IoT Asia 2016

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OPENING SPEECH BY DR VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND MINISTER-IN-CHARGE OF THE SMART NATION INITIATIVE AT THE INTERNET-OF-THINGS ASIA CONFERENCE 2016 AT THE SINGAPORE EXPO, 30 MARCH, 9:10 AM

 

Mr Mayor Rob van Gijzel, Mayor of Eindhoven

Mr. Oliver Tian, President of the Singapore Industrial Automation Association;

Mr. Aloysius Arlando, CEO of SingEx Exhibitions;

Friends, ladies and gentlemen.

 

1.            Thank you for the invitation to grace the IoT Asia 2016 Conference. I was here last year. As you would have observed, the attendance has doubled. This is Moore’s Law in action.

 

2.            We live in a very highly politicised age. If you read the newspapers, what made the headlines is not this conference, it is hijacking, it is bombing, it is extremism. Even in the political arena, it is about populism, it is about simplistic solutions that play on people’s fears about the way the world is evolving. But this is the wrong narrative.

 

3.            On the contrary, it is technological advancement that leads to economic development, and ultimately economics determines political outcomes. In other words, it is technology first, then economics, and finally politics. If you get it wrong and put the cart before the horse, you get a very confused world that is unable to solve the existential challenges. And more importantly, a world unable to capitalise on the opportunities that these technological advancements present.

 

4.            If you now focus on technology, and advances in technology, many people have use this term that we are now in the fourth Industrial Revolution. One way to look at it is to say that the first wave of the Industrial Revolution was about mechanisation, the steam engine, and replacing human and animal labour with mechanical devices. This wave commoditised “sweat”- blue collar work. Industry 2.0 was really about mass production and in particular, the use of electricity. And Industry 3.0 included the advent of transistors, the computers and the process of automation. SIAA in a sense, as your name suggests, is an Industry 3.0 organisation. But, you are trying to get into 4.0.

 

5.            So what is Industry 4.0?

 

6.            This is a conference ostensibly about IoT. But I am afraid that I have to be blunt with you - IoT goes far beyond the Internet of Things. The confluence of the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, robotics, and the fact that every human being now carries a device with both communicative, sensor and actuator technology. We have become mobile units of the Internet with always-on sensors, pervasive communications, and with the ability to execute, to coordinate and mobilise on an unprecedented scale.

 

7.            If you add all of these things together, they are not just new devices. Think about this: distributed computing and pervasive broadband availability, both fixed and mobile - always on, always connected. And artificial intelligence, robotics, big data, and 3D printing or additive manufacturing, are platform technologies which are going to completely transform the way we live, work, play, mobilise, meet and communicate.

 

8.            This is what is driving the profound economic changes that are sweeping across the world. And this is also the cause for much of the political angst - about the future of the middle class, the future of jobs and even the distribution of wealth and political power. We should be focussed on these platform technologies and the revolution that we are living through.

 

9.            One example - Just two or three weeks ago, we saw Google’s AlphaGo defeat one of the world’s best Go players ever. We should not underestimate this achievement. 20 years ago, IBM’s DeepBlue defeated Garry Kasparov in chess. What is the difference between Go and chess? The difference is 641 zeros. In chess the total number of possible games is 10 followed by 120 zeros, but in Go, it is 10 followed by 761 zeros. Some people have said that this number is larger than the number of atoms in the universe. The order of magnitude needed to solve this goes beyond the mere application of more and more computing. The revolution in fact, is in deep learning, it is in the generation of new algorithms. Algorithms that start off mimicking the human brain’s ability to decipher patterns, then developing new algorithms, to self- learn, to discern patterns that even human beings may not ultimately be able to discern. In other words, it is a paradigm change, it is a software revolution.

 

10.          And my friends, we are still in the early stage because our computers and our robots have not yet reached a stage where they can self-replicate. When we reach the stage where computers are self-replicating in both hardware and software- that is when you reach what some people call a stage of singularity. And that is when you get a spurt in creative and computing analytical power that will exceed human abilities.

 

11.          Another example is the amazing robot called ATLAS, a robot that is able to open glass doors, walk on snow, slip and still catch its footing, pick up packages, be pushed around by human beings and not lose its cool, and still continue to try to fulfil its task.  Again, this is only just the beginning.

 

12.          Indeed the pace of change that has been occurring in the last year or so, can leave people breathless and in deep fear.  The question is then what we as a society, as a political entity, as a state, can do about it. My sense is that in the midst of such revolution, the real determinant for success is culture. In other words, you need a society with a culture of openness, a culture of learning, and a culture where you are prepared to invest in infrastructure and education, where you are prepared to leapfrog your rules and standards to take advantage of these technological advances. And it is those societies, those cities, those nations with a culture that has the right blend of openness, cooperativeness, innovation, and ability to invest in and to apply new technologies that will succeed.

 

13.          That is how the Singapore Government looks at this issue, and that is what the Smart Nation Initiative, led by the Prime Minister, is really all about. Let us take an honest, brutally frank view of where Singapore stands. We think we are in the game. We are not leaders, but hopefully we are in the leading pack. Let me give you a few examples.

 

14.          First, we are one of the most well connected cities in the world both in terms of fixed broadband and mobile cellular coverage. We have two fibres to every home.  If you dismantle the optical network box in your home, you will see two fibres - although, you do so at your own risk. Second we have a population with very strong background in science and technology. Our students perform well, especially well in maths and science exams - tests conducted around the world to benchmark students’ abilities. We are introducing computational thinking in all our schools, starting even in primary schools. Third, we have a society with a leadership that embraces the engineering ethos.  Almost half of our cabinet consists of engineers. Our Prime Minister is a mathematician. He studied computer science almost four decades ago in Cambridge, and he can still code. Please check out his code and you will see the functioning of an elegant mind that understands what this is all about. In other words, we get it.

 

15.          We have a leadership that understands technology, is not afraid of it, is completely capable of using it, and writing applications on it. And we have got a single layer of government. So it is this ethos that drives our agencies under the banner of Smart Nation to continue to innovate, and to make full use of technology to improve the quality of lives of Singaporeans, create more opportunities for every Singaporean, and see how all these will shape the evolution of our identity and cohesion as a society. Let me give you a few examples of some of the things we have been working on.

 

16.          Last year, the Health Promotion Board paired a wearable device, basically a pedometer, with gamification cum incentive scheme to launched an app called “Health 365”. The objective was to encourage people to walk, to take more steps. They called it the National Step Challenge. This was intended to be the world’s first population-level smart “pedometer+app-based” programme, and there was an unprecedented level of interest; mobilising 156,000 people from students to the general population. This far exceeds the level of community-based interventions in many other places. We were able to get participants to clock at least 7,500 steps daily, and in fact 30% of them achieved more than 10,000 steps daily. I will confess that I don’t regularly reach 10,000 steps. The preliminary findings for the months of November and December 2015 revealed that 63% of those who participated in this Challenge continued to use it well beyond the formal programme.  The technology is not new, but it showcased the ability to leverage existing technology, gamify it, make it a population-wide habit, and step-by-step, pun intended, alter behaviour and promote helpful outcomes.

 

17.          The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has also been enhancing and working very hard on data analytic capabilities. They have installed sensors in every bus and every taxi In Singapore, which means LTA actually knows in real-time the location of every bus and taxi in Singapore. While that is an interesting technological development, the main purpose is to reduce congestion and improve the quality of the daily commute. LTA, in the past year or so, has been able to reduce the occurrence of crowding of buses despite the fact that every year, ridership increases. This has been achieved by applying data science in a disciplined way, and it helped to enable LTA to decide where to inject more buses, where to alter bus routes, and how to alter bus frequencies to meet demand. We have seen a 92% reduction in the number of bus services with crowding issues despite the year-on-year increase in ridership. Average waiting time on popular services has also shortened by about 3 to 7 minutes.

 

18.          All these may sound pedestrian and mundane, but they are examples of trying to improve people’s daily lives using data science and data, rather than just opinion and political posturing.

 

19.          On the home-front, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) has piloted some IoT projects in Yuhua estate. Some households are trying out devices to measure energy in order to save money. Equally important, as we have one of the fastest aging populations in the world, be able to monitor the health, mobility and safety of our seniors in real time, and enable them to stay connected and call for help when they need it.

 

20.          This is what has been happening over the last one year. Let us take a look at what we can do in the near-term future i.e the next year or two. Think about autonomous vehicles. From our perspective, the “killer” application for autonomous vehicle is not the driverless car, as interesting as that may be, but it is really to solve the challenge of the last mile, from the MRT station to your doorstep.  What we are really looking at is autonomous mini-buses or autonomous vehicles to close that last-mile gap, which would be available on-demand, and can bring you to or from the doorstep of your house, to the train station or bus interchange. We are looking at starting this in One North, and you can hope to see autonomous vehicles in the form of buses or mini-buses plying those routes to close that last 500 metres.

 

21.          You may have also noticed robotic waiters serving food and drinks in some restaurants, and it is no accident that our Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat has just announced a budget of S$450 million to scale up the development and adoption of robotics in our industries. We expect to see the pervasive use of robots and automation in factories, warehouses and malls. We believe this will be decisive in helping us address our manpower challenges, as well as to strengthen both the productive and innovative capacity of our companies.

 

22.          Think about another example, we have all seen lamp posts. And what does a lamp post do? It projects light. If you walk around Singapore, you sometimes see an odd situation where some of our lamp posts have a solar panel stuck on top, and usually a camera stuck below it. My heart aches when I see this because it illustrates fragmentation of public agencies – meaning, it is one agency that puts up lamp posts to light up streets, another agency that needs video-feeds, and another agency that supplies electricity and hence the solar panels to power the videos. If you stop to think about it, every lamp post should be a smart lamp post, providing location beacons, providing connectivity, providing video and sensors, and ultimately, being able to provide relevant actuators. So lamp posts are another area that is ready for a whole-of-government approach.

 

23.          If we are to truly succeed as a Smart Nation, we must go beyond individual programmes and projects. There can never be a sense of complete arrival at a Smart Nation. It is continuous evolution. But there are some pre-requisites.

 

24.          First, we must continue to be one of the best connected places in the world. If you think about Singapore over the last 200 years, since 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles arrived. We were a port, we were part of the maritime Silk Road- we connected the Asia to Europe. It was about things, not the Internet of Things, it was about real objects traded between Asia and Europe. In the digital age, it would not just be about things, in fact, it will be about bits, it will be about designs.

 

25.          Therefore, it is important for us to be part of the digital silk road of the future. To be a port, a nodal point, for digital bits of the future. That is where our future is- to be a digital port. It is important for us to be the best place in the world for the latest and the brightest ideas to be tested, for proof of concept.  Prototype your product or service and upscale it if it works. If you have an idea that works and will improve the lives of Singaporeans, we will test it, we will buy it, and we will be your reference customer. You can then use your success in selling that product or service to us as your calling card when you offer those same services to cities and countries all over the world. 

 

26.          Earlier this year, the Research Innovation Enterprise 2020 plan was unveiled. We have committed a total of S$19 billion to support not just research and development in the labs, but to translate that work into turning great discoveries into products and services, into solutions that address national challenges, and to build up technology adoption in our companies. We believe this is the difference. Minister Heng referred to it last week that we are not just focusing on productivity, we are focusing on innovation. We are going to put our money where our mouth is.

 

27.          So I urge all of you, especially those of you here with bright ideas, new products and new services that will address urban challenges and provide urban solutions for the future, to come and make your pitch to us, and let’s see whether we can turn your ideas into reality.

 

28.          The second dimension to this is that we would need the right people with the right relevant skills. Let’s be honest about it - there are some skills and jobs that are being displaced and will never come back. Even in the IT sector itself, we see examples of this. As more and more of us turn to the cloud instead of running our own servers and our own data centres, there are some IT maintenance functions which are becoming redundant. But at the same time, there is an urgent need for ICT skills, for programmers, for designers, for integrators, even in non-traditional ICT sectors. For instance, some of the employers with the largest growing pool of ICT staff will be financial institutions, it won’t necessarily be only the IT companies. So we need people, people with the right skills, right time, and right place.

 

29.          Another dimension is that we are trying to create more opportunities, especially for both the young and old to pick up relevant digital skills. IDA runs a Playmaker programme that provides young children in pre-schools the opportunity to learn technology through tactile and kinaesthetic educational experiences. Touch and feel, and learn how to play and how to use it. We have Code for Fun enrichment programme that is launched by Ministry of Education and IDA, in primary schools, so that our primary school students will be familiar with robotics and microcontrollers. On a more formal basis, Ministry of Education will be offering Computing as an ‘O’ Level subject in 19 secondary schools, starting next year. And this will be a practical-oriented course where students will apply concepts and skills they learn in classrooms to solve real world problems. We have also brought in General Assembly to run courses to train mid-career professionals who want to switch into this growing field.

 

30.          Just last month, we launched the Smart Nation Fellowship Programme, to enable top data scientists, technologists and engineers from all over the world to come in and try to hack our government. Not to hack our government in the security sense, but to make us better. You are familiar with what is available out there, so spend a few months with us. If of course, we can convince you to join us permanently, that is fine. And even if we cannot, give us three or six months of your life to do something interesting, and have the pleasure of seeing it operate in real life.

 

31.          We want to work closely with industry, we want to work closely with companies. We want a strong base of ICT-skilled professionals and talents that will drive our Smart Nation ambitions.

 

32.          Finally, it is about having all hands on deck - people, companies and government. Working in a potent, sometimes chaotic relationship; but we will create value, we will solve real world problems and we will build a better home, better lives and more opportunities for everyone.

 

33.          Here’s an example of all hands on deck. The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) has an app called MyResponder. This is a digital platform that allows everyone who has been trained with CPR to sign on, and whenever a call comes in to the authorities or even through the app that someone has collapsed and needs help, anyone in the vicinity receives an alert and can choose to respond and be present. When I attended a funeral about two months ago, the family was so touched - not only did the operators stay on the line and gave them advice, a medical student knocked on their door and said “Can I help?”. The point is that this use of technology allows new levels of cooperation, and actually builds a stronger, more cohesive, cooperative society.

 

34.          Let me conclude by saying that we are privileged to live in an age of revolution. But the revolution you are reading about in newspaper headlines is the wrong revolution. People who are strapping bombs on their backs and killing women and children, are actually engaged in an intellectual and political cul-de-sac. It is a dead end. On the contrary, what we are working on is an opportunity to participate in a revolution to transform the world, to improve our lives, to create new opportunities, and ultimately to build a better world.

 

35.          I thank you all for being here, and from the bottom of my heart wish you all every success. Thank you very much.

 


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Watch the opening speech by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at IoT Asia 2016 here.

Last updated on 01 Dec 2019