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INTERVIEW/R&D, industry, culture musts for an AI Taiwan: NSTC head

07/10/2024 05:36 PM
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Head of Taiwan's National Science and Technology Council Wu Cheng-wen. Photo courtesy of Taiwan's National Science and Technology Council
Head of Taiwan's National Science and Technology Council Wu Cheng-wen. Photo courtesy of Taiwan's National Science and Technology Council

By Alison Hsiao, CNA staff reporter

Transforming Taiwan into an "artificial intelligence (AI) island," proposed by President Lai Ching-te (賴清德) in his inaugural speech in May, will need to meet underlying intangible conditions for it to become reality, Taiwan's new tech chief has cautioned.

In a recent interview with CNA, Wu Cheng-wen (吳誠文), the new head of Taiwan's National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), affirmed Lai's vision of leveraging chipmaking to consolidate Taiwan's role in the AI era.

At Computex in early June, the president listed three foundational tasks for this transition: setting up data centers with supercomputers to build up computational power; ensuring electricity, especially green power; and cultivating talent for these industries.

Wu told CNA that strengthening these physical capabilities and human resources would indeed buttress the building of an AI island, but other intangible conditions were also needed.

Primary among them are building AI research capacity and developing an AI industry, Wu said, but most important will be fostering a culture of people willing to use AI as a tool so that the research can be relevant and the industry can flourish.

Conditioned by culture

Wu acknowledged Taiwan's prowess in hardware manufacturing to support an AI infrastructure, but developing broader AI technologies and systems also would necessitate R&D capabilities, he said.

"Developing systems means more than semiconductors and equipment manufacturing," he said, especially given that Taiwan's semiconductor vendors cater their manufacturing to the needs of foreign clients.

"Be it Nvidia, AMD, Intel or Qualcomm, what they all ask is for Taiwanese companies to manufacture chips based on their designs, or sometimes we do the designs as well but the specifications are decided by them," Wu said.

"That OEM (original equipment manufacturer) model has a high entry threshold, and Taiwan is the only one that has the required manufacturing capability," Wu said, but an advanced AI island "would need to have more than that."

The government now is making an effort to leverage that advantage to stimulate R&D in software and system integration, Wu added.

This is conditioned upon the presence of an industry to incentivize the R&D of AI systems and applications, and the success of an industry in turn is "driven by people's basic needs," Wu believed.

That means the key for an AI island boils down to Taiwanese people having the mindset of using AI tools and systems, he said.

A pervasive AI culture

Asked whether using ChatGPT qualifies as a building block in this culture, Wu had his reservations.

Though it is "nearly human" in terms of natural language processing, "as a tool it actually has traps and risks of providing misleading or mistaken answers and can be misused when you have little understanding of its limitations," according to Wu.

Only when users have a good understanding of both the advantages and limitations of AI tools, and can use them with ease, can it be said that a culture has formed, he noted.

"We are working toward the goal of fostering a culture of using AI tools beyond the high-tech sector, which only represents a minority of a society," Wu said.

"When we can define and develop industry from the needs," resources can be allocated to different sectors rather than concentrated in certain fields, he added.

Wu did not specify on what the government could do to help build the culture, but he hinted at a government-initiated project, to be announced later this year, to foster collaboration between Taiwan's existing strengths and sectors to develop AI systems based on needs.

He cited medical care as one promising field for developing Taiwan's local AI system.

One application, Wu suggested, could be a "hospital at home" assisted by AI systems, which could tackle the problems of an aging society, shortage of health care workers, and lack of resources in rural and remote communities.

The market would be big if every household needed AI devices for this kind of health care service, he said, adding that setting up a medical cloud could also rely on Taiwan's own technologies and accommodate its own health care system and needs.

This kind of coordination will be supported by the new policy, with the goal of implementing it in every sector, from national defense to non-tech industries, Wu said.

"Once AI becomes a basic need, or culture, of the general public, industry and investment can then be invigorated," he added.

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