Vietnam in 2020 overtook Singapore’s gross domestic product (GDP), and became the third largest economy in ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Immediately after the new national leadership was elected at the Communist Party of Vietnam’s Congress in January 2021, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc signed an important document entitled National Strategy on R&D and Application of Artificial Intelligence, or the Strategy Document. The 14-page document outlines plans and initiatives for Vietnam to “promote research, development and application of AI, making it an important technology of Vietnam in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Vietnam aims to become “a center for innovation, development of AI solutions and applications in ASEAN and over the world” by 2030.
With ambitious goals, the strategy document provides some directions to where Vietnam should go in the next decade. It shows that it follows China’s and other Asian countries’ footsteps in becoming a techno-developmental state which takes advantage of technological changes for economic developments. While outlining what 16 ministries and the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology need to do in the next 10 years, the document does not show how other players such as startup founders, civil society, and beneficiaries of AI, common users in Vietnam’s AI economy should do. It also has no mention of the role of AI ethics in this development. Without any consideration to important ethical issues such as privacy and surveillance, bias and discrimination, and the role of human judgment, AI development in the country might only benefit a small group of people, and possibly bring harms to others.
In this op-ed we examine three key issues regarding AI development that any country would have to tackle when joining the AI global race: Funding, Talent and Ethics.
AI developments need a large amount of funding coming from a variety of sources such as international venture capital firms, local venture capitalists, government fundings, or companies’ own profits. Funding of AI development in Vietnam is lagging behind other Southeast Asian countries. In 2019, Vietnam’s AI investment per capita was under $1, while the Southeast Asian leader Singapore has $68 worth of AI investment per capita. Venture capital investment suffered in the first half of 2020 due to COVID-19. However with the government’s assistance, there has been some sign of improvement regarding funding in the near future. At the Vietnam Venture Summit 2020, both foreign and domestic investors pledged to invest $800 millions in Vietnam’s startup ecosystem. According to Crunchbase, currently, there are 155 venture capital investors with investments in the country.
Tech startups received the most investment funding especially in e-commerce, fintech, and AI. The government also provided state funding at the national and city level to encourage entrepreneurship. As a result, the startup ecosystem in cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi thrived in 2020, before the fourth wave of COVID-19 hit the country in April 2021.
The strategy document outlines the role of the Ministry of Planning and Investment to “to attract venture capital funds to innovative AI start-ups in Viet Nam.” The question remains open as to what the plans to bring international capital for domestic technological development are, which specific areas of AI should be the main areas of investment, how would the capital be distributed, and will there be any accountability mechanisms, and who are these entities enforcing accountability?
The development of AI in Vietnam has been driven primarily by private businesses. The strategy document outlines a push towards digitization and industry 4.0 to create incentives for businesses to become more aware of the potential of data science and AI. Vietnamese companies are still in the early stages of development. Only a few large corporations are prominent in the AI space, notably FPT, Vingroup, Zalo, who have the resources to invest in the research, development, and deployment of AI.
From our conversations with professionals in the space, smaller companies run into a key challenge: product-market fit. To what extent is the Vietnamese public willing to adopt new AI solutions as opposed to existing solutions? As Nam Nguyen, the CTO of an ecommerce company in Ho Chi Minh City, puts it: “If it takes a lot of money to invest in AI, but its economic benefits are not yet significant. Businesses in Vietnam will not jump on this AI bandwagon. Only big companies with extra capital can be in this AI playing field.” This problem is also prevalent in countries where AI development is more mature. Many companies in the US, for example, are still struggling to scale AI solutions where AI was developed prior to finding customers who are willing to adopt it. Vietnamese companies also have to compete against foreign or imported AI solutions, and the lack of venture capital investment from both domestic and foreign funds. Future strategy documents should address these particular issues in detail.
There is no shortage of technical talent in Vietnam. However, AI education is relatively new in Vietnam. Most of the tech workforce are still working in outsourcing. The talent pool is young and specialized: young because the majority of the talent pool is IT graduates, working data scientists, or software engineers with few years of experience, and specialized because there is a strong affinity to acquire a technical skill set in niche machine-learning areas (e.g., deep learning, GANs, reinforcement learning)—as opposed to a more general product or project management skill set.
Skilled talent often looks for professional opportunities abroad, where salaries would be drastically higher. Furthermore, these opportunities would enable them to actively participate in the research, development, and deployment of state-of-the-art AI technologies in more AI-mature countries.
Given this landscape, there are challenging conditions to effectively retain talent in Vietnam:
- Salaries have to be competitive, compared to both regional (i.e., Southeast Asia) and global markets.
- There have to be professional development opportunities for talent (e.g., courses, international conferences, etc.) where they can keep up-to-date with the latest trends and practices in AI development.
As Tuan Anh, research scientist at VinAI, claims: “We need to attract Vietnamese scientists back to Vietnam. The key issue is still the salary. It’s difficult for a Vietnamese-based company to compete with Google, DeepMind, Microsoft when it comes to salary.”
It is worth mentioning that there is also a language barrier to learning AI. As AI education material is predominantly in English, it is crucial to enable young talent with the necessary language learning support in addition to a more technical education in AI. “Students in special programs have English curricula. However, it only accepts 50-60 students per year,” says Khoat Than, a professor at Hanoi University of Science & Technology.
Public Perception of AI and the Missing Ethics Conversation
In Vietnam, AI is viewed overwhelmingly positively. It is regarded as a catalytic force for economic and technological advancement. In the public mind, the concept of what AI is, how it is used, and who it affects are not as clear. Due to the push towards digitization and industry 4.0, the Vietnamese may see AI only as a tool reserved for industries, where some implementation of natural language processing and computer vision are used to further business objectives. However, these cases are only among a plethora of AI applications that the public have already been using in their everyday life. It might not be immediately obvious that the routes that Grab drivers use to navigate the heterogeneous street network in Saigon are selected by an algorithm, or that the discounted products they see as they log onto e-commerce websites such as Shopee or Tiki may be recommended to them by an algorithm.
This acute awareness is essential because it expands the public’s perspective on the role AI plays in benefiting or harming their lives. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, “rice ATMs,” automatic rice dispensing machines, were invented and deployed in many cities to provide rice both contactless and free-of-charge to low-income communities. What is often left out in the reports of this story is that facial recognition was also used to ensure compliance with the authorities. This critical emphasis on AI involvement is the first step in shaping the conversation around AI and its impacts in Vietnam as a part of the much larger global discourse. The public needs to start having the many necessary conversations about AI around privacy, trust, bias, cybersecurity, and ethics, as well as the nuances, risks, and trade-offs of these aspects (e.g., privacy paradox).
Not only is AI ethics absent from media and public policy discussions, it’s also missing in engineering education. Khoat Than, a professor at Hanoi University of Science & Technology notes: “AI ethics at the college level is lacking for engineering students. What students learn at universities are still ethics in computer science.” Colleges and universities should invest in not only learning from the learning and teaching of this curriculum, adopting terminologies from the global discourse, they should also invest in doing research, particularly social science that examines societal impacts of technology in Vietnam.
At the governmental level, Vietnam can look to other Asian countries which have drafted national strategy documents that created a framework to make AI “for all.” One example is the Responsible AI for All Strategy Document, recently published by Niti Aayog, a premier think-tank by the Indian government. It outlines potential ethical issues that AI would create, and that many of those issues need new legal frameworks that different governmental bodies need to work together to address.
Vietnam has entered the early phase of AI development, the strategy document is by no means the last that the government would produce. We recommend the new leadership to consider other aspects of AI development including ethical considerations, legal frameworks, as well as creating partnerships with investors, civil society, and common users to create frameworks to address ethical problems that are native to Vietnamese society. Vietnam should be in conversation with global AI technologists and ethicists as AI development is truly a global phenomenon.