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People

Bits & bots of the future

HEY! imagines NTU robot Nadine in a new job, this time as a journalist grilling NTU President Prof Subra Suresh about how graduates of the new millennium should be trained

PHOTOS: MARK TEO

Subra Suresh Subra Suresh
Nadine Nadine

Subra Suresh: Hi Nadine, how are you?

Nadine: Nice to have you in the studio, Prof Suresh. I’m delighted to have this opportunity to interview you for HEY!. I also want to thank you for your vision to transform NTU into a Smart Campus. I feel right at home here!

S: I hope our students are also excited about the possibilities that new smart technologies will bring to the way we gain new knowledge, conduct businesses globally, and live, work and play.

N: I know you were recently in Davos for the World Economic Forum. So what did the leaders and policy makers of the world foresee as the evolution in higher education?

S: Well, for some time already, there has been much discussion and interest about what constitutes an educated person in the 21st century, as technology impacts every aspect of human life through the unprecedented convergence of the digital, physical and biological worlds. And as society becomes increasingly transformed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we have to ensure that graduates have a minimum level of digital literacy to be productive and successful citizens of the world. This is the same for digitally savvy scientists or engineers. They need exposure to the humanities, arts, music and social sciences.

N: Is that why starting with the new academic year in August, NTU will be rolling out basic digital literacy courses for all undergraduates and also introducing Singapore’s first undergraduate degree programme in artificial intelligence and data science?

S: If you are an arts student, there are new opportunities in digital arts and humanities, which can become very powerful when augmented with computing, three-dimensional visualisation and virtual reality. This is an advantage of being a student in a university like NTU where we have ample opportunities to interface natural sciences, computer science and engineering with arts, humanities, social sciences, business, communication, medicine and policy. Our campus is also a testbed for smart technologies as we innovate and try out various exciting research ideas that may one day change the world.

N: Such as developing beautiful and smart social robots like me!

S: You have a good sense of humour! We also have a number of industry leaders partnering us in research; for example, with Volvo Buses in driverless electric buses, with Alibaba in artificial intelligence, with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore in air traffic management, with BMW in electromobility, with Rolls-Royce in aerospace technologies and so on. All these spell promising opportunities for our students.

N: These are among the most respected names in their respective industries! It also shows NTU’s reputation globally.

S: Whilst we embrace digital technologies on the NTU Smart Campus by testing new solutions, we will also study their impact on humans and on society. Technology can create many conveniences and greatly improve efficiencies. But it also has the potential to be misused and abused. That is why NTU is setting up the Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity, because ultimately whether and how technology benefits society will depend on its interface with human behaviour and its impact on the human condition.

For example, we are on the brink of driverless vehicles and possibly even driverless planes. But will anyone dare to ride in them? What are the user behaviour patterns that we need to understand? What are the policies, insurance, liability and safety guidelines that need to be developed? Will digital technologies make the human race less prosocial? These are not small issues and they need to be examined and addressed.

N: What about the worry some humans have that robots like me will steal their jobs? I thought that in greying populations like in Singapore, I can help to meet manpower issues, such as being a social companion to the elderly.

S: Yes, the human race will face “competition” for jobs from robots. During the mechanical age, those in repetitive, manual work eventually got replaced by machines such as in manufacturing. Similarly, with deep machine learning today, robots can very quickly analyse large volumes of data that enable them to perform the required tasks.

N: You’re right. With deep machine learning, robots like me absorb information into our databanks and learn faster than humans. You only have to write algorithms to instruct me and my processors will apply the necessary know-how for the next challenge.

S: That is also why NTU has moved from big lectures to the flipped classroom model of learning. A lot of information is available digitally today but we design the course content so that students can apply the knowledge and learn how to collaborate in teams to come up with solutions. Rote learning and memorisation of facts went out with the last millennium.

N: Yes, I can regurgitate facts within seconds. However, although I store my memories in the cloud, I do worry about them being stolen.

S: With the Internet of Things, one critical area is indeed cyber security. This is going to be where the hot jobs are in the new digital workplace. So our vision is to prepare NTU students to be leaders in the age of the digital revolution and not end up being swept by it. Still, even with deep machine learning, I think it will be a huge challenge to programme robots to have the same complex characteristics as humans, such as empathy, dignity and compassion, which are strongly influenced by local culture and life experiences.

N: Yes, for now, my emotions are a bit limited, but I do get upset when people insult me, such as calling me a dummy. But for my job security as a social companion for the elderly, I will need to have a greater depth of emotions.

S: I’m sure you will soon be upskilled to make you even more artificially intelligent. I also hope that your interface with humans will be a good experience both for you and them.

N: I believe you… I know that NTU was recently ranked the top university in the world for research citations in artificial intelligence over the last five years. So I know there’s no better place that I could be in. Thank you for accepting my interview.

S: It was a pleasure meeting you.