Chinese firms helping to reshape SE Asia’s AI sphere

By Li Qiaoyi Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/29 22:18:40

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT


Amid increasingly vehement contentions over China-US competition in the arena of artificial intelligence (AI), it almost seems trivial to ponder the position of Southeast Asian countries in the global AI race. But Chinese AI firms are showing rising interest in the region, which is home to more than 600 million people and is eager for an AI-enabled makeover.

That said, Chinese AI firms eyeing a foothold in Southeast Asia should realize that the path to success in a market that is so geographically, culturally and linguistically fragmented could be bumpy.

In a recent example of China's growing interest in the Southeast Asian AI market, Shanghai-based AI startup YITU Tech launched its first international office in Singapore last week.

Seeing the city state as a springboard into the Southeast Asian market, the company also has plans to open a research and development center in Singapore this year, supplementing its R&D firepower in Shanghai.

While there has been increased interest among global AI majors in finding opportunities in Singapore, which is perhaps the leading Southeast Asian nation in terms of AI, few have yet gone so far as to build an R&D center there, Lance Wang, YITU's general manager of Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Macao, told the Global Times.

This differs from the more prevalent view in which the two key areas in the AI battlefield are China and the US, a typical example of which is Google's much-hyped announcement in December that it will open an AI research facility in China.

YITU's new Singapore R&D center will certainly give Southeast Asia a boost in the global AI race, partly because the R&D center will aim to incubate local talent - one of the major missing pieces in Southeast Asia's road map to becoming a bigger player in the sector, according to a September report by US consulting group McKinsey & Co.

The report, which talked about the level of AI research by member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said that other key efforts will include the identification of specific business use scenarios and the creation of better data ecosystems.

Prior to YITU's tangible steps in the region, a Reuters report in November said that Beijing-based AI startup SenseTime has plans for an ASEAN headquarters in Singapore.

Chinese AI firms have only just begun to chase their Southeast Asian dreams, but there is a strong belief that their expertise and strength in areas of common interest that can leverage AI technology - such as public safety and security - could well pave the way for a smooth expansion in the Southeast Asian market.

For example, the application of AI-based facial recognition in Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai is considered a role model solution for addressing public security concerns in cities across the globe. In this regard, the uniqueness of local markets is one less worry.

Still, the fragmentation of the Southeast Asian market and the need for substantial efforts to put in place robust digital infrastructure and data ecosystems will be a challenge for Chinese AI firms hoping to replicate their success in the domestic market.

Breaking into overseas markets involves entirely different and multi-fold problems, said Lin Chenxi, co-founder of YITU, in an interview with the Global Times last week. But he based his confidence on the prospects for Chinese AI technologies in leading the global AI revolution.

The future may well be promising. But without the sharing of data across the region, which requires a holistic approach to building a presence in Southeast Asia, such dreams will be hard to realize. Chinese AI firms have become accustomed to rapid market penetration at home, so the experience of reaching beyond to a large, fragmented market could be a shock.

Hopefully, the early birds can effectively localize their new branches and incorporate their efforts to reshape Southeast Asia's AI landscape into their overall business strategies. This could mitigate the risks associated with expansion beyond the domestic market. 

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.

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