INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY | Contributed Content, Singapore
Joel Ko Hyun Sik

Deep thinking, not programming skills, must lead Singapore in the era of Deep Tech


Many people ask how Singapore can prepare for, and lead in, the era of artificial intelligence (AI) in terms of talent and human capital. AI is bringing huge impact to all of our lives and so it is a natural question to ask.

On the one extreme, we might suggest that learning computer science or programming from elementary school onwards is the best bet. And actually, some countries are trying to do this. Many parents are rushing to send their children to coding school.

About 90 per cent of students in Singapore take one or more STEM subject, according to Edelman’s STEM Education in Asia Pacific Survey. Meanwhile, banks like DBS have tripled the headcount in its technology and operations department to 10,000 in the past five years, hiring software engineers, data scientists, and cloud specialists.

However, put simply, I think this kind of policy or approach stems from a rudimentary understanding of the coming AI era.

Yes, machines will replace humans in coding too
Maybe soon, programming and coding will become jobs primarily fulfilled by computers, not humans. Much of the AI technology being developed by the tech giants in Silicon Valley and elsewhere makes coding much easier and faster. Even some AI startups approaching me here in Singapore in order to secure funding have integrated automation that supports faster learning of programming skills. 

This brings me to my next point, which is that the easier the coding becomes, and the more commoditised it is by our machine counterparts, the more important it is for human capital in Singapore to take on the role of deep thinking.

What we need is to learn how to generate and develop our ideas and turn them into reality, whether that be business deals, building out great teams, raising funding, or serving the customer better than a competitor.

Whilst new AI technology may be excellent at knocking out code at record speed, the business problems and deeper thinking around commercialising technology and striking partnerships in the market still need to come from good old-fashioned human leadership.

Yes, we are still experiencing a lack of talent in AI, especially in Singapore, but what I’ve learned is that this shortage is actually most acutely felt for engineers who have deep thinking and designing capabilities, not just coding.

What do the liberal arts have to do with AI?
I agree with Mark Cuban, who says that studying philosophy may soon be worth more than computer science. To paraphrase Cuban, AI is going to take up much of the heavy lifting away from humans in the next 10 years, at least in terms of programming and software engineering work. That’s despite computer science being the most lucrative degree as of 2017.

Cuban is not alone in predicting this. Google is contributing to the conversation, too. In stating the problem in an article in January, MIT Technology Review reporter Will Knight wrote: “The difficulty of developing AI systems has created a race to recruit talent, and it means that only big companies with deep pockets can usually afford to build their own bespoke AI algorithms.”

However, things are changing.

To tackle this, Google is creating self-training AI that turns coders into machine-learning masters. By automating the training of machine-learning systems, Google thinks it can make AI much more accessible and bring down costs of deep-learning algorithms.

What is really needed in the era of AI and deep tech
My takeaway from all this is clear - we don't need to rush into coding. Rather, we need to know what still does, and will in the future, differentiate us as humans from machines. Where is our unfair advantage against the our encroaching AI overlords?

In my opinion, thinking in this liberal arts fashion will be the best way for Singapore and beyond to prepare for the coming deep tech era. No, that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t send their kids to coding school. But just don’t think coding alone will guarantee them a free pass to the AI future.

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Joel Ko Hyun Sik

Joel Ko Hyun Sik

As an investor and serial entrepreneur, Joel's lifelong goal is to invest in and support 10,000 innovative individuals and companies around the world focusing on AI, FinTech, and Smart City innovations. Recently, leveraging his experience as the co-founder of the world’s largest FinTech hub LATTICE80, Joel is passionately committed to launching an AI hub called ‘DeepBase’ globally.

Joel has written widely on the topic of AI, FinTech, Blockchain, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship for publications including The Business Times, Yahoo, Tech In Asia and Singapore Business Review, and has volunteered actively as a mentor for startups. As an Affiliate Faculty at the Singapore Management University (SMU), he lectures on AI and FinTech.

He was selected as a LinkedIn Power Profile (Top 8) for Singapore in Finance in 2018. Joel holds an MBA from the National University of Singapore Business School.

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