A Firmer Hand on AI Is Needed in Singapore

As countries around the world grapple with AI and data privacy, a small state such as Singapore might do well to take a closer note of developments within the largest blocs in the world – and potentially tweak its current light-touch approach to better align with them.

This suggestion was made by Teo Yi-Ling, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, in an opinion piece published on Today earlier this week.

Responsible innovation

According to her, the governance frameworks for technology development in both the European Union (EU) and China show a clear shift towards protecting citizens and society over giving businesses unbridled room for innovation.

For instance, the European Court of Justice first enshrined the “right to be forgotten” as a human right in 2014, setting in place a standard against the permanence and pervasiveness of personal data on the Internet. This was followed by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GPDR) in 2018, which essentially put a stop to the unrestricted collection and use of personal data of EU residents.

On its part, China has recently moved to rein in the previously uninhibited innovation and corporate expansion of its homegrown tech firms observed Teo. Specifically, the Personal Information Protection Legislation came into force last month to address personal information protection, while draft legislation by the Cyberspace Administration of China aims to guide the use of AI technology and precedes explicit governance rules for algorithms.

As we reported earlier, the new ethical guidelines governing AI algorithms in China were designed to give users greater transparency and control over their interactions with AI systems online. You can read more about it here.

Checking on businesses

A common denominator of these new rules is a determination by governments in the EU and China not to be subject to unelected corporations with their huge customer base, says Teo. Indeed, the EU has imposed substantial fines on US technology firms for flouting directives around competition and privacy.

Of course, fundamental ideological differences exist between the EU and China. While the former prioritizes human rights, China is focused on preserving “core socialist values”.

Still, there is no question that both the EU and China are setting up a model of responsible government on how best to manage AI and data. In place of unchecked business competition and innovation is the core message of prioritizing the needs of individuals and the society at large. The onus is now on other governments to follow.

“The mantra of ‘move fast and break things’ as regards the innovation of disruptive technology, popularized by Mark Zuckerberg, is increasingly sounding hollow, irresponsible, and dangerous,” wrote Teo.

“It has now become more difficult to protest against regulation having a chilling effect on innovation and competitiveness, and this legislative measures [by two global giants would] possibly provided a greater impetus for other countries to do likewise.”

Firmer hands required

As we reported previously, technology giants such as Google and Microsoft have started turning down AI-centric projects deemed to be ethically risky. From inadvertently perpetuating bias around race and gender, to the potential of misuse to create deep fakes, the risks are uncomfortably real – and growing rapidly.

Yet for every tech firm that has an ethics committee to review new AI projects or initiatives, many more have chosen to ignore the potentially negative repercussions of AI. Though the ethical considerations of increasingly sophisticated AI systems are doubtlessly complex, a lack of clear regulations also doesn’t help.

There is no question that AI regulation is coming; what is less clear is the damages stemming from delays or hesitation. As a regional Forerunner in AI, Singapore last year announced guidelines in the form of the Model AI Governance Framework. However, Teo pointed out that it is voluntary.

Given the extra-territoriality of the EU and Chinese legislation and the importance of their markets to Singapore, she wrote: “There is a need to evolve Singapore’s relatively light-touch approach to AI governance reactively to these developments.”

“A light-touch [and] pro-business approach may have been the strategy for incentivizing local and international AI-related research and development for creating AI solutions, but may not be viable for much longer,” summed up Teo.

Paul Mah is the editor of DSAITrends. A former system administrator, programmer, and IT lecturer, he enjoys writing both code and prose. You can reach him at [email protected].​

Image credit: iStockphoto/AndreyPopov