New Salesforce AI research centre to train 100 postgraduate students

The company logo for Salesforce displayed on a building in New York City, on March 7, 2019.
The company logo for Salesforce displayed on a building in New York City, on March 7, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - A new artificial intelligence (AI) center has opened here promising to train up to 100 postgraduate students in Singapore over the next three years in various fields of AI, such as natural language processing and deep learning.

This comes amid aggressive plans by the Singapore government to devote more resources to research and development (R&D) in frontier technologies such as AI to secure its economic viability in the digital future, and adds to other high-profile AI centres recently launched here.

The centre, which officially opened on Wednesday (Mar 27), is located at American software firm Salesforce's office at Suntec City, and is the firm's first AI research center out of their R&D hub in Palo Alto, California.

"Singapore is a natural choice to set up an AI research hub with its diversity of talent and its world-class universities," said Mr Richard Socher, Salesforce chief scientist, at the opening.

The firm will be training postgraduate students from Singapore Management University (SMU), the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) from August this year.

Salesforce's specialty is in customer relationship management software for companies to better manage their interactions with customers. Its research arm is behind Salesforce Einstein, an AI product that "learns" from data to deliver predictions and recommendations based on a business' unique processes.

Salesforce's new research center adds to the list of high-profile openings of several other AI centers here, including the NTU-Alibaba Research Lab and SMU's Centre for AI and Data Governance.

Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran, who was at the centre opening, said the AI centre is "an endorsement" of the work Singapore is doing in the AI field.

The Singapore Government is also putting money where its mouth is, announcing earlier this month (March) that it would inject an additional $300 million to research and development (R&D) in frontier technologies, such as artificial intelligence. The top-up brings the total R&D fund to $660 million, a key indicator of how Singapore is committed to making Smart Nation living a reality here.

Mr Iswaran also urged the industry to address the ethical and societal dimension of AI noting that AI is still not well understood.

For instance, AI applications in sectors such as healthcare can yield major social benefits, but the potential for mishandling the data collected by governments and companies to enable these applications poses major reputational risks.

On the sidelines of the last World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January this year (2019), Mr Iswaran announced the launch of Asia's first model framework for governing AI to address some of these concerns.

"The earlier we address it, the more transparent we are, the greater the potential," said Mr Iswaran on Wednesday (March 27).

"We're keen to work with partners like Salesforce in nurturing the ecosystem whilst we develop talent and ensure the ethical framework is in place to guide us in this journey," he added.

During a panel discussion on the role of AI in business and society following the centre opening, Mr George Wang, senior vice president for information technology at Singapore Airlines, said that AI plans an important role for the national carrier.

For example, AI technology helps to predict flight delays, as well as to handle customer feedback and queries a lot more efficiently, he said.

"Among the feedback, some are urgent, like medical cases. Before, we had to manually handle all this feedback, but by applying AI that helps to identify and understand the sentiment and context of feedback, so that it can auto-classify them and sieve out the urgent cases that need our immediate attention," Mr Wang added.