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Singapore has announced that it will invest over $100m in Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) in an effort to get its Smart Nation vision back on track. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong publicly voiced his concerns over the project a number of months ago - and conceded that the Smart Nation initiative was moving much slower than initially expected. Prime Minister Loong claimed that the private sector really needed to do more in order to kick-start and propel the initiative forward.

Those analyzing the progress of the project have suggested that the stagnation has been caused primarily due to the fact that Singapore currently has a lack of startup entrepreneurs, programmers and data scientists. For those unfamiliar with the initiative and its purpose - Smart Nation was officially launched in November, 2014 and is supported by other government agencies. The innovative project was created as part of Singapore’s efforts to co-create a better future for all its residents through technology enabled solutions. The city intends to harness all new innovative technology at its disposal in order to improve urban living. It aims to rally the collective efforts of people, businesses and governments to work together to support better living, create more opportunities, enhance public transport networks and ensure a secure, but open data marketplace.

Fundamentally, the Smart Nation initiative ultimately strives to develop people-centric solutions to address global urban challenges. Through strategic deployment of technology across the country a tech savvy population can work quickly in an attempt to coordinate policies and synergize efforts collectively to create a Smart Nation.

The criticism directed at the initiative by Prime Minister Loong has sparked a reaction, and government officials have moved swiftly to reenergize the project and breathe new optimism into Singapore’s ambition to become a Smart Nation and innovation capital – by announcing two exciting new initiatives.

The city-state's Minister for Communications and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim, was asked directly about the comments made by the Singapore Prime Minister. However, Yaacob insisted that he felt that they had ‘got their act together’ – although he did concede that Singapore’s push to become a Smart Nation might come a bit later than that of other countries.

Yaacob announced the two new initiatives which were being launched by Singapore's National Research Foundation (NRF), in collaboration with various local agencies. First, a national program called AI.SG from a partnership between six government agencies: the NRF, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDG) in the Prime Minister's Office, the Economic Development Board, the Infocomm Media Development Authority, SGInnovate and the Integrated Health Information Systems.

The Minister for Communications said it was imperative for this collaboration to address the current challenges in society and industry – and outlined the three key areas the AI.SG will focus on. In a speech he delivered at the Innovfest Unbound conference, Yaacob said, “AI.SG will do three key things. First, address major challenges that affect both society and industry, second invest in deep capabilities to catch the next wave of scientific innovation, and finally, grow A.I. innovation and adoption in companies."

The minister added that the three focus areas of application for AI.SG were finance, city management solutions and healthcare. It was also disclosed that the NRF will invest 150 million Singapore dollars ($107.64) over five years in the AI.SG – and that the initiative will be spearheaded by a team comprising of Tan Kok Yam, deputy secretary at SNDG and deputy president of research and technology at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Professor Ho Teck Hua. NRF CEO, Low Teck Seng said that the parties involved in this project enjoy a good working relationship which they established in previous R&D investments. The NRF CEO said, "AI.SG builds on the current A.I. knowledge and capabilities that we have built up across our Singapore-based research institutions with our past R&D investments.”

The collaboration will attempt to tap into the local community by executing a number of different strategies – ranging from networking events, hackathons, and will provide them with the opportunity to benefit from sharing resources and facilities – including software tools, open source frameworks, anonymized datasets and other A.I. high performance computing resources. The ultimate aim of that will be to create A.I. based solutions in order to combat and tackle real-world challenges.

The Minister for Communications also announced that the NRF will enter into a number of partnerships with local universities and research institutes to establish the Singapore Data Science Consortium, which has been specifically designed to strengthen the relationships between the universities, research institutes and the industry. Ultimately a collective effort across all parties will have a greater effect for their shared goal which is to make Singapore a Smart Nation.

With this cohesion of organizations in place, it enables companies to tap into data science experts at NUS, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research. Yaacob added: "This will help industry to adopt data science and analytics technologies to address real-world challenges.”

In addition to these two new initiatives being launched, just last month, accessing free public Wi-Fi became much easier for the 180,000 tablet and laptop users who use Wireless@SG. The new development will now allow them to log-in automatically after a set-up process, instead of engaging with usernames and passwords each time it attempts to log in to the Wi-Fi system.

For now, users of non-SIM devices can download a revamped Wireless@SG app for seamless connection to hot spots after the first set-up, or can opt for a one-time password to be sent to their mobile phone if they log in through a browser. The move builds on the automatic login already available on devices that use SIM cards, such as smartphones. Broadband service provider MyRepublic will also come on board as the fifth operator offering the Wireless@SG service, after M1, Singtel, StarHub and Y5Zone.

At the time of that announcement those tasked with the responsibility of leading the Smart Nation effort, noted that moves had been initiated in a bid to consolidate the digital efforts of different government entities. It was disclosed that Government Technology Agency (GovTech) - a statutory board under Dr Yaacob's ministry - will come under the Prime Minister's Office, along with the Smart Nation Program Office and technology planning teams from various agencies.

The minister also said it was important for everyone in society "to feel comfortable with the digital revolution - from internet banking to using apps". And it is more important for everyone to also experience government services, he said.

So despite the reservations from Prime Minister Loong in relation to the speed at which the initiative is moving, these recent announcements show that there is a shared desire from a range of entities that are desperate to execute the mission. Singapore is an incredibly innovative place, and is noted worldwide for this – used as a benchmark by other cities who want to replicate Singapore’s transformation to their own respective cities. This new investment represents an exciting opportunity to accelerate Singapore’s desire to become an innovation hub, but most importantly a Smart Nation.

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