SAP chooses Singapore for its global Innovation Centre for Machine Learning
By Zafar Anjum January 2, 2017
- Centre in Singapore is SAP’s centre of gravity for the execution in Machine Learning strategy
- The centre explores unconventional ideas and develops inspiring proof of concepts
In this exclusive interview, SAP senior VP for Innovation Guenter Pecht-Seibert and SAP ICN Singapore Innovation Centre Network director Steve Lee, explain why SAP decided to host its innovation centre for Machine Learning in Singapore and how SAP is planning to take AI and Machine Learning into the folds of SAP’s offerings to customers to enable and empower businesses of the future.
FOR almost all the top IT companies in the world, all roads lead to Machine Learning (ML)—at least for now. From Google to Microsoft to HPE, they are embedding Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the core of their systems.
According to SAP chief innovation officer Jurgen Mueller increased computing power, wide adoption of multi-core architectures, as well as in-memory databases and big data have made machine learning possible.
Mueller wrote in his blog in May 2016: “Machine learning is becoming mainstream because it’s easier to apply. This is due to the vast number of free, high-quality, open-source software packages which make machine learning accessible to a large audience of data scientists and developers.”
It is not surprising, therefore, to see SAP, one of Germany’s most well-known global IT companies, investing money and resources in Machine Learning, and has chosen Singapore to locate their Innovation Lab dedicated to Machine Learning.
SAP has a network of innovation centres across the globe, and has 10 such centres and hubs including the newest one in Singapore. The Singapore centre was announced open in November 2016.
“There has been some intensive learning in Machine Learning in the past two years in Germany,” said SAP senior VP for Innovation Guenter Pecht-Seibert, who leads the Research & Innovation Team at SAP. He was in Singapore in November 2016 to mark the launch of the innovation centre.
“We have identified that now is the right time for Machine Learning. We have the right applications where Machine Learning could be applied. We have a big data platform and we have HANA, the biggest and fastest database in the world, where we can respond in real time to business needs. We have applications across the board (in ERP, CRM and human resource management in the cloud) and we are seen as trusted partners to our customers and they are willing to give us data so that we can learn and apply Machine Learning on special business related problems. So, we have the technology in place, we have the algorithm in place and we have the skill set in Machine Learning.”
“In Germany,” Pecht-Seibert added, “SAP identified the needs and the strategy for Machine Learning and did the research and here in Singapore, we actually execute on the strategy. The innovation centre in Singapore is our centre of gravity for our execution in Machine Learning strategy, and of course in Germany, we have the business applications that we need.”
Why Singapore as the hub for Machine Learning?
For a long time, Singapore faced a talent crunch, especially in computing research area. So, at one level, it seemed odd for SAP to decide to found their innovation lab in Singapore. Why Singapore and why not Silicon Valley or Bangalore? SAP has innovation centres in both these cities anyway.
“When we looked inside SAP, we found the highest number of people with Machine Learning expertise in Singapore,” said Pecht-Seibert.
“We have the university programmes here with PhD students, mainly all around Machine Learning, and we have great data scientists with rare skills over here in our team. Combined with a strong development team with a great ecosystem here, you can reach out to global multinationals within seconds, whereas in Germany you have to travel quite a lot.”
“Over the past four to five years, we have a strong relationship with the government in Singapore, specifically with National Research Foundation (NRF) and Economic Development Board (EDB),” said Steve Lee, Director, Singapore Innovation Centre Network, SAP ICN — Research and Innovation. NRF’s mandate is to ensure that Singapore becomes a research hub for the region in both research work and in developing talents. EDB has brought in large and sophisticated companies into the country.
“Over the past few years, we developed the talents: the researchers, the data scientist, and a full stack of end-to-end developers,” Lee added. “All this came together at the beginning of the year when we fully focused on Machine Learning for the team in Singapore.”
The evolution of the innovation lab into a full-fledged innovation centre happened over time. In the initial phase, the research was centred around speech, text and developing computer vision, said Lee.
“We are committed to help keep the talent pool in Singapore through our programmes. We also bring in experts from other locations to transfer the expertise to the local team and we continue to do the state of the art research,” he added.
Currently, the centre has about 95 people on the team, including researchers, data scientists and other staff members. According to Lee, the emphasis is on hiring locals and Singaporeans.
“The wider vision is to have the multiplier effect, to build an ecosystem making sure we meet the SkillsFuture progamme, so that the talents in Singapore are well-developed,” said Lee.
The Singapore government defines SkillsFuture as a national movement to enable all Singaporeans to develop to their fullest potential, as well as realise their aspirations by taking advantage of a wide range of opportunities.
To attract talent, Lee and his team organise ‘talent win’ events. These are events designed to help people technically understand where SAP is taking technology to. It is meant to showcase to them how SAP as a company helps build ‘attractive environment’ for technology, he said.
SAP’s activities in this area are also a part of the Singapore government’s Smart Nation Programme, that seeks better citizen and corporate integration into a data- and IoT-enabled technology ecosystem to build a technologically futuristic city in Singapore, said Lee.
Next page: Laying the foundation for the future