Constant and robust connectivity first step in enabling many of today’s innovations
Conference presented frontline of innovation in wearables, robotics, AI and others
THE second edition of EmTech Singapore kicked off on Jan 27 with Singapore inviting innovators to make use of the island-republic’s Smart Nation initiative as a platform for their ideas.
In his welcome address, Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) deputy executive chairman Steve Leonard (pic above) said that the first step to enabling many of the technological innovations being developed today is ensuring constant and robust connectivity.
“We want to do our part and until there is no place in Singapore which you are not out of contact, we can’t do the things we want to do. If you’re in an elevator shaft or MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) tunnel and you lose connectivity, then those are flaws in our vision for what we believe is important.
“If you have a person with a connected medical device in [his or her] heart, then you can’t afford to have that person ‘go dark.’
“We are working on ensuring we’re connecting everything and everyone everywhere, all the time. It’s not easy to do, and we are working with partners right now on how to make this happen,” he said.
Leonard also noted that events such as EmTech Singapore were in line with the nation’s goal of being an exporter of ideas and experiences, with its current focus on finding answers to key issues related to urban density, ageing populations and mobility.
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EmTech is the annual global emerging technologies conference hosted by MIT Technology Review. It has grown into a global series of events running in the United States, Spain, China, India, Mexico, Colombia and Singapore.
Digital News Asia (DNA) is an official media partner of EmTech Singapore.
In his opening remarks at the two-day conference, Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review, thanked IDA for its strong supporter as host partner.
“Today we will dive into the frontline of innovation in wearables, robotics, and artificial intelligence without overlooking the business side of technology, as without investors and novel business processes, there will be no innovation at all,” he said.
Artificial intelligence, artificial humans
The first day of the conference put the spotlight on new visual realities, artificial intelligence, and robotics, with a whirlwind of presentations from researchers and scientists from around the world.
In the area of augmented reality (AR) and interactive eyewear, Steven Feiner, a professor of computer science at Columbia University, declared that he was “bullish” about the eventual adoption and role of such technology.
In particular, he was pumped up about the use of AR overlays to aid people in completing everyday tasks, and for education and training across sectors.
Asked about Google Glass (pic above), Feiner said that he believed the device’s apparent market failure was not due to the technology itself but rather sociological factors – such as price, inequality of access, and breadth of applicable use cases within the ecosystem.
Rudy Mazzocchi, chief executive officer of Pulse, highlighted the potential use cases of holograms and digital recreations of human beings beyond the field of entertainment.
Pulse, which produces photorealistic digital humans, is best known for the Michael Jackson hologram performance at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, as well as with its Tupac hologram.
Pulse BioLogic, the company’s newest division, is seeking to apply its expertise to aid the medical field, especially in the field of surgical training.
“In military training, it’s 80% simulation and 10% real-life practical; while in medicine, it’s almost all practical. The beauty of holograms is the fact that procedures can be done over and over, versus the use of cadavers, in training doctors.
“There are enormous opportunities there, and we’re currently tackling the low-hanging fruit with our expertise in human faces with cosmetic and reconstructive surgery. We are already in discussions with a few doctors in Singapore about it,” said Mazzocchi.
The next frontier for the company is the combination of holographic, biometric and haptic technologies to create a virtual human that one can touch and interact with.
Meanwhile, the team at France’s Novaquark is trying to push the boundaries of fully emergent gameplay to create a next-generation massively multiplayer online game.
“We’re talking about real videogames, not Candy Crush,” quipped Novaquark founder Jean-Christophe Baillie.
The team is working on building Dual Universe (pic above), an open world sandbox where players are given an unprecedented level of freedom, fostering emerging gameplay and creative economic, political and social interactions at the scale of a gigantic single-shared universe.
In the field of deep learning, a new area of machine learning research – which has been highlighted as one of the needed stepping stones toward the realisation of true artificial intelligence – Ren Wu, distinguished scientist at Baidu, was on stage to share the company’s experience.
“For those who don’t know, Google is American Baidu,” Wu quipped by way of introduction.
He introduced Deep Image, touted as the world’s most-accurate computer vision system, which runs on a supercomputer optimised for deep learning algorithms.
Baidu claims a 5.98% error rate on the ImageNet object classification benchmark; with Wu noting that the 2014 ImageNet competition won by Google boasted a 6.66% error rate.
“The real success for deep learning will be when we are able to completely remove the human layer or interaction component in the process. That’s what we’re working towards,” he added.
Asked by MIT Tech Review’s Pontin on why the field of artificial intelligence appears to be enjoying a renaissance of sorts, Wu (pic above) pointed to two key drivers.
“The first driver is the emergence of big data – there more data being collected and labelled, now which helps in feeding samples to algorithms to learn from.
“The second and possibly more important driving force is the computational power available today, which allows users to take on much bigger models and more samples, which [in turn] allows our work to really shine.
“Just think about it: The most powerful computer in 1993 is equivalent to the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 of today,” Wu said.
But it was the segment on drones that proved to be the most exciting component of the day, beginning with the next big disruption to hit the marine and shipping industries: Unmanned, remote-controlled ships.
Oskar Levander, vice president of Innovation, Engineering & Technology – Marine at Rolls Royce, said that unmanned ships offer great savings on the cost of crew and fuel, and improved safety and efficiencies.
Rolls Royce already has a roadmap for making unmanned ships a commercial reality, with plans to demonstrate a working remote-controlled ferry ship in three years.
“There are still many development challenges to overcome, and from a technology perspective, the biggest challenge is on the issue of health and safety. If something happens to the cargo on an unmanned ship, how do you check on it and mitigate any possible risks?
“But all the technology challenges pales in comparison to the biggest challenge of them all – regulation.
“This is especially complicated for shipping as it involves international consensus, and we believe the first step to adoption of unmanned ships will be local or domestic use cases,” he said.
Asked by Pontin about how an unmanned ship can defend itself against pirates, Levander remarked that it was quite a common question and said his team was exploring many possible solutions.
He also noted that at the very least, an unmanned ship would eliminate any ‘Captain Philips’ type scenario, referring to the film inspired by the true story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, an incident in which merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage by pirates in the Indian Ocean.
Nature and robots
The inspiration for innovation can come from anywhere and in the case of Mohan Rajech Elara (pic above), a lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), nature proved to be a rich source.
“We looked to nature to extract biological inspiration to improve locomotive design in robots,” he said, in explaining the work he and his team are doing in solving problems related to control, navigation and perception of robots.
Mohan and his team are behind the Scorpio robot, now in its third iteration, which takes its form-factor and movement inspiration from the Huntsman spider, which rolls itself to move across large distances quickly.
The four-legged Scorpio robot, which weighs 400g, is smart enough to detect different terrain and determine which form-factor is the most optimal for traversing it – such as crawling across flat surfaces or rolling down slopes.
The team is currently working on giving Scorpio the ability to climb, which Mohan noted would be quite interesting if put to use amongst Singapore’s sprawl of HDB (Housing and Development Board) buildings.
Marita Cheng proved the most inspiring speaker, recounting her own experience in being one of too few women in engineering school, which led her to found Robogals, an international student-run organisation that aims to substantially increase the number of young women pursuing engineering in their tertiary studies and careers.
Upon graduation, Cheng founded 2Mar Robotics in April 2013, which aims to make robots accessible to everyone.
The company is currently working on Jeva, an iPhone- and iPad-controlled robotic arm to assist people with limited upper mobility.
“I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do after Robogals and realised I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives using robotics,” she explained.
Asked by a member of the audience about what women in tech could do to inspire the next generation to join them, Cheng said that they could help by taking an active role in being mentors and role models.
“That was another reason to start my own company as well – I wanted to be able to be a role model to other young females thinking about engineering, so that they can learn from my journey and know that there are women out there doing this,” she said.
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