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Are SMEs in Singapore ready for AI and Blockchain solutions? Interview with Irene Boey

Today, we’re excited to have with us Irene Boey, Chairman of SMEcentre@ASME and Vice-President (Strategies and Development) of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises. She’s also the Consulting Director of Integral Solutions (Asia) which focused on enabling organisations to benefit from Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Data Analytics since 1992.  

irene boey

Irene Boey is also an APEC Researcher, an Adjunct Lecturer at the National University of Singapore specialising in Data Mining and a Pioneer Mentor in the ASEAN Mentorship for Entrepreneurs Network. In the first part of this interview, Irene will be sharing her thoughts on the readiness of SMEs in Singapore to embrace Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the ethics of Artificial Intelligence.

On the Readiness of SMEs in Singapore to Embrace Artificial Intelligence

Wan Wei: Hello Irene, thank you for your time. Recently there has been a huge discourse on the future of work, with many people fearing AI will replace human beings. What are your thoughts on this?

Irene Boey: AIs are mathematical algorithms that are invented by human beings to extend human intelligence. As human beings, we have limitations in terms of analysing numerous dimensions, and we get lost if the dimensions get complicated. This is particularly true in data mining where we need to analyse complex, interlinking, multi-dimensional relationships within collections of data before we can see consistent patterns to make informed decisions.

AIs are self-learning algorithms that perform analysis consistently without bias. As human may be affected by emotions and limitations in analysing complex patterns, AI can actually help augment human intelligence. So in this way, AI is not taking away our jobs but extending our abilities to include tasks that may otherwise not be possible. As AI can automate complex analysis that may generate new outcomes, we may be able to find new solutions as a result that may be beneficial to humans. However, if our job is repetitive and simple with no value add, then automation of processes and robots may be able to take over easily.

Wan Wei: Are SMEs in Singapore ready to adopt advanced technologies like AI or Blockchain?

Irene Boey: SMEs are facing many challenges like high cost of business, manpower shortage, keen competition and lowered profit margin. Due to this, some of them may have a low priority for technologies adoption.

In my opinion, there are three categories of SMEs in terms of technology adoption in Singapore:

  1. Those who are ignorant and therefore have not started
  2. Those who are aware but have not decided, so they are still sourcing for the right technology
  3. Those who understand that technologies like AI can benefit their businesses.  These are the SMEs that find time to plan and have taken steps to adopt and thus have benefitted.

On the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

Wan Wei: Do you think there will be a day where human beings can fully trust AI, blockchain or any other emerging technology?  

Irene Boey: I think you may be able to trust AI as a technology, but you may not be able to fully trust the human being behind AI.

It’s the human who creates and makes use of AI. It is the human’s choice to use AI for good or for bad. If AI falls into the hands of the unethical, then it cannot be trusted. Many organisations like Google and Microsoft are talking about ethical AI. Why do they need to talk about this? I believe it is not AI that is the problem, it is how the human deploys AI that is the issue. AI is just a technology.

On the Creation of Human-Like Artificial Intelligence

Wan Wei: That distinction you make between AI and the person who created the AI is an interesting distinction because we always just see the AI, but we don’t consider the intentions of those who created the AI.

One of the benefits of using AI in services is that it helps make a business model scalable, and helps us save a lot of time.  Here, there seems to be a trade-off between efficiency and “the human touch”. How can we ensure that we do not lose sight of what makes us human in the process?

Irene Boey: I think the high touch service industries will need the human touch. When you go for a facial, do you want to be pampered by humans or a robot? When you go to the salon, do you want your hair to be cut by a robot or other technologically advanced machines or do you want it to be cut by normal human beings who can interact with you? Normally the salon stylist understand their clients and will engage them on a variety of subjects. Clients feel good talking to human, creating good relationship. If you transform everything to technology then human relations and connections may be lost.

Wan Wei: As an extension of this idea, with the advancement of Artificial Intelligence, there are those who are trying to create an AI system that looks human. Do you think that if such an AI system becomes reality, the problem of the human connection will be alleviated?

Irene Boey: I don’t think the human connection can be alleviated just because the AI system looks like a human being. AI may look like a human being, but can the AI think and act like a human? We will know that we are not talking to a human being because human beings responses include emotions. They are affected by emotions, happiness, sadness and have the ability to express emotions and feelings.

As a human being, they deviate from programmed outcomes. Any automation is based on the logic of the programmer or team. Although AI is self-learning, AI is powerful in a sense that it is not based on a single logic. AI is able to adjust and self learn new patterns quickly and logically.  

Humans, however, are not always logical as they are affected by emotions and it is difficult for AI to emulate that.

Wan Wei: Right now, they might not be able to emulate human emotions but do you think that they can in the future?

Irene: I think it may be quite difficult because emotions have no logic and no sequence. Emotions are not something programmable like algorithms. Moreover, human beings are also fickle-minded. It is very difficult to program all these human features and deficiencies into AI.

On the Misconceptions about AI

Wan Wei: You’ve had a long career in this field that has spanned over 23 years and counting. What is the biggest myth or misconception about AI you have ever heard?

Irene Boey: The biggest myth about artificial intelligence (AI) that I have heard is when people say AI is like a magic box. You just throw in data, and AI can come up with intelligent outcomes.

That is not true. In my classes, I have shown students why they cannot simply throw in garbage data and expect the AI to come up with insightful outcomes. It’s the biggest misconception that I have heard but with education, it is something that fewer and fewer people have now.

Wan Wei: Besides the myths of AI, with your long experience with AI, do you have an ideal AI system?

Irene Boey: I never think of an ideal AI because I don’t think that there will be an ideal situation. You can’t have an ideal AI because, for example, I want an AI that can talk to me like a friend, once you can get an AI to that stage, we will develop other needs.

As human needs keep evolving, how can we have an ideal AI system?

Wan Wei: Thank you for your time today.

Irene Boey: Thank you.

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