Feature Articles

The face value of artificial intelligence: Q&A with local startup ADVANCE.AI

By Liu Hongzuo - 20 Apr 2020

Singapore and AI

Dr Fanglin Wang, Head of Artificial Intelligence, ADVANCE.AI

With Singapore doubling down on its Smart Nation goals, artificial intelligence (AI) has taken the centre-stage of socio-economical development, especially with these uncertain times ahead of us. Understanding what AI can or cannot do for us is a critical step towards uplifting our economy and its people. Is AI our future, or is it just a buzzword thrown around to get people and businesses excited? Is there more value to AI technologies we are familiar with, such as facial recognition? Will AI ever be abused in Singapore?

We spoke to Dr Fanglin Wang, the Head of Artificial Intelligence at ADVANCE.AI, a local AI startup, on his thoughts around Singapore's AI journey, AI itself in its various manifestations, and the possible misuse of such technologies. Dr Wang spent more than ten years in AI-related industries, having served as both an academic and a corporate collar. He was once a Research Fellow (post-doctorate) at the National University of Singapore, and once the associate director of Video Analytics and Machine Learning at NCS Group. At ADVANCE.AI, Dr Wang leads the team towards advanced computer vision technologies, such as optical character recognition, facial recognition, liveness detection, and several other AI technologies based in computerised vision.

Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.


Is facial recognition underutilised in Singapore?

Facial recognition technology has already been part of daily life for almost a decade. It's widely used in the algorithms in our smartphone cameras. In Singapore, cameras have been installed at public housing, hawker centres, and major train and bus stops since 2012 for security purposes.

Social networks can be considered to be the world's largest facial recognition databases today when you consider the amount of photos uploaded to these platforms. Mobile banking applications use facial identification to verify customer log-ins, and you also see this technology at airports and border checkpoints. 

That said, our broad use of facial recognition in Singapore still cannot compare to China, where facial recognition technology is a way of life. In China, facial recognition technology scans people in public. It monitors errant behaviour, which is then used to build a national "social credit system". Disobeying traffic rules, for example, can impact loan scores or ability to rent apartments.

Ultimately, every country needs to find the right balance between convenience and privacy, and that scale will move as consumers get more familiar with the technology.


What do you think are the barriers and enablers towards Singaporeans embracing AI-based technologies across more aspects of their lives?

Privacy concerns are always top of mind. Am I constantly monitored? How is data being stored, collected, and used? How secure is the data? These are all valid concerns, and we need to move cautiously. 

As mentioned earlier, facial recognition in China is a way of life, and people are accustomed to the technology in every facet of their lives, from payments to the monitoring of traffic rules, and more. In contrast, when Google launched the Glass in the US and it was being used to record people in restaurant settings, people got very upset, and finally the public pushed back, and the product failed to take off. 

Having been closely involved with three Smart Nation bidding projects before, I know the Singapore government is very strict about rigorous and extensive testing before deployment. This extends to strict data privacy and security regulations.

Image source: Andy Kelly on Unsplash

How do you envision both public and private sector organisations working together to prevent the structural abuse of AI?

Right and ethical use of AI is a constant learning process and needs to be debated openly. Singapore proposed updates to its AI Governance Framework at Davos 2020 in January, which says human involvement must be paired with AI technology for accountable decision-making. It also commits to AI decision-making always being explainable, transparent, and fair.

Every country needs its regulation and framework, which is enforced by the government to prevent bad actors and abuse. Regulatory-approved sandboxes can be used to encourage public and private innovation. Development and collaboration with schools and universities to develop future AI research scientists, helping Singapore become a centre of AI innovation and excellence, is the right path forward. This is critical for the Singapore government's Smart Nation ambitions and will also benefit private enterprises by grooming future local talent.

Broader consumer education to help them understand the possibilities and limitations of AI is key. This speaks to the process of continuous learning, unlearning, and re-learning to keep up with the technology and make people comfortable with it. We must also ensure no one feels left behind as technology advances.

More responses on the next page.

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