AI Shining Bright in APAC: Four Lessons From Milken Institute Symposium

By Ralph Haupter, President, Microsoft Asia and Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Corp

Last month, I was invited to participate in the inaugural Milken Institute Japan Symposium in Tokyo, where I spoke about AI, its impact on business and society, and its role as a key driver for growth, innovation and transformation across Asia Pacific.

Here are four takeaways that I shared during my participation at the Symposium, as well as during meetings with industry peers, customers and partners:

1.  Japan is facing a declining – and increasingly ageing – population. In 2014, Japan had an estimated 127 million citizens; this figure is expected to shrink to 107 million by 2040 and to 97 million by 2050. Last year, just 921,000 babies were born, the lowest on record, and today 20 percent of Japan’s population is over 70 years old. This not only puts serious strain on social security programs, but also affects the Japanese government’s efforts to rejuvenate the economy and sustain traditional industries, due to a lack of available labour.

However, I am heartened to see that Japan is increasingly embracing AI to help tackle its rapidly shrinking labor force. One such example is our partnership with Kindai University.

Kindai University’s Aquaculture Research Institute is a pioneer of commercial fish farming for the sushi industry, annually providing 12 million young “fingerling” fish to offshore farms around the country. Today, this process is heavily reliant on manual labour as these juvenile fish need to be hand sorted to ensure that each of them is the correct size and free of deformities. Given the declining population, it is becoming increasingly challenging to recruit and retain these highly-skilled workers.

Using Microsoft AI’s image recognition and machine learning capabilities, Kindai University now has an automated system able to help sort juvenile fish. The AI system also controls critical systems such as water flow in the sorting stations. This has tremendously reduced the manual labour needed and has freed up its workforce for more productive and rewarding tasks.

2. AI is Now: What was interesting in my conversations with industry leaders at the Milken Institute Symposium is that whilst awareness of AI is very high, there are some who still feel that it is far from reality. The truth is that harnessing the power of AI requires forward-thinking, progressive business leaders with a transformative mindset.

As an example, let me share with you how one start-up in China, a company called Clobotics, is using AI to transform the clean-energy sector.

Wind turbines are towering structures that stand up to 100 metres tall. They require regular inspection and maintenance to retain their safety and efficiency standards. Today, it typically takes a five-person team up to six hours to inspect a single tower. As you can imagine, this task is dangerous and challenging, as the turbines have been strategically placed in very windy locations; hanging on at that height is no mean feat!

Clobotics has transformed this arduous process by using AI-powered drones to inspect wind turbines. These drones, which are equipped with AI image recognition capabilities, can autonomously determine the position of the wind blades and identify and record even very tiny structural defects. Now, a single operator with a drone can complete checks on a wind turbine in just 25 minutes, and all from the safety of the ground.

3. AI can revitalise traditional industries: AI is not just the exclusive domain of young, digital-first start-ups, like Clobotics. Companies in well-established traditional industries can also be transformed through AI.

Downer, a heavy engineering company in Australia, is one such example. They maintain New South Wales’ fleet of 78 Waratah trains, which is no small task considering the tens of thousands of parts found in each of these vehicles.

Downer has installed over 300 Internet of Things sensors and close to 90 video cameras in every train. Using the Microsoft Cloud, this collects 30,000 signals from each train every 10 minutes, generating billions of data points in the process. AI is then used to analyse and detect flaws, create actionable insights, automate inspections, optimise operations and introduce predictive maintenance. This saves Downer time and money and helps them keep the trains running smoothly and safely.

4. It takes a village to build a sustainable and trusted AI future: At the Symposium, I was heartened by the insightful questions that were posed to me by many industry and government leaders on how we can address AI ethics and biases. This reflects a heightened level of awareness by leaders about the potential issues with the widespread deployment of AI.

At Microsoft, we take the view that there is a need for greater industry-wide discourse in this area. While we are excited about the potential of AI, we should also do more in co-creating an ethical framework for its use and implementation.

An example of this is ‘Partnership on AI’ (PAI) where Microsoft is a member. PAI is working alongside industry leaders, academics, non-profits, and specialists to collectively develop best practices to guide our way forward, and provide an open platform for discussion and engagement around AI’s impact on people and society.

Leaving the Milken Institute Symposium in Tokyo, I felt even more positive about the impact of Artificial Intelligence on business and society. AI will transform how we work, play, learn and connect and will ultimately impact every organization, industry and society in the world.

The future is for those who make it, it’s time to start your own AI journey today.

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