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Using robotics to detect contraband items quicker online
HTX scholar Cheryl Kwek helped build a surveillance tool that flags illegal products on e-commerce sites.
Since she was a child, HTX scholar Cheryl Kwek has been interested in robotics and machines. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA

HTX scholar helped build a surveillance tool that flags illegal products on e-commerce sites

Behind fictional spy James Bond’s nifty tech gadgets is the Q Branch, a research and development division dealing with top-secret technology. 

It is also the inspiration for the Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX)’s Q Team, which works on similarly high-tech projects that boost the Home Team’s capabilities to safeguard the nation – something HTX scholar Cheryl Kwek finds fascinating.

Since her father signed her up for a Lego robotics course when she was a child, Ms Kwek has been drawn to machines and technology.

“In secondary school, I was part of the robotics club and became more interested in coding,” she says.

She then started to learn programming languages and explore machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). When she was looking into scholarship opportunities after receiving her A-level results, the HTX Scholarship stood out.

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“I wanted two things for my future: To work in the civil service and give back to society, and a technology-oriented career,” she says. “I was attracted to how HTX is a force multiplier in the Ministry of Home Affairs, by using technology to deliver outsized outcomes.”

A passion for public service

Currently studying computer science and design at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Ms Kwek’s desire to pursue a career in technology led her to apply for an internship in 2022 at HTX’s Data Science and AI (xData) team to experience the work they do.

During her internship, she evaluated Natural Language Processing (NLP) models to help build a web portal called VerText that helps Home Team officers in various ways. Some of its functions include summarising long text, examining the sentiments of text documents and clustering text by topics.

Ms Kwek (second from left) with her schoolmates at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. PHOTO: CHERYL KWEK

She also contributed to a surveillance tool that harnesses robotic process automation and AI to trawl through listings on local e-commerce platforms and flag any contraband. The tool analyses pictures, descriptions and other information in the listings to identify problematic products.

Previously, officers from enforcement agencies such as the Health Sciences Authority had to sift through and examine listings manually, which typically took days or even weeks. The tool completes the process in hours. Ms Kwek also worked on a function for officers to easily save webpages as portable document formats (PDFs) for documentation.

“Through the internship, I got to experience how I can apply my interest and capabilities in technologies that help people,” she shares. “I also got a feel of HTX’s working culture. Everyone was very friendly and quick to offer advice and suggestions when I needed help with some technical issues on the NLP project.”

A one-week “scholarship vacation programme” in 2023, where she visited different Home Team departments to learn about their current projects, and how HTX is supporting them, was equally eye-opening.

Ms Kwek (front row, second from left) at The SPF Scholarship and Home Team Scholarships Award Ceremony. PHOTO: HTX

“I was attracted to how HTX is a force multiplier in the Ministry of Home Affairs, by using technology to deliver outsized outcomes.”

Ms Cheryl Kwek, recipient of the HTX Scholarship

“After I saw how various departments made use of advanced technologies, I was very inspired to try and develop new ones to make Singapore an even safer and more efficient place,” she recalls.

Inspiring women in tech

At SUTD, she plans to take courses in machine learning, NLP, data science and computer vision – an AI field that enables computers to make sense of images, videos and other inputs.

“Basically, I’m trying to ensure that I have a good foundation in skills that will be useful when I start working at HTX,” she says.

By proving herself in the male-dominated computer science and technology sector, she hopes to encourage more women in Singapore to not only enter the field but also lead it. While more women are pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees at local universities, only 30 per cent of local researchers and engineers are women.

“When I’m doing group projects, I make sure I speak up and contribute to the aspects that play to my strengths,” says Ms Kwek.

For a project that involved designing a solar-powered food dryer, she analysed historical data of solar energy available at different times of the day, to identify the best time period to use the dryer and determine its solar panel’s minimum specifications.

While studying at Singapore University of Technology and Design, Ms Kwek (fourth from left) helped to design a solar-powered food dryer. PHOTO: CHERYL KWEK

She also delved into the development of an app and other features to accompany a physical prototype. “I had much more to offer in these areas, instead of constructing the full-scale structure,” she explains. 

Ms Kwek urges those with a passion for technology, who believe in the Home Team’s mission, to apply for the HTX Scholarship. 

“I wasn’t sure if I would get it as I didn’t have perfect A-level scores, but the scholarship committee evaluated my application holistically, taking into account my robotics and other tech-related activities in school,” she says.

“If you want to use your technological skills for good, HTX is the place to be.”

Join the HTX team
HTX is looking for passionate individuals with scientific, engineering and digital backgrounds to join them in harnessing science and cutting-edge technology to safeguard Singapore from current and future threats. Outstanding students are invited to apply for the HTX Scholarship, a full-ride scholarship for STEM disciplines.

This article is brought to you by the Home Team Science and Technology Agency.

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