HONG KONG – At the recent Beyond Paradigm Summit 2019 in Kuala Lumpur, a Malaysian company unveiled the country's first humanoid robot.

ADAM, an acronym for Advanced Development Autonomous Machine, is built for natural speech and the detection of emotions. While still early in its development, ADAM represents a leap that Malaysia, and perhaps Southeast Asia, is making in the realm of artificial intelligence (AI).

Malaysia and Singapore are leading the way in the development of AI across the 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – which also includes Cambodia, Myanmar, Philippines, Brunei, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Laos. Only the first two seem to be making any significant headway.

"We note that the Malaysian government is placing greater emphasis on luring investments in advanced technology and capital-intensive industries, and in 2018 launched the Industry4WRD national policy on Industry 4.0," Karen Simpkins, a medical device analyst for Fitch Solutions Macro Research, told BioWorld.

The policy, which sets Malaysia's vision for the manufacturing sector for the next 10 years, is expected to drive digital transformation of the country's manufacturing and related services sectors. And that extends to the health care industry as well.

"Additionally, in March 2019, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng launched the MYR3 billion [US$716 million] Industry Digitalisation Transformation Fund, which offers companies an interest subsidy of 2% annually on the financing taken to upgrade their production technology," added Simpkins, who said investment in emerging technologies and smart manufacturing will help Malaysia maintain its international competitiveness.

Malaysia acts on opportunity

Some companies have already started investing in this area.

"Recently, in Malaysia, Edwards Lifesciences Corp. invested MYR100 million to establish a regional business service centre in KL Eco City Kuala Lumpur," said Simpkins.

But more significantly, the medical equipment company also plans to set up an Analytics Centre of Excellence aimed at developing expertise in AI and machine learning (ML), data management and big data analytics to improve the management of patients with structural heart disease. The company plans to hire up to 60 employees in 2019 and to grow this to more than 100 employees by 2021.

Simpkins noted that overall AI usage in ASEAN countries is picking up. This includes the biotech sector, which is using it for drug discovery.

"The success of AI in drug discovery is largely due to deep learning, a field of machine learning that is built using artificial neural networks that model the way neurons in the human brain talk to each other. This technology can train systems to analyze large sets of chemical and biological data to identify drug candidates with high success rates much faster than humans," said Alexandra Annis, senior immunology analyst at Globaldata, adding that she anticipates AI to transform the drug discovery process as we know it. And others agree.

"From an R&D perspective, AI will be anticipated to fine-tune research approaches, serving as support tools for complex data analyses and providing insights that were not possible to obtain with human intervention only," the team at The Economist Intelligence Unit Healthcare (The EIU Healthcare) told BioWorld.

Beyond research, the EIU Healthcare team said that AI-based medical technologies will become more commonly integrated into the day-to-day processes of health care institutions such as in clinical labs, serving as decision-making tools for imaging and pathological tests.

But the current state of AI usage in ASEAN is still restricted to the more developed countries. And even then, it is still early days.

"The larger ASEAN countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have been open to adopting AI but are still quite behind in implementing AI into their systems than more developed geographies like the U.S. and Europe," said EIU Healthcare, the consultancy division of The Economist Group.

And they add that most businesses are still in the nascent stages of AI adoption and have gaps in understanding the approach to AI technology, data, and skills.

Singapore implements first

In terms of current implementation, Singapore leads the pack with larger hospitals embracing the latest technology and incorporating it into their daily operations, like analyzing the medical records and diagnostics. Singapore and Malaysia have experienced an enormous rise in the number of startups focused on solving the countries' med-tech challenges with the help of AI, said EIU Healthcare.

The governments of these two countries have also supported the startups in providing the resources, particularly the capital, needed to develop and commercialize the products.

Yet, EIU Healthcare said there are no specific regulations for AI in med tech and biotech within the ASEAN bloc yet.

"Med-tech companies are generally not very confident on the regulatory system of the countries in the ASEAN region, which also does not have robust IP protection laws and a legal system," said the team.

It's quite possible ASEAN countries are taking a wait-and-see approach with how other countries tackle it as they play catch up with AI innovations.

"The U.S. FDA has begun to explore new approaches in monitoring algorithms that continually and independently update themselves in real-world settings. In April 2019, the FDA proposed a regulatory framework for modifications to AI/ML-based software as a medical device (SaMD) with the goal of ensuring the safety and effectiveness of AI-based SaMD irrespective of ongoing algorithm changes," said EIU Healthcare.

Whether Southeast Asian countries follow this path remains to be seen, but it's undeniable that AI usage in the region has plenty of room to grow. EIU Healthcare stated that growth drivers for AI adoption in ASEAN consistently boils down to "research programs, funding allocations and public-private partnerships."

"Underpinned by Industry 4.0, ASEAN countries can expect health AI adoption to be driven by industry-academia collaborations and bolstered by sizeable government-led funding programs," said EIU Healthcare.

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