ASEAN launches guide for governing AI, but experts say there are challenges

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Other ASEAN member states are lagging behind Singapore in terms of AI readiness, according to a Salesforce index.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Friday published a framework for artificial intelligence governance, but experts say member states being at “different stages of digital development” could pose a challenge.

“The guide seeks to establish common principles for trustworthy AI and suggest best practices for how to implement trustworthy AI in ASEAN,” said Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information.

Singapore is hosting the 4th ASEAN Digital Ministers’ Meeting from Feb. 1-2 to discuss emerging digital issues including AI and cyber scams.

Kristina Fong, lead researcher for economic affairs at ASEAN Studies Centre, said “the light-touch, flexible approach” to managing AI risks with the guide is a “reflection of the challenges posed by the development gaps between ASEAN member states.”

She said the nations vary, “not only in terms of digital capabilities, but also in terms of the level of maturity of regulatory authorities, institutional capacities as well as the rule of law.”

“That is why it is important to have a forum to discuss these risks and issues and be able to have a coordinated approach to managing them, and more importantly, provide a way forward for ASEAN member states that are currently lagging behind,” said Fong.

The ASEAN guide on AI governance and ethics includes national-level and regional-level recommendations that governments can consider implementing to design, develop, and deploy AI systems responsibly.

ASEAN is made up of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Interest in AI exploded with the launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in November 2022 when the chatbot went viral for its ability to generate humanlike responses to users’ prompts.

“Singapore was among the first countries to publish a National AI Strategy in 2019,” Josephine Teo, minister for communications and information, said in November as the city-state seeks to “make the best of AI.” The country launched its National AI Strategy 2.0 in December.

Singapore topped Salesforce’s 2023 Asia Pacific AI Readiness Index, which evaluated 12 nations. Other ASEAN member states – Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, The Philippines and Thailand – were lower on the list, in the eighth to twelfth spots.

“The challenge with a region like ASEAN is that within the region, you have different countries that are different stages of digital development. This means drastically different policy concerns and considerations,” said Kenddrick Chan, senior policy analyst at Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

“Even looking at a few of the fundamental building blocks of regulations needed to effectively manage these AI risks, such as those for cybersecurity and personal data protection, countries are not on the same page in terms of stages of implementation or regulatory effectiveness,” said Fong of ASEAN Studies Centre.

In the ASEAN guide, national-level recommendations include nurturing AI talent and upskilling workforces as well as investing in AI research and development. Regional-level recommendations include setting up a working group to roll out such recommendations and compiling use cases to show implementation.

The guide provides members with use cases from Asia’s companies and public sectors that have implemented AI governance measures in AI design, development, and deployment such as Gojek and Singapore’s Smart Nation Group.

“It is becoming clear that the private sector will have a crucial role to play in AI governance efforts. Governments should therefore explore mechanisms to foster better public-private collaboration in this space, both at the national and regional level,” said Chan.

“Doing so means better policy formulation, implementation, and enforcement. In light of this, the ASEAN AI guide is a good first step but as the AI field evolves, so too must guidelines and regulations,” said Chan.

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