Asia’s AI agenda: A major driver of regional growth 

July 26, 2019
Emerging ecosystems, business applications, and implications for human capital across Asia.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has quite possibly been the most widely discussed technology theme of 2019. In the decades ahead, big data, machine learning (ML), and automation will transform cities, companies, and societies. In preparation, policymakers and business leaders around the world are planning for a future where AI is a core competency—a critical determinant of economic competitiveness and agility.

To gather perspectives about the emerging ecosystems, business applications, and human capital impact of AI, MIT Technology Review Insights surveyed almost 900 Asia-based senior executives and conducted interviews with more than two dozen global and regional experts in the field. The research program, “Asia’s AI agenda” was published between December 2018 and July 2019 in four in-depth white papers: The ecosystem; AI for business; AI and human capital; and The ethics of AI.

A major growth driver for Asia

The research showed that technological readiness, particularly having a sophisticated AI base, is high on the agenda for nations and for companies. Asian governments have ambitious plans for leadership in the AI era, which include building fertile ecosystems that will attract much-needed AI talent and capital, as well as allowing companies to apply AI quickly and effectively across their organizations.

With much to gain from being an AI early-adopter, most countries have a national plan for accelerating capability. From China to Japan, Singapore to India, policymakers across Asia are developing national level plans for how AI can be used to enhance domestic and regional competitiveness, which include public and private sector collaboration. As a result, Asia has credible potential for becoming a front runner in the AI era.

Business leaders are positive about the AI resources at their disposal, particularly the availability of data and quality of talent. Yet our survey shows that more can be done to bolster the R&D environment and that governments can still provide greater support. Over half of surveyed companies are already using AI. Of the 13 markets in which data was gathered, the highest level of AI penetration was reported in North Asia— Japan and South Korea. Indonesia and Vietnam are at the most nascent stage; with just a quarter of companies using any form of AI.

 Download The ecosystem

Download AI for business

A mixed outlook on jobs

Some 77% of survey respondents expect hiring to increase over the next five years, even in functions where AI is being deployed. Corporate priorities for AI are to enhance customer satisfaction, speed up decision-making, and reduce inefficiencies. The loss of some roles to automation, and the restructuring of others, are likely. Yet reducing headcount is not a top priority in and of itself. Just one-third of survey respondents listed the need to reduce labor costs as a top-three driver for AI.

Yet AI will affect one in every five jobs in Asia—eliminating one in eight. Across 11 Asian markets, data show that 12% of current jobs are at high risk of being automated in the next five years. Data show that the effect of AI on job automation will be greater in Asia’s wealthier economies than in poorer ones (14% as opposed to 10%). However, many more jobs in developed markets will actually benefit and be augmented by AI (11% of the total) than in less-developed markets (just 6%).

Winners and losers

The introduction of AI in high-income countries will result in a high degree of job augmentation and added capacity, mostly in knowledge-intensive industries. In developing Asia, fewer jobs are augmented by technology and little capacity will be added. The degree to which jobs are enhanced will be determined by the structure of each country’s economy, its technology-readiness, and other economic and social drivers. Labor-constrained markets such as Singapore, Australia and Japan will be among the fastest to seize the opportunities created by AI.

 Download AI and human capital

Frameworks over regulation

Asian governments are building institutional capacity and frameworks to increase AI governance—but have yet to develop regulations. Overwhelmingly, more survey respondents believe Asia will lead the world in the development of ethics and governance than any other region: 45%, as compared with only a quarter who see North America as the ethics frontrunner. Across the region, from Singapore to Japan and China, governments are assembling AI institutions to guide governance, often consulting with the private sector and civil society.

Survey respondents are engaged in AI ethics discussions and see a constructive role for governments. Just under half (42%) of participants say there is “vigorous debate” on ethical issues surrounding AI in their companies, and the majority (55%) think AI should be government-regulated.

 Download The ethics of AI

Aligning talent with technology

Talent and technology agendas must align to sustain long term growth. Survey respondents believe that jobs are being enhanced by AI, and that employee satisfaction overall is increasing as a result. But is there a false sense of security, and does that prevent the necessary preparations for disruption and reskilling from taking place? Across the region, governments are unprepared for how fast technology will outpace human capabilities in some areas. Business leaders and policymakers must urgently align technology and talent agendas to build career pathways for those displaced, and to ensure that critical skills gaps do not open up and restrict growth in the long term.