of the population. There is fibre broadband to every home, said Balakrishnan. “Our citizens are digitally literate.”

He said: “These factors put us in an excellent position to be a living lab for digital technologies. We have focused on the deployment of AI — in sectors where Singapore has a historic competitive advantage. Because deploying AI in these sectors is a no-regrets move. IoT will enhance our competitiveness, generate an economic return, create jobs, and upgrade skills.”

The government’s strategy is to deploy AI in five sectors: intelligent transport and logistics, smart cities and municipal services, “preventive and custom” healthcare, education, and border security. “Why border security? Because we have the world’s busiest land crossing,” said Balakrishnan.

The government has mapped five AI principles onto its AI strategy in these five sectors: ethical standards, safety and security, privacy and trust, “explainable” AI logic, and social acceptance. The message from Singapore is AI in cities should be correct and transparent — that it puts citizens first, in terms of privacy and security, and makes its logic and purpose clear for them to understand.

“Many people think of AI as a black box — into which you throw in data and ask a question. We cannot approach AI like that. The solutions and answers it proposes have to be explainable in human terms. Without that ability — to explain how a solution has been arrived at — you will get pushback,” said Balakrishnan of the idea of ‘explainable AI’.

He said as well, in sum, that proper governance around city data will help, and not hinder, social and economic progress in the end. “Humans have an innate sense of fairness — of what’s right and wrong, and what’s good and bad. It’s important to have this governance framework in place. Having strong governance, and strong attributes, is not roadblock. You can’t drive a car without brakes.”

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