Improving Singapore’s AI Literacy With AI for Everyone

For many people. their first point of contact with AI Singapore is through AI for Everyone. I had a chance to talk to Sengmeng, who leads the talent programme, on how getting the nation to be AI literate is so important.

Below is a transcript of the conversation [*].

Hi Sengmeng, good to have you.

Thank you, Basil. Thanks for inviting me.

In previous episodes, I have talked to a wide range of people both within and without AI Singapore, including our lead engineers, AI apprentices and industry advisory members – who are the ones who reach out to industry people to bring them onto the AI journey – as well as sponsors on our 100E programme who come to us with their problem statements.
But, to the general public, in terms of sheer numbers, I think most people are acquainted with AI Singapore through programmes like AI for Everyone and AI for Industry.
Recently, we even forged a partnership with the Civil Service College to adopt AI for Everyone to develop AI literacy for all our public service officers. And we know how big the civil service is, so things are certainly scaling up.
Let’s pull back the curtain a little and bring us behind the scene, the evolution and thinking behind these initiatives.

Thanks, Basil, for setting the stage. Yes, there’s certainly a lot of evolution when we first started AI Singapore and how the talent programme came into place. Originally when AI Singapore was formed in July of 2017, the role for AI Innovation was very simple – to do a hundred industry projects. What we realised that, that it wasn’t so straightforward to go to the industry and then invite them to come to us with problem statements for us to do AI projects. So, a lot of work needs to be done in demystifying AI for those companies and especially introducing AI foundational knowledge to our working professionals, so that they understand that the goal that we’re trying to do with them is to enable them to achieve their business objective through artificial intelligence, not to replace them. So having programmes and having a way to establish a AI foundational baseline is very important.

So you’ve talked about the AI foundational baseline. Why is it important to have that?

In many strategies that we see from organisations, from even governments, that talk about AI strategy, it’s always about grooming AI engineers, machine learning engineers, scientists and even researchers. In AI Singapore, the view that we hold is, while these talents are very important when it comes to promoting the adoption of AI solutions and promoting the adoption of AI development within the country, equally important is the development of the knowledge among the AI users, in this case, it will be the consumers.

So, it’s not just about the tech people. They may be in the spotlight most of the time, but AI literacy is something that is broader across society, right?

That’s a very good point, Basil – AI literacy. Not everybody needs to learn how to code, and not everybody needs to learn how to program and train a machine learning model. Being able to understand basic terminologies of AI or machine learning, and being able to understand in high level principles how machine learning models are being trained – these are very good and, in fact, very essential foundational knowledge for consumers, because AI is pervading all aspects of business life. So, even as you are person who don’t code and don’t train machine learning models, you are going to be a user and you will also be consuming AI solutions. So, having AI literacy actually will help you to be a better judge of whether the AI solution is beneficial to you, how you are going to use it to improve your business, to improve your career and also to improve your life.

So, pretty much in line with our mission here at AI Singapore, where we are tasked with building up the AI ecosystem in Singapore. We have to look at things in a holistic manner and AI literacy is something that we would want to cultivate across the whole ecosystem. Looking into the future, how do you think AI literacy affects future use and development of AI?

As AI becomes more mainstream in businesses and even at public sector and government level where AI is increasingly being used to look at data-driven decision making and even recommendation of policies. Another aspect of AI literacy which is becoming more important is AI ethics. As we have more people being literate in AI, they become better evaluator of AI technology being used in their everyday lives and in their work life and they are in a better position to evaluate and to detect whether these are responsible or irresponsible AI solutions that actually affect them. So, in the future when we look at the development of AI, I do foresee an environment where the AI consumers and the public are also a natural proponent to voice out what kind of AI systems they would like to see being implemented and being deployed, and we may move into a development where future AI systems may be looking at a AI trust mark, so that when businesses get this trust mark, they are assuring the public that the AI system is being designed fairly, transparently and with ethical design in mind.

So we have certainly moved beyond the pure technicals of getting AI models to be accurate and expanded into things like making them responsible and auditable. I think this is a natural development. So, after running the programmes for a while now, what are the challenges encountered in grooming AI literacy?

We saw two challenges involved in grooming AI literacy. First is, the general public tend to fear AI being used to replace their job or to replace their livelihood, and the second is, those who wish to use AI see it as a magic bullet that will solve anything that they need AI to do. So, it’s important for us when we groom AI literacy to emphasize what modern AI can do and cannot do, and what are the limitations. Besides that, a lot of public information on AI does not go in depth into AI, into terms like machine learning, supervised learning, unsupervised learning .. they use the term too freely and that leads to a lot of misconceptions. Also, for many people who are very keen to look at AI or understand them, there are too many learning resources out there. So, most of them don’t know how to start. So when we develop AI for Everyone, it is a way for people who are very new to it, for people who don’t have a lot of time to try to go through a lot of different diverse material to have a very simple way of entering into the world of understanding AI, the first step into their AI literacy.

We have certainly covered a fair amount of ground on this journey already. What more can we expect in the future?

Our talent team continue to look at ways which we can improve our AI literacy programme. Besides looking at refreshing our existing programmes, such as AI for Everyone and AI for Industry, to updated content to keep pace with the development of AI, we also continue our efforts to broaden the scope of bringing literacy to all generations. For example, our current AI for Kids are meant for children aged between ten to twelve years old. In Singapore, there’ll be primary five to primary six. In December, we are going to roll out the AI for Kids Illustrated Edition, where we have been working with partners to produce an e-book that will be suitable for our young kids from primary one to primary three. This e-book will be in a format that is very easy for them to comprehend and a very fun way for them to understand AI, so that they themselves also have an early start in AI literacy.

Globally, there has been a lot of interest from overseas partners and even governments to try to learn from us how we have been grooming AI literacy, and we have entered into a couple of formal partnerships where we will share AI for Everyone to different governments and different grassroot organisations all over the world, so that they can use that as a template to also build the AI foundational knowledge for their citizens.

Many exciting plans in the pipeline. To end for today, I invite you to round things up with some final words.

Thank you, Basil. I think in closing, I would like to encourage the listeners to view AI as a tool just like Powerpoint or Excel is a tool, and software that you have been using are tools that actually help you to do your work better, more efficiently and generally also enrich your life. So, be open to understanding AI and be open to understanding what it can and cannot do, and be open to understanding how it can benefit you. Thank you.

Thanks, Sengmeng.

[*] This conversation was transcribed using Speech Lab. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.