Leveling up to AI: DTI roadmap shows the way

Published May 23, 2021, 12:12 AM

by Manila Bulletin

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace of digital transformation worldwide. In the Philippines, the protracted lockdown has brought about a shift to digital and online payments. Artificial intelligence (AI) has become the catalyst for the increased tempo of what is now widely known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

As it is commonly understood, AI “refers to the simulation of human intelligence in machines that are programmed to think like humans and mimic their actions.” After the introduction of smartphones, digital voice assistants — such as Amazon and Apple’s Alexa and Siri — became popular applications of AI as a tool for more convenient daily living.

Two weeks ago, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) launched the national artificial intelligence (AI) roadmap that placed the Philippines on the list of the first 50 countries in the world to adopt a national strategy and policy on AI.  Secretary Ramon Lopez declared that the Philippines is seeking to become an AI center for excellence in the region “that is backed by our rich local talent pool and vibrant innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem.”

While the DTI’s enthusiasm is laudable, there is need to take cognizance of current global realities.  According to a recent Georgetown University study, India — one of the Philippines’ erstwhile competitors in the business process outsourcing (BPO) field — is the fourth largest producer of research papers on AI behind the United Kingdom, the United States and China.

Forbes magazine also reports that while Indian investors poured in an estimated $1.2 billion in AI-related deals between 2015 and 2019, US financiers invested $858 million into Indian companies involved in AI development.  Synergy is a vital element in AI development.  US Big Tech giants Amazon, Google and Microsoft appear to be already deeply entrenched as preferred cloud computing service providers in India.

In September last year, an AI Pilipinas Coalition was established. Partnering with the DTI were Microsoft, the Makati Business Club, Infocomm Technology Association of the Philippines (ITAP), Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD), Women’s Business Council Philippines, and the US-ASEAN Business Council Inc.  With the DTI’s launching of the country’s AI roadmap, it is evident that momentum is building.

A private sector-led National Center for AI Research is the linchpin of the country’s bid to an AI center for excellence in the region, “a data processing hub providing high-value data analytics and AI services to the world given the country’s strong business process management sector.” AI applications are seen in logistics, transportation, real estate, financial services, retail, agribusiness, urban planning, heath care and manufacturing.

For such lofty aspirations to materialize, government needs to secure the support of industry, academe and the citizenry. Through the fog of uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, it must persuade investors that the talent and ingenuity of Filipinos — and their bayanihan ethos in the workplace are intangible sources of competitive advantage that are difficult to match.