Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on 7 major tech trends and Singapore’s regulatory approach
At a legal technology conference held in Singapore, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation initiative Dr Vivian Balakrishnan iterated Singapore’s regulatory approach to major technology trends.
Minister Balakrishnan acknowledged that change is being accelerated by technology. He iterated 7 major trends happening in the tech space that are affecting policy and regulations.
7 major tech trends
The 7 major tech trends are: (1) declining marginal cost of replicating, storing and transmitting information, (2) declining marginal cost of computing, (3) accelerated clock speed of technology, (4) wide deployment of sensors leading to explosion of data, (5) increasing capacity to analyse data, (6) disruption caused by robotics, and (7) progress in artificial intelligence (AI).
According to Minister, these 7 emerging technology trend “interact and catalyse virtual cycles, feeding and accelerating one another”.
As marginal costs of information transmission and storage, as well as computing are “trending to zero”, the phenomena leads to the explosion of pervasive and cheap sensors deployed on people. Minister gave handphones as an example of sensors in monitor movements with dedicated processor.
The explosion of sensors implies the explosion of data collected by the sensors. With the vast volume of data collected, there is increasing need for us to enhance the capacity to analyse data. As such, the Singapore Government aggregates data in a machine-readable format and make such data available through Data.gov.sg, Singapore’s one-stop portal to its publicly-available datasets from 70 public agencies. At the same time, the declining computing cost also means data can be more effectively mined and analysed for insights.
These advancements also enable much progress in robotics and the development of AI. With the price of robotics components also trending to zero, robotics is being widely adopted and are disrupting production chains. At the same time, AI has evolved from played simple games like tic-tac-toe to more complicated game like Go, as the “total number of permutations being performed becomes much larger”,
Minister also noted that the world is experience an accelerated technology clock speed. In the past, inventions and breakthroughs take much longer, sometimes decades, until they reach a state of mass adoption. However, today, technologies only take a few years to “disrupt market and cause regulatory attention”. It begs the question of whether regulatory clock speed is keeping up with the accelerated technology clock speed.
With all these technology trends interacting with and reinforcing one another, progress in technology has political and socio-economic implications.
While technology increases productivity, it is also replacing humans in perform certain tasks. According to Minister, this has resulted in much “middle-class angst” as the middle class feels squeezed due to the stagnation in wage and mobility.
This middle-class angst is also translated into politics as some countries are experiencing a loss in faith in free trade. These countries resort to “building walls, rather than recognising the real issue is technology and the need to prepare people with relevant skills”.
At the same time, with the widespread use of social media, societies found themselves facing the challenge of fake news as they tend to spread faster than facts. Minister said that although information transmitted might not be out of bad intention, social media feeds our innate desire to search for unique identity and values.
However, the danger of social media lies in what Minister called the “proliferation of echo chambers” – how our preference determines what information we get, causing a vicious cycle. In this, Minister gave the example of self-radicalisation of people who did not even leave the country to join radical groups. In safeguarding harmony and order in human social life, Minister stated that “if in real life we need norms and regulations, same applies to the social media space”.
Singapore’s regulatory approach to emerging technology
“Technology revolution is inevitable. It is foolish to stand in the way of progress and pretend that there is no downside or need for regulation”, said Minister Balakrishnan.
Minister Balakrishnan then outlined Singapore’s regulatory approach given the regulatory, political, legal implications of technology to the society.
To begin with, Singapore Government uses regulatory sandbox to deal with emerging technology.
The purpose of having regulatory sandbox is to create a safe space for trials and experimentation. Here, Minister gave the example of regulatory sandbox that the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) set up for fintech in 2015, the Land Transport Authority (LTA)’s amendments to the Road Traffic Act (RTA) to allow for autonomous vehicles (AV) testing, as well as the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) allowing data sharing arrangements to be exempted from certain obligations on a case-by-case basis.
Minister also said that the Government adopts the approach of “masterly inactivity” as technology emerges. By “masterly inactivity”, Minister explained that the Government stay proactive in keeping itself updates on latest developments, plan for its actions, all without “getting in the way of progress or stifling innovation”. He gave the example of how MAS is not regulating crypto tokens directly, but is focused on regulating associated activities, evaluate risks, and not stifling innovation.
Minister said the “slowness of regulatory clock speed” has to be addressed as the current “pace of progress means regulation is obsolete by the time they are published”. He stated that tech progress is imposing challenges as it is only possible to fully assess its implication only when technology is deployed in real life.
In conclusion, Minister called for regulations that are made with collective and multidisciplinary effort. Such regulatory responses have to be “iterative”, adopt “sufficient precaution to deal with potential harm”, and formulated in “high speed”.