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Melanie CookHead of Strategy and Business Consultancy, Southeast AsiaSapientRazorfish
Of the countries in Asia-Pacific, China is taking the lead in artificial intelligence (AI) research. It’s even eclipsing the US on an international level, according to Melanie Cook, head of strategy and business consultancy for Southeast Asia at digital consultancy SapientRazorfish. eMarketer’s David Green spoke with Cook about the growing importance of AI for businesses in the region and how China pulled ahead of the pack.
eMarketer: Artificial intelligence is a broad notion. What is considered AI, and what are some examples?
Melanie Cook: AI includes machine learning, algorithm and data analysis. There’s definitely a sliding scale of AI-ness, but it’s now all been clumped together.
For example, IBM calls [question-answering computer system] Watson a platform of services, not AI, because Watson will help churn through all of the dark data you have—the data that has been collecting and collecting, but because of its complexity and its sheer volume, it’s dark. IBM was born out of the human-computer interaction school of thought, as opposed to the AI school.
Interestingly, IBM recently featured Watson in a campaign where it helps a fashion designer create a clothing line in Australia. Watson analyzed trends from over the past 10 to 20 years as well as social data and what people and experts were talking about, and then wrapped it all up into a foresight package for the designer, who then created her next collection. It’s a human giving Watson a task and then interpreting what Watson has given back rather than just allowing Watson to design the clothing.
eMarketer: How do you explain the value of artificial intelligence to your clients?
Cook: There are predictive experiences that absolutely need AI. Say you’re in customer service. Someone calls and if you’re linked to their Netflix or you know they have kids, for example, you can have a more well-rounded conversation with them.
AI and automation make the human more intelligent so they can have more relevant conversations with the customer, and eventually have a positive impact on the business. Our consultancy ensures that AI and data analysis as a whole are seen as augmentative to the people within the organization we’re working with.
eMarketer: What progress in AI has been made in Asia-Pacific compared with the rest of the world?
Cook: [President] Trump is pulling back on government-funded AI research. He has proposed a meager $175 million towards AI research in the US, leaving the rest of the research to be done by private institutions like Google, Amazon, Apple, Boston Dynamics, etc.
China is leading in Asia-Pacific when it comes to AI research. In China, the private and public sectors are basically one, and they’re spending billions on AI as China grapples with an aging population. Given that there are far fewer economically active people, they’re looking to automate because they realize those people need to generate higher income per capita. They will automate away cheap labor and release these economically active kids who will look after their elders so that they can command a higher salary.
eMarketer: What about in Singapore, where you’re based?
Cook: Technology adoption rates are much slower in Singapore purely because we have less than 10% of the population of the US, let alone India or China. Singapore is also quite a risk-averse culture—AI isn’t an imperative for a market this small.
A lot of big businesses in the region are still suffering from an inability to disrupt themselves and change. Change agents tend to be ones that are first concentrating on the market, and when the market is small, that means the change agent is small as well.
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