Talent: Making Malaysia future ready for AI

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 27, 2022 - July 03, 2022.
Talent: Making Malaysia future ready for AI
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US chip giant Intel has been a household name and leader in the local tech industry since setting up camp in Malaysia 50 years ago. Eric Chan, vice-president of Internet of Things Group (IoTG) at Intel Corp in Penang, says the company grew as a steward of Moore’s law, which was the primary driving force for the company to continue to progressively develop its semiconductor technology.

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles about every two years, though the cost of computers is halved. In 1965, Gordon E Moore, a co-founder of Intel, made this observation that became known as Moore’s Law.

Last year, Intel CEO Patrick Paul Gelsinger unveiled IDM 2.0, a major evolution of Intel’s integrated device manufacturing (IDM) model. Shweta Khurana, Intel senior director for Asia-Pacific and Japan, government partnerships and initiatives, global government affairs, says this allows the company to have the depth and breadth of everything tech, including software, silicon, platforms, packaging and process at scale.

Today, there are four technology superpowers — artificial intelligence (AI), ubiquitous computing, pervasive connectivity and cloud-to-edge infrastructure. More importantly, there is a focus on digital-readiness, which means these superpowers need superheroes, says Shweta.

“We are trying to develop human capital according to Intel’s Digital Readiness programme portfolio and delimit everybody’s imagination and empower them with skills on these superpowers,” she explains.

Over the past 50 years, Intel has continually invested in Malaysia and recently announced an additional RM30 billion investment. In addition to developing its manufacturing and research capabilities, Intel has also been particularly focused on enhancing Malaysia’s digital talent pool.

The rapid development and adoption of technology has made technology quotient as important as intelligence quotient (IQ), as technological processes have been seamlessly woven into our lives. This means digital-readiness is important for everyone, from senior citizens to digital natives.

Intel has programmes running in nine countries, says Shweta, where it collaborates with governments to launch and drive large-scale digital-readiness initiatives. These initiatives focus mainly on developing human capital on new age technologies and emerging technologies like AI.

“We get talents ready for jobs of the future. We work with the current workforce, future workforce and children in schools as young as 13, just to ensure that we make technology more inclusive. The idea is not to get everybody ready to be a developer but to learn how to live and navigate in a world fuelled by emerging technologies like AI,” she explains.

“We’re surrounded by AI, and Intel announced a global goal to expand digital-readiness and really make technology inclusive for 30 million people by 2030 to help nations achieve their SDG (sustainable development goals).”

Lack of talent still a challenge

On a local level, Chan says, most companies say talent is never enough, which he believes is a good thing, as it is an indication that the economy is growing and there is still demand for technical skills. He adds that this is something seen around the world as well.

“This is exactly why we’re having outreach programmes and working closely with universities, where we share our curriculum. We have a challenge, not just in the industry but in universities as well, to create graduates that are ready to embark on their career and enter the workforce.

“On top of making requests to the government, we ourselves have to lean in to make sure that we are helping prepare graduates to be ready for this huge demand.”

Shweta concurs, adding that there is a global digital skills crisis. The primary reason is that countries or governments today recognise that AI is going to add value to their gross domestic product (GDP). 

But the transformational value of AI for any economy can only be realised when the human capital of that country not only understands but also trusts the technology, she adds.

“Otherwise, technology will be there just for the sake of having technology in large-scale projects, which would not make sense. So, keeping that in mind, what Intel has decided to do is develop human capital on emerging technologies,” says Shweta.

Intel has built an end-to-end digital-readiness portfolio, tackling many sectors of society. It starts with programmes like AI for citizens, which is basic public awareness of how to get citizens to learn digital skills and trust them, navigate in a digital world and how to use these skills responsibly.

Shweta says there are three verticals for digital-readiness — learning and trusting skills, trusting the emerging technology space in entirety and learning how to use it responsibly. She adds that the programme covers topics and issues such as ethics, inclusivity and access to technology.

“We also have programmes like AI for youth, which is to allow youth in high school to learn and apply skills to start community projects, and AI for the future workforce, which is for youth who are just about to join the workforce. The most recent programme we launched was digital-readiness for government leaders, because they are the ones who really drive AI for good governance in any given country. So, they need to understand not just the advantages, but also the potential pitfalls,” she explains.

According to Oxford Insights’ 2021 AI Readiness Index, which ranks 160 countries by how prepared their governments are to use AI in public services, Malaysia ranked 36th. The index’s researchers also found that nearly 40% of countries included in the index either have published or are drafting national AI strategies, and that East Asian countries showed particular strength in AI, making up one-quarter of the top 20 ranked countries.

Collaborating with schools and universities

Chan says Intel’s programmes are open to all and they have been receiving a lot of interest from third or final year students. He adds that Intel also offers development kits and mentorship for students to do their final-year projects on Intel’s platform.

Intel has a collaboration with the Ministry of Higher Education for the Innovate Malaysia Design competition, where university students submit their final-year projects to be judged by industry experts. Chan says this provides students with real-world project experience beyond the classroom.

“Intel and a lot of other companies over here are leaning in to extend ourselves because while universities have done a good job, when graduates enter the real world, they need a bit of hands-on training. So, we’re bridging the gap and getting them prepared for the real job market.”

Intel has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Collaborative Research and Engineering Science and Technology Centre (CREST) — a research institute in Bayan Lepas, Penang — to launch Intel’s AI for Youth in Malaysia. Shweta says the programme is designed to empower non-technical youth with appropriate AI skill sets, mindsets and toolsets. 

“We give them enough knowledge and access to tools, where they can identify the challenges they see around them, their schools and communities and come up with solutions using what they learnt.”

Shweta says that when the company shares knowledge with students who possibly do not have any prior coding experience, it works because, today, technology has evolved to a stage where people are working with low code or no code applications for AI. The understanding, creativity and ability to be very empathetic towards a problem these students see around them is enough of a starter for them to think of how to use an emerging technology to adapt, adopt and apply.

“Last year, at Intel’s AI Global Impact Festival, a global winner came from Malaysia. His idea was to build an AI system, which is embedded in an automobile to monitor the carbon dioxide emissions and send alert messages in case there’s a rise in the level. His aim was noble, which is to reduce one’s carbon footprint by effective monitoring, tracking and contributing to a larger goal of building an eco-friendly system.

“What we are now working on is how we do IoT as one of the components. We realise that the projects are coming from youths who are future developers and they need an element of IoT, as many of them are using AI and blockchain, among others. And these ideas come from the ground and we will then help them navigate the learning journey of how to develop those skills and take it further.”

What is important here, says Shweta, is to gear the current generation to become technically confident to apply the skills they learn. And while a mobile phone may be enough for students to learn new skills via videos, a device with higher computing power is preferred.

She says: “We need people who can create algorithms. We don’t want a generation that only knows how to use technology but want one that also knows how to create new technology. Here, we’re talking about learning technical confidence in AI and enhancing employability, which means it involves social skills where ethics comes into play.

“Most importantly, we need to learn how to produce evidence of those skills for employability. For that, they work on capstone projects, like trade applications, insurance fraud detection, predictive maintenance, and that’s not possible on a handphone, unfortunately.”