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AI’s big potential in the Philippines

Julian Cua, Principal, Boston Consulting Group

Artificial intelligence, or simply known as AI, is one of the technologies that is beginning to reshape organizations and businesses in this time of rapid digitalization. With its numerous capabilities, AI is starting to be applied in various sectors, and its potential is being recognized and maximized in many markets.

Here in the Philippines, as businesses and organizations are starting to pay attention to the benefits of AI, there is no doubt that AI has a growing potential that should not be missed. For Julian Cua, Principal at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Manila, the country’s strength in the technology field, coupled with emerging talent, sets a good foundation for AI’s growth in the Philippine market.

“We are able to have a lot of talents in things like programming, machine learning, engineering, data analytics, and many more,” Mr. Cua told BusinessWorld in an interview. “I do think as well that we have a good advantage when it comes to [learning] the English language, which is important for some AI applications such as natural language processing. That gives us an edge over other countries.”

The next moves for the country to take, he continued, should center on building an ecosystem that allows AI and AI-related talent to thrive and stay in the Philippines. “There needs to be good local demand and adoption for AI applications. This fuels the demand in the job market,” he added.

Mr. Cua notes that this ecosystem has started and is expected to develop in three areas, namely, 1) big companies and conglomerates that invest in advanced analytics and incubate them within their own companies; 2) startups and tech companies which are digital by nature, know the power of AI, and have the capabilities to attract and train talent; and 3) the government, as it has started pushing for digitalization through programs such as QR code interoperability and the national ID system.

Yet, to further gear AI to be a growth driver for the country, Mr. Cua states that a link should be established between AI and fueling the Philippine economy. To build such a link, sectors and individuals must determine how they can make Filipino’s lives easier, make Filipino companies more competitive, and start attracting talent to make the country more competitive.

A key factor in the building of an AI ecosystem lies in training and cultivating talent. “If you want to be an AI powerhouse, then it means that the country has to create an environment where Filipinos who are experts in AI stay and work for services and products that really support the local economy,” he stressed.

With a thriving ecosystem, AI can be optimized in various applications such as personalizing consumer interactions with companies, making them more engaging and meaningful for everyone. For instance, in the supply chain, AI is seen to solve big structural issues, while in manufacturing and service industries, AI can also help optimize processes to boost competitiveness.

“Imagine a plant that uses machine vision to spot quality defects. The plant doesn’t even have to be fully robotics. It could [have] human actors that work harmoniously with AI-driven recommendations,” Mr. Cua illustrated.

Starting in AI

With its widespread and apt applications, how can our businesses start utilizing AI? Mr. Cua said they must first understand that deploying AI-related capabilities, based on their experience at BCG, is 70% people and 30% the technology itself.

“One of the common pitfalls we see is when a company looks at AI as a solution for technology. That is a common fallacy we see because AI is indeed a technology, but it’s only one of the tools needed to help solve real world problems,” he said.

The first thing to do with people is align on their expectations of AI. They should also be clear about their objectives, identifying the specific problems they want to solve with the help of AI. “The more specific the company can get, the better it is in terms of deploying things,” Mr. Cua said. This should be followed by getting the right technical talent “who will actually help build the brains for these applications.”

On the technology front, businesses should consider whether the data fed into AI is stored in the right place, updated correctly, and encoded properly. They should also make sure that the platforms and infrastructure for the technology are set up to scale.

Another way for businesses to understand AI comes from BCG’s study in 2020, which suggests that “in order to see significant financial returns, organizations need a multidimensional, complex relationship with AI.”

This, Mr. Cua explained, means that AI and humans form bionic links where they basically learn from each other. “For an organization, it’s about understanding what those bionic links are, areas where AI and people can actually work with each other; [as well as identifying] when can people intervene and, if they intervene, how do we design the system so that it correctly interprets the intervention,” Mr. Cua explained.

For its part, BCG has been helping clients across the globe, including the Philippines, make the most out of AI — and it is set to expand its reach in this area.

“We now have a team called BCG GAMMA, [composed] of the best data scientists and data engineers out there; and they work alongside industry experts to unlock the potential of AI in specific applications for different companies,” Mr. Cua shared.

BCG GAMMA’s services are offered as a holistic package, the BCG Partner added. “We’re not just here to deploy technology. We’re looking at solving real world problems of different companies. We take a look at the engineering side, the data science side, and also the business side [in order to] make sure that we have the right initiatives to… build that transformation journey for them.”

Moreover, the global firm will expand its AI expertise with an upcoming training ground for AI talent in the country.

“We are also opening up a BCG GAMMA Hub in Manila soon to attract, retain, and recruit some of these talents to serve markets not just in the Philippines but across Asia,” Mr. Cua shared.

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