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Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies have made significant advances and a trickle of companies in Asean are paying attention, applying these technologies to business challenges and, in the process, blazing new trails.
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While many people may think of artificial intelligence as something esoteric and in the realm of science fiction, there are real-world applications that can help businesses solve complex problems, such as making sense of big data, augmenting human decision-making, or providing customers with expert advice.
The time is ripe for AI technologies, according to Clement Teo, senior analyst at Forrester. This is because of the unprecedented scale of computing and storage capacities, where processing power, cloud computing and high-speed storage are available at affordable prices. This allows for complex computations to be achieved in seconds, rather than weeks.
Artificial intelligence is defined by Forrester as the theory and capabilities that strive to mimic human intelligence through experience and learning. AI capabilities include elaborate reasoning models to answer intricate questions and solve complex problems.
In the enterprise space, developers are starting to use AI to build cognitive computing systems. “AI is evolving fast in this decade, and Forrester predicts it will become part of the daily engagement of customers with computers, devices, wearables and systems we interact with to get tasks done, get answers, get support in making decisions and automate repetitive actions,” says Teo.
AI must ultimately drive business growth to help enterprises better serve their customers, he adds, which makes for a strong driver of adoption in the enterprise space.
AI technologies are available for various markets and roles, and offer five consumable business capabilities, according to Teo.
One such capability is to provide expert assistance. For instance, Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana are simple versions of “intelligent assistants”. Another area is predictive customer engagement, where information – and answers – are gathered to help predict customer needs before the customer makes contact or while a customer is talking to the operator.
A third area is intuitive communication, going beyond simple voice recognition and natural language processing, allowing the capture of the real meaning by looking at the semantics of text and speech, by mapping facial expressions and gestures to emotional state and mapping voice intonation to emotional state.
AI can also enable businesses to look at comprehensive, complex and curated data, mine it, and automatically generate an intelligent and intuitive story out of it, or to draw conclusions or suggest recommendations based on the analysis. Finally, AI can be used to improve accessibility for the disabled or impaired, such as helping the visually impaired to recognize text and products and communicate through non-conventional media.
The area that Southeast Asian organizations seem to be delving into most is using artificial intelligence systems for expert assistance. Several Asean firms have selected IBM’s quiz show-winning supercomputer Watson to help them better serve customers or solve complex problems.
For instance, DBS Bank in Singapore uses IBM Watson Engagement Advisor to mine large volumes of complex data - such as research reports and product information – and apply it against customers’ profiles to identify connections between their needs and the available information. This helps its relationship managers to improve the advice they give by considering the different financial options available for their customers in the wealth management business.
DBS CEO Piyush Gupta says that in the digital era, consumers’ ability to access information and make choices has changed dramatically, and new technologies are revolutionizing how people live. The bank’s collaboration with IBM will enable it to explore ways to better harness data, providing more precise and customized services.
Another organization that is tapping into Watson’s ability to better serve consumers by learning, adapting and understanding data quickly and easily is telecoms firm Celcom in Malaysia.
As one of the first telcos globally to participate in the IBM Watson Early Customer Engagement Advisor Program for its customer contact centers, Celcom is exploring how Watson Customer Engagement Advisor can enhance the effectiveness of its customer service agents and use Watson’s ability to analyze raw data to provide deeper customer insights and preferences. The aim is to help Celcom deliver targeted customer offerings, trouble- shoot their problems and make it easier for representatives to cross-sell services to customers.
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AI technology is also being used in the medical field, specifically in the area of cancer care, which can be especially complex as oncologists have to race against time to decide on the best treatment for their patients by taking into account all the latest clinical research. In Thailand, Bumrungrad International Hospital is the first medical institution outside of North America to use IBM Watson for oncology. It is the largest private medical facility in South-East Asia, and plans to use IBM Watson cognitive computing technology to plan the most effective treatment for cancer patients. Treatment will be based on each patient’s profile, medical evidence, published research and the extensive clinical expertise of world-leading cancer center Memorial Sloan Kettering. “It is like having a capable and knowledgeable colleague who can review the current information that relates to my patient,” says James Miser, Bumrungrad’s chief medical information officer. “It is fast, thorough and has the uncanny ability to understand how the available evidence applies to the unique individual I am treating.”
Even the government sector has got in on the AI act. The Singapore government is working with IBM to train the Watson-enabled natural language system in the areas of personal income tax, employment and work pass, and workplace health and safety.
The pilot project is expected to go live in 2016, allowing users to access government websites using the self-service applications and gain specific answers to their queries more quickly from the Watson cloud-based system. This is expected to lead to improved government services and better citizen engagement in community programs.
IPsoft is another provider that sees opportunities in Asia, focusing its initial Asia-Pacific AI plans on Japan. IPsoft is a leading provider of autonomic and cognitive solutions, and is known for Amelia, a cognitive agent that interacts like a human. It is working with NTT to create a native Japanese Amelia, with plans to incorporate other Asian languages.
“We are in detailed conversations with a number of organizations in the region and are shaping up the business case for Amelia deployments and building some smaller-scale proof-of-concept demonstrations,” says IPsoft chief commercial officer Jonathan Crane. In the education space, the National University of Singapore is going to offer the first Watson-based cognitive computing education in South-East Asia, where students will have access to IBM’s Watson cognitive technology and the opportunity to work with experts on the development of new solutions.
Research institutes such as A*Star’s Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R) in Singapore is also delving into AI technologies. It has used intelligent dialogue agent technology, to develop a virtual tour guide to interact with humans through the use of natural language, either speech or text, in both English and Chinese. This guide can answer questions related to Singapore on local areas of interest, shops, hotels, restaurants, maps and so on.
Ultimately, artificial intelligence and cognitive technologies are still in their infancy. While it may not be clear how such technologies will affect businesses going forward, it is impossible to deny the possibilities they offer.
TAO AI LEI has written about the technology industry for over 10 years, and is the former editor of a regional IT weekly in Asia.