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Holding AI accountable: Tech policy expert tackles potential ethical concerns
By Rei Kurohi
Annabel Lee IMDA SG Digital Scholarship SPH Scholars Choice
Singapore Digital scholar Annabel Lee was part of the pioneering team that created a document to address key ethical and governance issues surrounding the use of AI. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA/FRENCHESCAR LIM

This Singapore Digital scholar works with governments and firms to find the best ways to deploy emerging tech responsibly and build trust in digital infrastructure

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is everywhere. From chatbots to searchable image databases to find missing persons, internal tools to predict customer demand, recommendation engines that suggest interesting products to customers and more, researchers and developers across the world are creating new applications of AI every day.

AI applications can deeply impact human life, which is why the transformative technology must be fair and safe – as well as support inclusivity, diversity of thought, and collaboration – in order to maximise its benefits for society. Only under such circumstances can AI innovation continue while bettering society.

As a Singapore Digital (SG Digital) Scholarship holder, Ms Annabel Lee was given the opportunity to address these concerns while serving her bond at the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA). 

The 33-year-old tech policy expert was instrumental in the creation of Singapore’s Model Artificial Intelligence (AI) Governance Framework, a document that sets out practical advice and principles to help organisations in various sectors address key ethical and governance issues surrounding the use of AI. 

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Making a global impact

The first of its kind in Asia when it launched in 2019, the framework has been cited by industry experts as an example of Singapore’s proactive approach to AI adoption. The framework explains how AI systems work and aims to promote public understanding and trust in AI technology by encouraging best practices in the private sector. 

Among other things, it states that decisions guided by AI should be explainable, transparent and fair as far as possible, and that AI solutions should prioritise the interests of human beings. It also offers guidance on how to ensure these ideals are upheld when deploying AI solutions.

Ms Lee was part of the pioneering team that conceived the framework – a feat made possible by the SG Digital scholarship. Through extensive consultations with a wide range of stakeholders, including industry players and government agencies as well as civil society groups and academics, they worked to turn philosophical concepts like ethical theories into practical guidelines.

“I’ve always loved environments that are constantly evolving and am always curious.”

Ms Annabel Lee
Recipient of the Infocomm Media Development Authority’s Singapore Digital Scholarship

The scholarship also allowed Ms Lee to work at IMDA, where she contributed to the development of data and telecommunications policies in addition to AI policy.

“I learnt so much from working at IMDA,” she says. “It gave me a foundational understanding of how governments think about technology policy and how laws and regulations are just one part of the regulatory toolkit. It also showed me the weight of responsibility the government carries in making decisions.”

As a “living document” that has continued to evolve in response to new developments, even after Ms Lee left IMDA to join the private sector in 2018, the second edition of the framework was launched in 2020. It has been adopted by various organisations, from banks like DBS and HSBC to tech giants such as Google and Microsoft.

Today, Ms Lee is Director, Digital Policy (APJ) and ASEAN Affairs at Amazon Web Services (AWS), one of the leading global providers of cloud infrastructure which supports numerous online functions, from websites and apps operated by private companies to essential government services.

In her role, she helps to define how cloud service providers like AWS can help organisations build trusted digital infrastructure and meet their security, innovation and digital trust goals. By engaging with companies and government agencies who are working on digital policy issues, she also helps to develop policies for digital transformation across the region. 

Paving her career in tech

Ms Lee’s career in tech policy would have surprised her younger self. She remembers growing up during the fledgling years of the Internet, when dial-up access was just starting to take off.

“I never thought I would work in the tech industry and I certainly didn’t know anything about digital policy. Since I liked writing and speaking, I thought that I would end up becoming either a lawyer or an actress instead,” she says. 

While searching for a scholarship to support her undergraduate studies, she was drawn to the idea of doing tech policy work at IMDA, as it would mean working in a “fast moving, ever-changing sector”. 

Applying for a scholarship also means applying for a job, Ms Lee notes, so it was important to her to pick an organisation where she would feel excited to serve her bond after completing her degree. 

In 2008, she was awarded the SG Digital Scholarship which funded her bachelor’s degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and opened the door for her to join the exciting tech industry.

The industry scholarship offers recipients the flexibility to chart their own tech- or media-related career by serving their bond in any organisation and industry of their choice, subject to approval by IMDA. 

Ms Lee says working in the tech sector has been deeply rewarding as she relishes the challenge of trying new things.

“I’ve always loved environments that are constantly evolving and am always curious about new areas of policy. I like being able to move fast, fail fast and try again,” she says.

“The idea that everything is constantly changing and that I will always be challenged in my job keeps me motivated every day.”

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