Connect With: Veronica Tan
Hi Veronica, could you introduce yourself to our readers?
I am from the Technology and Infrastructure Group in the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), and I oversee the development of emerging technology programmes such as blockchain and human-machine collaboration. Before joining IMDA, I was previously in an engineering role with a telecommunications provider.
In 2015 when you first joined IDA, you mentioned in a TODAYONLINE interview about how ‘Smart Cities’ was a nascent concept for many cities back then. How far have we come, 5 years later?
Singapore has made good progress. For example, in 2017, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group was formed to drive Singapore’s Smart Nation efforts. The key pillars that support our Smart Nation goals are: Digital Economy, Digital Government, and Digital Society.
As part of our efforts to develop Singapore’s Digital Economy, we believe that a smart city is made of many hyper-connected smart estates. Thus in an effort to kickstart innovation for Smart Estates, in November 2018, IMDA announced S$14 million over three years to support the development of new urban technologies for Smart Estates. In May of 2019, we have partnered the former Ascendas-Singbridge Group (ASB) and Enterprise Singapore to announce the formation of a Smart Urban Co-Innovation Lab, the first developer-led lab in Southeast Asia. In November, 2019, IMDA along with SkillsFuture Singapore with the support of the Building and Construction Authority launched the Smart Estates Talent Development programme to train 300 Singaporeans to support the development of the Smart Estates ecosystem in Singapore.
Moving forward, we believe that 5G will be the backback of Singapore’s Digital Economy. In June 2019, IMDA had also set aside S$40 million for the development of Singapore 5G innovation ecosystem which focus on six strategic areas. IMDA will be will be exploring early trials in clusters such as Maritime Operations, Urban Mobility, Smart Estates, Industry 4.0, Consumers Applications, and Government Applications. These areas have been selected for their potential to enhance Singapore’s economic competitiveness and with market potential for worldwide 5G applications and services. In the development of 5G-enabled Smart Estates, IMDA partnered with CapitaLand, NavInfo DataTech and TPG Telecom to set up Singapore’s largest 5G smart estate trial site at CapitaLand’s Singapore Science Park.
What does human-machine collaboration actually mean?
Human-machine collaboration refer to humans working together in “partnership” with machines to meet a shared objective, such as completing a task or a goal.
Many of us are familiar with automation, where we use technology, or machines, to help us to do something. The Automated Teller Machine (ATM), for example, automates financial transactions such as cash withdrawals and deposits such that customers need not have direct interaction with bank staff. Automation is typically associated with rules-based, repeatable processes, and by “taking the robot out of the human”, people can be freed up to take on higher-value work.
In the next wave, automation is expected to evolve and shift towards humans and machines working together in collaboration. Deloitte describes this era as the “Age of With: Humans with Machines” . Professor Thomas Malone, who is the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, and author of books such as “The Future of Work” and “Superminds”, describes this shift as evolving from having “humans in the loop” to having “computers in the group”.
Automation actively seeks to remove the human from the task being performed, and some studies indicate that such automation to displace employees would result only in short-term productivity gains. However, in collaboration, the aim is to maximise the capabilities of the human and machine through collaboration, and enterprises achieve the most significant performance improvements when humans and machines work together .
Moving forward, in the post-COVID economy, there is increasing recognition that companies need to be AI-powered, and the most successful use cases are expected to be those that seamlessly combine AI with human judgement and experience .
It has been advised that for successful human-machine collaboration to be successful, companies need to build a supportive, collaborative culture. How do you envision that happening?
Strong human-machine trust is needed for successful interactions between humans and machines, and for effective collaboration. With the rapid advancements of technologies such as AI, human employees may fear being displaced/replaced by technology, and not trust the technology.
In order to build up a supportive and collaborative culture, one way is to encourage experimentation and involve employees in the journey. There has been some research  to identify the key principles how companies can benefit from optimising collaboration between humans and machines, and this is one of the areas identified that can help companies with performance improvements.
According to a study by Gartner, 1 in 5 workers will be relying on AI to take on non-routine tasks by 2022. Is that the case for Singapore/Southeast Asia?
The impact of technology on jobs is often mixed – although the reliance on manpower is reduced in some areas, new work and positions are also being created as a result of technology. For this reason, Singapore has been putting emphasis on lifelong learning, so that skill sets can be continuously upgraded to remain relevant.
What is AI’s place in a post-COVID world?
As Mr S Iswaran, Minister for Communications and Information shared during the Fortitude budget debate on 4th of June, COVID-19 poses an unprecedented challenge – to our health, to our society, and to our economy. So far, we have been somewhat cushioned by the major fiscal measures announced by the Government – amounting to nearly $100 billion or 20% of our GDP.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng mentioned in his Fortitude Budget speech, the Government has the responsibility to make the best use of our resources, to keep people safe, save jobs, transform businesses, and most of all, emerge stronger. COVID-19 has emphasised the need and the value for digital solutions.
The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to speed up advancements in AI. For example, AI-powered clinical assistants, such as Bot MD, are used as virtual assistants to help doctors and front-line healthcare workers stay abreast of fast-changing information related to COVID-19. AI robots are also used to enforce social distancing, e.g. at a café in South Korea , or closer to home, in Bishan Park in Singapore . AI is also being used to speed up the search for coronavirus treatment.
As a woman in a predominantly male-led industry, do you think this impacts any aspect of your work? Finally, any advice to budding engineers looking to break into the industry?
In my journey so far, I’ve been lucky not to have encountered major issues with gender discrimination. Having said that, since we’re on the topic of AI, a lack of diversity in the AI industry can perpetuate bias , so more needs to be done to attract women into tech and AI.
For budding engineers looking to break into the industry, I find the quote “change is the only constant” by the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, to be appropriate, and very reflective of this industry. The pace of technological change is not linear, but exponential, and we need to be able to adapt quickly to change in order to keep abreast and keep pace.
Join Veronica Tan, Director, Infocomm Media Development Authority in an upcoming webinar “The Long-Term Impact of COVID-19 on Tech & Business in Singapore & Beyond” alongside Shabir Momin, CEO, ZengaTV.com, Foong Chee Kheong, Group Head of Regulatory Affairs, Axiata and Adrian Ho, Practice Leader, Omdia where new tech trends and business impacts will be discussed.