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Automation and AI will help SMEs cope with change

Why everyone will have a robot co-worker

Tiensoon Law, Chief Innovation Officer at Innov8tif, says the workplace of the future will still have humans. But robots will handle quality control.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s futuristic novel, Klara and the Sun, children have robot companions powered by AI.

Tiensoon Law believes that soon, we won’t think of AI robots as a transformative technology. Instead, we’ll think of them as colleagues.

“When my children grow up and are in the workforce, everyone will have a robot co-worker,” he says. “The robot’s task will be to ensure that human outputs meet a certain quality standard.”

Law is the Chief Innovation Officer at Innov8tif, a Malaysia-headquartered provider of AI-based digital authentication solutions for telecoms, banks, and insurance companies.

He says that since he co-founded Innov8tif in 2011, the very definition of digitalization has evolved. “Today, digitalization is about how sustainably your company can adapt to continuous, inevitable changes in the business environment.”

Authentication nation
Currently, Innov8tif uses AI to authenticate users who buy pre-paid SIM cards at retail shops and airports through 24/7 self-service channels. Malaysian law requires that everyone register using their real name with a valid ID, a situation that creates opportunities for fraud unless strong authentication measures are in place. 

Years ago, when Malaysian consumers only bought pre-paid SIMs through a retail shop (a dealer), the dealers would make photocopies of customers’ IDs as part of the SIM activation process. Telcos often paid bonuses to dealers who sold a lot of SIMs, so the dealers had an incentive to inflate their sales figures. Under that system, unscrupulous dealers could pre-register extra SIMs, using a customer ID they had photocopied.

Due diligence at 2:00 a.m.

Regulations haven’t changed much since then, Law says, but businesses have altered the way they perform due diligence on customers. “People used to just walk into a shop and hand their ID to the shop clerk. Today, everything is done electronically by the end user. For example, passengers arrive at an airport at 2:00 in the morning and want to buy a local SIM card right away. How do you confirm their identities in a way that complies with the law?”

The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, involves AI, which makes a positive ID of the applicant by scanning her face, then authenticating her identity document by examining its security features with computer vision, a type of artificial intelligence that allows machines to identify and label objects.

“That’s our main business focus today,” says Law. But Innov8tif has gone beyond that first user touchpoint – known in the trade as “e-KYC,” a digitized version of Know Your Customer. 

Once you’ve got your phone, for example, let’s say you want to change your mailing address. You’ve now moved from KYC to customer ID assurance. That is, the provider must continuously ensure that the customer is still who he claims to be. This is crucial for bank transfers and other transactions where security is paramount. For example, when a customer asks to change the number of a trusted mobile device used for two-factor authentication, the operator has to know that it’s really the customer who’s requesting the change.


Law is in the tech industry, but he says all businesses can benefit from digitalization. And it doesn’t have to be hard, even for small enterprises. The first step is to digitalize non-core activities.

“If I run a pest control company, there are certain things that can easily be automated: issuing quotations, filing employee expenses, and mobile workforce management, to name a few. Lots of available apps already perform these tasks well.”

But whether SMEs actually embrace digitalization may depend on intangible factors such as mindset.

Law notes that several years ago, Innov8tif was thinking about expanding into Australia. After incorporating an entity in Sydney, they did some market research and found one big difference between Australian and Malaysian businesses: small Australian companies were a lot more willing to pay for cloud applications and solutions than were their Malaysian counterparts.

“At the time, Malaysian customers were willing to pay half a million dollars to open a storefront,” Law says. “But they wouldn’t pay ten dollars per user to digitalize.”

That situation has changed, in part because of Covid, which some have called the world’s Chief Transformation Officer for companies otherwise reluctant to embrace digital tech.

“Some of my peers in Malaysia’s SaaS startup arena saw a turning point in business sustainability during the pandemic,” says Law. “Not only was there a widely anticipated boom in e-commerce, but there were also booms in online subscription-based CRM (customer relationship management) and HR (human resource) software.”

He notes that a lot of things can be digitalized without investing in web development. “Before 2005, if you wanted a web site, you had to hire a developer. Now, you can go to GoDaddy or WordPress and have a simple web site within days.”

And increasingly, “no-code” applications allow small business owners to create simple solutions, without knowing how to write a line of code.

Human help wanted?

About eight years ago, Silicon Valley inventor and AI expert Jerry Kaplan wrote a book, Humans Need Not Apply. It predicted that soon, “synthetic intellects” and “forged laborers” would begin changing the workforce in unpredictable ways.

But Law doesn’t think digitalization necessarily means AI or other technology will take over human jobs.

“In my field, we’ve used AI for some time now,” he says. “Facial recognition requires AI. So does document authentication. There’s this ongoing question of, ‘Does AI kill human jobs?’ But we’ve been seeing automation for hundreds of years.”

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