Malaysia’s AI ambitions get City Brain boost from Alibaba Cloud

  • MDEC to incubate 500 data professionals, 300 AI startups within two years
  • Enterprises, startups, entrepreneurs, universities to access and leverage on tools

Malaysia’s AI ambitions get City Brain boost from Alibaba Cloud


FURTHER strengthening its collaboration with the Alibaba Group, the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) has partnered with Alibaba Cloud to make Kuala Lumpur the first city outside of China to implement its Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered smart city solution called City Brain. In this sense, KL is ahead of Shanghai which will be the next city to receive City Brain.

A signing ceremony on Jan 29 between the two parties and Kuala Lumpur City Hall signified the launch of Phase One of the rollout involving inner city roads where KL City Hall will feed the livestream of 500 of its CCTV cameras onto Alibaba’s cloud platform, along with integrating 300 of its traffic lights. City Brain will then crunch the data applying various modules such as visual analytics to generate structured summaries of data.

And while the initiative is touted to improve traffic management and emergency services in KL as a first step to the capital becoming a smart city, the bigger picture of this initiative feeds into Malaysia’s ambitions to become an AI-powered nation, stresses MDEC’s chief executive, Yasmin Mahmood.

“This is more than just about traffic or being a smart city, it is about creating an AI ecosystem in Malaysia,” she says. With the R&D on the AI being done in China with Alibaba continually improving City Brain, Yasmin sees Malaysia as being the application development centre for AI.

But first the data needs to be harnessed. “While we have been focused on creating a talent pool of data professionals over the past few years, right now they are all starved of data to work on and that’s why we are championing this project – to get data.”

Based on open data, with City Hall initially supplying the data, the Alibaba Cloud platform will form the foundation from which the data will be converted using AI and made available to players in the local ecosystem, be they Malaysian or regional players based here, via open APIs and SDKs for them to, “play with the data and come up with commercial models,” says Yasmin.

The potential of KL City Brain is there but it also depends on the amount and variety of data coming into the cloud platform. As Yasmin notes, Phase One will cover incidence detection and traffic signals, which is essentially City Hall’s ITIS (Integrated Tranportation Information System) data fed into City Brain but with KL being a large city, more data sources need to be fed into the platform from various municipal authorities and other parties that manage city data including Vads Bhd, a subsidiary of Telekom Malaysia Bhd.

‘The more data providers that get integrated into the platform, the more effective the system,” she notes. That is why MDEC is taking the lead in KL City Brain to ensure that as many parties as possible contribute to the data input to ensure third party players have a richer data set to mine and extract value from.

MDEC sees its role as essentially creating a platform for others to come in and create applications they can monetise. Traffic management and smart city is just the beginning with Yasmin looking forward to even agriculture being impacted positively though the application of AI.

It is worth noting that this is the same approach that Alibaba Cloud has adopted in China where it says that as the functionality of City Brain expands, enterprises, startups, entrepreneurs and universities will be able to access and leverage on its AI tools to drive innovation.

Commercial considerations secondary for Alibaba Cloud

Indeed, seeing this as a long-term investment into Malaysia, Simon Hu, senior vice president of Alibaba Group says that commercial considerations are secondary to Alibaba’s interest to use its cloud technology to drive Malaysia’s digital economy. “Our priority is not to make money here. We are bringing our open platform based City Brain to KL to help enhance the tech ecosystem here.”

But Hu does see commercial value over the longer term and not just limited to smart city or traffic management.

“Enhancing city management is only a start for us. We are hoping to use our technology to enhance Malaysia’s economic development for instance in manufacturing and even agriculture,” says Hu.

In China, Alibaba has already been helping manufacturers utilise robots to increase productivity, coupled with adding an IoT (Internet of Things) layer to the manufacturing systems to optimise efficiency.

A former banker who joined Alibaba in 2005 and worked his way up the ranks, Hu shares that Alibaba has been impressed by how receptive Malaysia is towards AI and technology in general. This was a factor in it establishing a data centre in Malaysia.

“I think it was the correct decision when we established the first data centre in August 2017 to help us drive digital innovation in Malaysia.” Indeed, such has been its growth in Malaysia that Alibaba is already going to invest in a second data centre.

And though its preference is to partner with local operators and lease space from them as it did with its first centre, Hu does not discount building a dedicated data centre. “While partnering with Malaysian operators is our preferred approach, we do not exclude the possibility of building our own facility to provide the best cloud computing services to our customers in Malaysia.”

Helping to raise Malaysia’s AI competency up to global standards

Picking up on Hu’s point about Alibaba not being driven by immediate commercial interests with its City Brain project, Yasmin stresses that Alibaba is coming in to help catalyse the level of cloud and AI sophistication in Malaysia to global standards.

A big step to raising the standards will be through the just announced Malaysia Tianchi Big Data Programme. Backed by MDEC, the initiative aims to incubate 500 data professionals and 300 startups within two years by leveraging on Alibaba’s cloud infrastructure and AI capabilities.

A Big Data crowd platform that brings together global data experts to collaborate and compete in developing solutions for real world problems, the Malaysian programme will be integrated into Alibaba Cloud’s Tianchi programme with 120,000 developers, 2,700 academic institutes and businesses from 77 countries and counties.

A measure of the importance of the Kuala Lumpur City Brain project to Alibaba Cloud can be seen from the personal involvement of Dr Min Wanli, vice president and chief data intelligence scientist of Alibaba Cloud  who is leading a team of data scientists from Alibaba to ensure the platform is running smoothly.

That platform is world class, says Hu, comparable to what Microsoft, Amazon and Google possess and in some instances even better, he claims. The reason for this is simple. “We have built such a powerful platform in terms of computing capabilities, speed and accuracy because we have to cater to such huge demand in China on a daily basis for analysis, for computing resources etc.”

Alibaba’s cloud computing engine, which it calls Aspara, was built nine years ago in 2009 when it introduced its cloud service. And while Hu says that 3,000 engineers worked on the product back then, today, Alibaba has a 20,000-strong engineering team working on all its products to ensure they are globally competitive.


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