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ASEAN countries join hands for AI development

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Southeast Asian countries have pledged to work together to foster the development of artificial intelligence (AI) in the region and established a working group on AI governance.

In their recent meeting, technology and innovation ministers from members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) announced a raft of measures aimed at boosting the region’s AI capabilities. These include ramping up regional consultation on AI development, investing in education and public awareness, investing in AI infrastructure and establishing robust data governance frameworks.

“Through our cooperation in science, technology and innovation, as well as AI, we hope that these initiatives will provide a positive boost to the growth and development of all member states,” stated Vanndy Hem, the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology for Cambodia and the host of the latest meeting.

ASEAN comprises ten countries: the Philippines, Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

While they have all been impacted by AI, the level of development varies greatly. Some, like Singapore, have taken an early lead, with Singaporean AI startups raising $481 million last year.

Global AI giants have also invested billions in a handful of ASEAN nations, further widening the AI innovation and development gap. In May, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) pledged to invest $2.2 billion in Malaysia and $1.7 billion in Indonesia. Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) will invest $12 billion over the next four years in Singapore, while Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) will pour $5 billion.

This disparity in investment has given the bigger economies a massive lead in AI development. While the 10 countries have pledged to work together under ASEAN, experts have pointed out that it’s unlikely that they will ever be equal partners.

“The challenge with a region like ASEAN is that within the region, you have different countries that are at different stages of digital development. This means drastically different policy concerns and considerations,” Kendrick Chan, a policy analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, warned earlier this year.

Still, the 10 countries believe cooperation is critical for the region to benefit fully from AI, which they say will add $1 trillion to its economy.

AI data privacy and job cuts

AI is dominated by the United States and a few Asian nations like China. However, with over 600 million residents, ASEAN is a major market for leading players, making it critical for the region to safeguard its people’s data, stated Felix Patrick, an executive at the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, during one of the panels at the meeting.

“We would face a deeper challenge, namely our data and privacy protection. ASEAN has to make sure that foreign parties will not be able to undermine the region,” he stated.

Others, like Heru Sutadi, the director of Indonesia’s ICT Institute in Jakarta, called on ASEAN governments to invest in mitigating some AI risks, such as job losses and cybercrime.

While some sources have greatly exaggerated the risk of AI job losses, the technology’s enhanced efficiency and automation have led to layoffs globally. In ASEAN, an April report by AMRO found that Filipino workers face the highest risk of disruption. AMRO is an independent research organization established by finance ministers in ASEAN countries.

“For example, given the relatively large size of the business process outsourcing service industry in the economy, the Philippines could face a greater risk of worker displacement—primarily those engaged in more routine work—as AI gradually reshapes ICT operations unless it can move into more knowledge-based services,” AMRO said.

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