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The future is now

Smart Nation Scholarship holder Yong Ming Yang envisions a future for Singapore where cutting-edge technology improves — and even saves — lives across multiple sectors, from healthcare to transportation to the environment.

Picture this: a man on a gurney in the emergency ward is gasping for breath. A catheter is threaded through a vein in his arm and into his heart, where the diagnosis of pulmonary edema (excess fluid in the lungs causing breathing difficulty) is swiftly confirmed — as predicted by artificial intelligence (AI) via live camera feed. A medical professional administers diuretics and the patient makes a full recovery within days.

A thief snatches a passer-by’s smartphone out of her bag. All it takes is a single tap of her smartwatch for her smartphone to send its location to all police officers in the vicinity. With the phone’s global positioning satellite data and relative velocity on hand, a network of security cameras sweep the area and cross-reference a facial database, identifying the thief in seconds. Two officers swiftly apprehend him, and the phone is reunited with its rightful owner.

Elsewhere, an autonomous vehicle experiences engine trouble on the expressway, and comes to a stop in the middle of the road. Immediately, its on-board AI, connected to the Internet, notifies the thousands of other vehicles on the same thoroughfare, prompting them to seek alternative paths. Traffic continues to flow unimpeded around the stranded vehicle. Within minutes, an autonomous tow truck appears on the scene — again, summoned by the on-board AI — and whisks it away.

“These technologies really have the potential to revolutionise our daily lifestyle and standard of living for the better,” says Mr Yong. “So one way to kick-start the process would be to first get an education in computer science.”

The 20-year-old is one of the first recipients of the Smart Nation Scholarship. Jointly awarded by the Government Technology Agency (GovTech), the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore (CSA), the Smart Nation Scholarship aims to develop and nurture technology talents and leaders for public service.

Keen to learn
It was the great promise of artificial intelligence and virtual reality (VR) that got Mr Yong interested in the Smart Nation Scholarship. He had read articles about how AI could predict whether the presence of certain bacteria in patients would result in the development of a certain sickness; and how VR technology could be used by telcos to provide more personalised customer service.

This opened his eyes to the possibilities of developing technology to benefit everyone in the country.

What if VR could be applied in other ways, such as combating loneliness in home-bound elderly, by letting them interact with others through VR? Or if the pattern-recognition capabilities of AI could be used to identify a specific disease, through cross-referencing other patients’ symptoms?

“Seeing as how AI is likely to revolutionise every industry, it is evident that infocomm technology will impact every aspect of our lives,” he says. “Thus, it’s really important to be involved in it.”

Mr Yong will matriculate at the National University of Singapore (NUS) this August, to pursue a double degree in business and computer science.

It might come as a surprise to some, he admits, for a Smart Nation Scholar to be studying business alongside computing. But as he says: “One of the reasons I’m pursuing a double degree is because I feel that it’s a really good opportunity to widen my horizons, to be able to look at things from different perspectives.”

His business degree will give him valuable insight into the various problems that businesses face, he adds. Armed with this knowledge, he hopes he can come up with more holistic solutions to said problems.

“Approaching problems from multiple perspectives is a necessity when solving problems in computer science,” says Mr Yong, adding that learning an entirely different discipline is a good way to gain some perspective.

And it is said perspective that he hopes will serve him well during his time at IMDA.

“Right now, I don’t have a specific position in mind, as I don’t yet have a very comprehensive view of computer science,” he says. “But my main goal is to acquire the skill sets to be able to come up with solutions that would benefit the public as a whole.”