Artificial intelligence (AI), also called machine intelligence, has developed from a rather science-fictional concept to a reality that is helping businesses of all sizes realise their true potential. While China and the US are competing for the first position in the AI race, small and big businesses throughout Southeast Asia have developed some innovative AI solutions, too–but not without some challenges.

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More profit with AI

Over the course of decades, AI has become a valuable asset to any business owner. Artificial intelligence has many different applications that can be engaged in just about any sector. And smart businesses are starting to evaluate this once “alien” technology to see how it might help them.

A recent McKinsey Global Institute study on AI reveals that those companies that have a clear plan to apply machine intelligence in their business are seeing a significant impact on their business. That same study reported that more than 30% of Southeast Asia’s biggest companies mentioned terms such as “machine learning” and “AI” in their most recent annual reports, compared to only 6% in 2011 illustrating that AI is moving to the forefront of businesses’ strategies. Further, the study indicates that there are sizable gaps between the profit margins of proactive adopters of AI and those of non-adopters. These gaps can be seen across most sectors.

AI opens up more business opportunities by processing phenomenal amounts of data that a human would not be able to. From this large data set, companies are able to detect patterns, associations, and then accurately predict trends that allow them to adjust procedures to capture customer markets. AI also improves operational efficiency by speeding up processes–whether it is order fulfilment or financial analysis–while simultaneously reducing human error and increasing revenues. For example, the adoption of AI in Southeast Asian factories could increase earnings by as much as $311 billion USD per year.

Therefore, it is no wonder why so many companies are coming to terms with the potential AI holds for their businesses and its adoption is spreading throughout the region through various sectors, from medicine to farming.

AI applications in Southeast Asia

The big

Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok, for example, is the first medical organisation outside of North America to use IBM Watson AI technology in their Oncology department. IBM Watson helps oncologists make informed decisions, suggesting treatment plans based on information from over 290 medical journals, over 200 textbooks, and 12 million pages of text, to help develop a personalised treatment plan for its cancer patients.

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IBM Watson

The small

Vietnam-based Sero, a crop intelligence start-up specialising in full-cycle crop analytics, uses AI to identify crop diseases from photos supplied by rice growers. Farmers simply upload pictures of their sick crop and, Sero claims, that their scientists are now able to identify 20 different crop diseases with up to 90% accuracy with the help of AI. Once the company has further developed its technology, it will be able to send farmers a diagnosis and suggest treatments via a smartphone app.

Sales and customer service

One of the most obvious sectors benefiting from the advancement and adoption of AI can be found in customer services and sales. According to Harvard Business Review, companies that use AI can “reduce call time by up to 70% and increase the number of leads by 50%.” The B2B market, too, is seeing great potential with the adoption of AI as a sales and lead generation vehicle. McKinsey states that 85% of sales-related tasks could be done by robots by 2020 with a likely improvement of closing rates to boot.

When it comes to customer service, one human agent can, generally speaking, handle one customer at a time. An AI-based chatbot, however, can handle thousands of customers simultaneously and Jakarta-based, Kata is proving it. The developer’s client Telkomsel, Indonesia’s leading telecom company, uses chatbots to handle 96% of their inquiries. Kata’s co-founder Irzan Raditya states that his clients have cut at least 30% of operation costs by using chatbots rather than employing human agents for their customer services.

The AI challenges  

The human costs of AI

Artificial intelligence holds great promise for businesses of all sizes; however, this is not without its cost. Businesses are less keen to discuss the human implications of the use of machine intelligence when they are busy discussing profit margins. Companies tend to use vague terms such as “job upgrades” and the “retraining” of workers who have been laid-off. It remains unclear, however, what other jobs these retrained workers need to fill and who is footing the bill.

On the other hand, the demand for trained staff could potentially increase due to the application of AI. Case in point, the Malaysian government has made a significant revision to its goal of hiring 1,500 data professionals by 2020, increasing the number to 16,000 as it needs more human experts that can handle the increase of AI applications.

Insufficient resources

To date, many companies in the region are faced with significant challenges to AI adoption. According to a Deloitte report, they include, lack of expertise and the resources to take advantage of AI. Machine learning and deep learning (all aspects of advanced AI) require access to large sets of data, a specialised infrastructure, and massive processing power.

But where there’s a market, there’s a solution. To the rescue are cloud-based solutions from mega-corporations such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Salseforce who are offering AI development platforms and standalone applications to the wider market.

These innovators are making it easier for more companies to benefit from AI technology even if they lack top technical talent, access to huge data sets, and their own computing power. Through the cloud, businesses can access services that address these shortfalls—without having to make big upfront investments.

Deloitte report

Despite certain barriers to AI progress, awareness is there that machine intelligence can significantly improve business operations and increase earnings. While Southeast Asia might not be able to measure itself against AI behemoths China and the US, it has made promising steps in terms of AI innovation that can be beneficial for businesses and consumers alike. With cloud-based solutions from global computing giants, Southeast Asian businesses, both large and small, have the opportunity to employ AI solutions to help their businesses.

This article was last updated 4 December 2020