AI, my prof's got all the smart moves

By Lester Kok
This professor hits all the right buttons. He lets students play robot games in class and has breakfast with them to break the ice.

Not just friendly and approachable, Prof Ong Yew Soon, the new Chair of the School of Computer Science & Engineering, tickles the imagination of students too. An expert in Artificial Intelligence (AI), he uses it creatively in the classroom. For example, in one of his courses, students have to build and programme self-learning robots that compete against one another in an arena.

“Students get to play and get graded for it, but it’s really a learning exercise. I let them see for themselves how technology can be applied in real life. Hopefully, this suite of homegrown programming tools and robot competitions can one day become a ‘made-in-NTU’ product. My dream is to create a set of such learning tools for primary school all the way to university.”

With this goal in mind, the father of two young boys aged eight and 10, began developing software that allows gamers to automate their characters in the popular game Minecraft, a free-form world where you can explore, harvest and build almost anything you want.

He roped in Ian Tan, a fourth-year student from the Renaissance Engineering Programme, to do research on creating artificial intelligence that can control characters in Minecraft by responding and behaving like human players.

“As the Chair, Prof Ong is very busy, but he always makes time to meet me and answer my queries. He has a lot of experience in real-world applications, industry knowledge and connections, and he’s surprisingly quite updated with the latest gaming trends!” says Ian.

May Lim, a final-year computer science student from the Renaissance Engineering Programme, says Prof Ong’s classes helped her fall in love with programming. “He's a great communicator and absolutely nurturing,” she says. “From simple things like asking about our day to pleasant surprises like having breakfast with us before class, Prof Ong makes great effort to connect with students and we all grew close to him within a semester.”

“He always challenges us to think deeper and dream bigger, yet never failing to back us up despite his busy schedule,” says May, whose team won the global Shell Ideas360 competition under Prof Ong’s guidance. “His passion for nurturing students inspires me every day to do my part to contribute back to the community.”

“He has a lot of experience in real-world applications, industry knowledge and connections, and he’s surprisingly quite updated with the latest gaming trends!”
His students may be surprised to know that their mentor was once computer illiterate. After his O-levels, despite having qualified to apply for junior college, which was the most common route to university back then, he chose to enter Singapore Polytechnic, because he wanted a more “hands-on” education.

“I still remember my poly project to automate the flushing of toilets using a microprocessor. Of course, automated flushing is now commonplace, but it was pretty new back then. My ambition at the time was to prove it could be done!” he laughs.

He achieved more, graduating top of his polytechnic cohort, and enrolled at NTU’s School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering, where he chose to specialise in computing, an area new to him.

“I was not very good with computers, but I knew the world was heading towards computerisation,” explains Prof Ong, who was awarded a scholarship to pursue his PhD under a programme with sponsors like BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, at the University of Southampton, where he decided that he would use AI to improve lives.

“The nice thing about being a professor is that you’re constantly exploring new things. I can test crazy ideas and work with people from different fields, and I get to learn from them all the time.”

His natural curiosity has led him to become one of the world’s foremost computer science researchers listed in The World's Most Influential Scientific Minds 2015 report by Thomson Reuters.

Still, he humbly says: “I tell my students, I learn as much from them as they learn from me!”