Singapore has long held a regional leadership role in technology governance and has experienced rapid technological growth in Southeast Asia. The country has more recently made clear its ambitions to cement its status as a global artificial intelligence hub. In pursuit of these goals, Singapore has provided top-down support for AI research and development (R&D) processes, including the significant streamlining of patent timelines and the cultivation of AI talent. It has also fostered an ecosystem conducive to growing AI startups, supported by a heavy emphasis on research, publications, and ethical and human-centric AI frameworks.
By many measures, Singapore is succeeding. It was the first country in Southeast Asia to launch a national AI strategy. As a percentage of GDP, Singapore’s governmentsupported AI R&D spending is 18 times larger than similar U.S. R&D spending. The city-state has also introduced a number of government initiatives on talent cultivation and innovation which have contributed to its AI success. Using CSET’s Country Activity Tracker, we found that it was ranked 12th globally for the highest number of AI patent applications (661), 14th for patents granted (297), and 5th for percentage of patent growth between 2017 and 2020 (213.64 percent). Singapore’s ecosystem of accelerators, incubators, and over 3,600 tech startups ranks it as one of the world’s most developed startup environments, bolstered by strong foreign investments and international collaboration, including in the form of research partnerships. In terms of its AI research output citations, Singapore is 15th globally for number of research articles cited (877,650), with China and the United States being the top two collaborators on AI-related research.
In this paper, we explore Singapore’s AI strategy and progress and analyze published documents from the Singaporean government. Our findings highlight the following:
- Singapore’s national AI strategy seeks to harness AI in key sectors. Active areas of research are predominantly focused on domestic improvements in the fields of healthcare, manufacturing, and cybersecurity. There is little indication that it is aiming to leverage AI for military purposes.
- Singapore’s future AI progress will be challenged unless it addresses its tech talent shortage. With only 2,800 information and communications technology graduates in 2020 and an expected demand of sixty thousand through 2024, Singapore is falling far short. To begin addressing this issue, Singapore has implemented apprenticeship programs, fortified its youth tech talent pipeline, facilitated partnerships with tech companies internationally, and attempted to attract global talent. The results of these efforts remain to be seen.
- Singapore’s regional leadership in other technical areas could serve as a template for AI leadership in the region. In addition to spearheading numerous Association of Southeast Asian Nations cybersecurity initiatives, Singapore has also built a physical center—the ASEAN-Singapore Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence—to house regional exchanges and dialogues around cybersecurity. This endeavor positions it to be a leader in other technology forums, particularly those centered around AI.
- Singapore has expressed its commitment to human-centric and ethical employment of AI applications, and begun steps to apply these ideals in practice. The city-state has a unique definition of “human-centricity” in AI that is directly tied to its approach to AI ethics. The government has also created the Model AI Governance Framework to implement the guiding principles from its ethics documents. In many ways these frameworks are similar to efforts within the United States, including the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights and the AI Ethics Framework for the Intelligence Community, both of which carry principles of human consideration and involvement in AI decision-making. There may be opportunities for further alignment between the two countries and with other allies and partners to further promote trust in AI developments and ensure their ethical use.
We close with the following recommendations:
- Promote shared views on the ethical development and use of AI. Singapore’s emphasis on ethical AI aligns well with U.S. goals in this area, at least on paper. This point should bring comfort, but not complacency, to U.S. policymakers. There are opportunities for the two countries to collaborate on setting AI norms and regulatory measures in international bodies. The United States should continue to support Singapore’s leadership as many of ASEAN’s member states have started to gravitate toward Singapore for economic advancement and investment in cyber and AI.
- Collaborate to address AI talent shortfalls in both countries. While Singapore has initiated a slew of programs aimed at addressing its talent development shortfall, the current talent gap is sizable and could benefit from additional U.S. support, such as partnerships and exchange programs. Creating these programs is especially important given that China already has tech talent exchange memoranda of understanding (MOU) and partnerships with Singapore, while the United States does not. However, this may be difficult due to the lack of streamlined immigration pathways for foreign-born AI workers seeking to work in the United States.
- Learn from Singapore’s example. Singapore is an important test case for government investment in emerging technology, talent upskilling, and shaping norms on the ethical use of AI globally. Its AI strategy and resulting investments, in conjunction with ethical and regulatory frameworks, have played a pivotal role in fostering its AI ecosystem. Although the United States currently has no similar federal legislation regulating AI, its state and local governments have passed a number of legislative measures. Though the governance systems between the two countries are different, there are likely to be takeaways for the United States from the example of Singapore and its initiatives.
- Collaborate on the development of national AI research resources for public use. Both the United States and Singapore have initiatives to provide greater AI resources in the form of datasets and computational capabilities to researchers and universities. A sharing of best practices from these initiatives offers the opportunity to uplift both countries’ efforts.
- Singapore is highly linked with both the United States and China and continues to signal its desire to remain as a neutral AI hub, stay out of geopolitical disputes, and maintain strong technology partnerships with both countries. The city-state has explicitly expressed that the United States should focus primarily on trade rather than purely on geopolitics and countering China. As such, the United States should not treat Singapore as an instrumental player in its competition with China. Singapore has made it clear that it is wary of, and would resist, such intentions. Accordingly, a more effective partnership is one that enables AI progress to benefit both countries.
- Instead of expecting Singapore to take sides, the United States should seek to leverage its partnership with Singapore to enable AI progress that will benefit both countries. The United States and Singapore already have a strong cybersecurity partnership through various MOUs and private sector collaboration, and this foundation can strengthen their growing linkages in AI investment, research, and endeavors in setting international norms. The United States should not grow complacent in this partnership, especially on emerging technologies like AI, nor can it expect Singapore to take sides geopolitically.