AI Singapore at PyCon Singapore 2019

Embracing AI, sharpening competitiveness, improving lives

The annual PyCon Singapore conference took place from the 10th to 12th of October this year. AI Singapore had the honour of contributing to the community through the delivery of a keynote address, as well as through participation in the technical sharing in the subsequent breakout sessions.

Laurence Liew, director of AI Industry Innovation.

To start things off on the right note, the director of AI Industry Innovation in AI Singapore, Laurence Liew, gave the keynote address on the first day of the conference. Looking back at the historical trends in the development of AI over the preceding decades, he reflected on how AI has so permeated our lives that hardly a day goes by today without this technology being used in one form or another. Whether it is the spam filter working 24/7 in our email systems or the recommendations made by Netflix, it is almost impossible to escape AI in the modern world.

As powerful as AI technology has become, Laurence also reminded us that it is fundamentally a series of computations strung together and engineered to serve an intended purpose. He took the audience on a quick tour of how a neural network actually works, dispelling the notion that the oft-hyped deep learning is a step toward Terminator-like thinking machines. On a more serious note, while AI may not take over the world Hollywood-style, its impact is certainly being felt in tasks that used to be performed by humans. Is AI a job-killer? The reality is a bit more complex. As Laurence put it,

AI replaces tasks, not jobs. Programmers will not be replaced by AI, but by programmers who use AI.

Replace “programmer” with another profession. This is a theme that will be echoed as we will see later.

Recognising that mastery of AI offers a competitive edge at the national level, AI Singapore has rolled out the 100 Experiments (100E) programme to increase AI adoption in the nation. In tandem, the AI Apprenticeship Programme (AIAP)™ serves to strengthen our local AI engineering talent base. So successful has AIAP™ been so far that it has been recognised as one of the country winners in the “Talent Accelerator” category in this year’s IDC Digital Transformation Awards (DX Awards). Laurence is of the view that an important focus of the national effort should be on engineers and developers :

We need many more AI/ML engineers to deploy AI systems than scientists to build new AI algorithms.

For aspiring AI engineers, the good news is that application for the next batch of apprentices in AIAP™ is already open and will close on 20th Oct. Click here for the application form.

When it comes to AI talent development, it is never too young to start. Laurence was pleased to announce an update to the ongoing AI for Students (AI4S) programme. Henceforth, all students in MOE-registered schools can directly register for the programme without going through their teachers. Certainly a good initiative to allow the young to take charge of their own learning and be prepared for the future workplace!

Robotic process automation queries on Google Trends

In recent years, there has been a surge in interest in robotic process automation (RPA). A quick search on Google Trends reveals the exploding number of queries. So, what is RPA? Thu Ya Kyaw, a graduate of the inaugural batch of AIAP™ was well placed to answer the question in one of the breakout sessions. In his words,

RPA is a process of creating software programs to automate non-decision making repetitive activities or processes.

Thu Ya Kyaw, machine learning engineer at NTUC Enterprise Co-operative and AIAP™ graduate.

In a nutshell, RPA mimics human actions. Actions that do not require strategic thinking and higher level reasoning. Actions that rank low on the scale of human cognitive satisfaction. Coupled with AI technologies like computer vision (CV) and natural language processing (NLP), RPA can be used to chain together work packages traditionally done by humans to deliver complete work solutions. This naturally raises the question (again), “Will RPA replace jobs?”. To that, Thu Ya has a word of advice, to re-quote Steve Jobs,

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

You can read more about what Thu Ya shared here.

With the burgeoning interest in RPA, it comes as no surprise that many players have entered a fragmented market, offering enterprise solutions. While enterprise software are generally user friendlier and have better support and functionalities, the absence of a common standard gives rise to a lack of interoperability and results in high switching costs. An alternative would be open source solutions. Ken Soh, the creator of TagUI for Python, shared about the tool in one of the last breakout sessions at PyCon. Offering features such as website automation, visual automation, OCR automation, keyboard and mouse automation in one seamless API, Ken demonstrated how it can be employed in use cases like making repeat orders on RedMart, capturing forex rates and making mass edits of MS Word documents.

Ken Soh, creator of TagUI.

TagUI for Python is a Python package built on TagUI, an open source RPA software maintained by AI Singapore and released under the Apache 2.0 licence.

New technologies are disruptive. They have the potential to improve lives, as well as throw them off balance. In the few jam-packed days of PyCon Singapore 2019, AI Singapore sought to bring insights to how to stay ahead of the curve and help citizens live better lives.