Cambodia's Coming AI Revolution [The Diplomat/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting]

Cambodia's Coming AI Revolution [The Diplomat/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting]

Andries De Vos

So exciting to see how Cambodia tech sector is booming, with big data, AI and digital tech breaking through; and people are starting to pay notice.

Dr Mahlet Zimeta published an excellent long-form article in the The Diplomat, Asia-Pacific’s premiere current affairs magazine, as their headline story last weekend. You can read it here: “Cambodia’s Coming AI Revolution

A few highlights and excepts from the article - for quotations see full article. Selection my own!

Delegates at BarCamp ASEAN 2018 in Phnom Penh test the KOOMPI laptop. Image from Facebook/KOOMPI. Cambodia, 2018

Workforce Revolution:

  • Perhaps the most obvious structural challenge Cambodia faces is the loss of its middle class in the Khmer Rouge era of the late 1970s. But the Fourth Industrial Revolution is allowing the country to overturn conventional thinking about its demographic profile.
  • The loss of the traditional elite “means there is less dogma about how things should be done, and fewer entrenched interests. Many young people in Cambodia though have to figure out what they want to do now without role models.
  • The demographic skew means there is an unusually high proportion of ‘digital natives.’ Cambodia’s youthful and increasingly well-educated population is passionate and energetic when it comes to tech adoption – it feels like every day a new start-up or hackathon or incubator program is put in motion.
  • Data-enabled digital technologies such as AI are a huge opportunity for countries like Cambodia, where skilled labor is in short supply, to access expertise being developed elsewhere

Coding culture:

  • Another structural challenge Cambodia faces is its size and unique Khmer language. But these features may be assets when it comes to adapting to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. “Because it’s a small market with a very dynamic young population, you can test your ideas easily and get high impact quite quickly"
  • The country’s distinctive Khmer language has also meant that Open Source coding and software, are well-integrated in the country’s technology ecosystem.
  • This OS culture allows Cambodian start-ups and developers to immediately access the thriving international tech ecosystem and positions Cambodia’s tech ecosystem to adapt readily to AI.

Leapfrog Development:

  • It was assumed that economic development required industrial infrastructure,” Zakariah said to me. “But the Fourth Industrial Revolution offers the possibility for any country to simply leapfrog infrastructure development.”
  • The emerging infrastructure also means organizations from the private and not-for-profit sector can contribute in innovative ways. For example, Slash is developing AI talent through Cambodia.AI and Open Development Cambodia is playing a central role as Open Data provider, which typically would be done by governments.
  • Limitations in data management also create opportunities for tech innovation. For example, Slash is developing a AI Natural Language Processing toolkit to “read” and analyse paper records written in Khmer, enabling wider commercial and social applications.

Data Cultures:

  • In countries such as Cambodia where infrastructure is being established, the relevant legal frameworks for data governance might not yet be in place.
  • The emphasis is on economic agency rather than political agency. The government here is economically progressive and conscious of the country’s standing in an increasingly-integrated ASEAN.
  • Collectivist cultures might be better placed to develop frameworks and legislation suitable for the “big data” age. “There isn’t such an emphasis on privacy here, which means that when it comes to sharing data or trying out a new technology, there is less friction.”
  • Governments and entrepreneurs in less wealthy countries might need to make a bit more effort, but they already know how to do a lot with less, which is an advantage for their future

Thanks Dr Mahlet Zimeta and The Diplomat for the excellent coverage and look forward to see how the Cambodian tech scene will grow further.