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December 05, 2019

 

Imagine a future where information is stored not in huge data centres, but in DNA - we could contain massive amounts of such information in just a few drops of liquid, and preserve it for millennia. This is not speculative science fiction, but a real possibility that is already in development.

 

Along with ideas like writing in DNA, conversations with tech superstars at SFF x SWITCH 2019 explored new possibilities in technology, and the extent to which they’re already changing our world.

 

 

THE LITERAL LIFE-SAVING POWERS OF AI

 

The next time you go for an eye check-up, this piece of technology might just save your life. SELENA+ (Singapore Eye Lesion Analyser Plus) is a new, Singapore-developed retinal screening technique.

 

SELENA+ can detect three major diabetic eye conditions, just by analysing retinal photographs. And the more often it does this, the more accurate it becomes: SELENA+ is a self-learning AI technology, that becomes better at detection as it receives more data.

 

The deployment of SELENA+ was mentioned by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat. The Minister remarked that: “AI can be used to analyse clinical and genomic data, medical images, and health behaviours to better assess the risk profile of individual patients”.

 

This has the potential to be a major lifesaver in Singapore, as many people may not realise they have conditions such as diabetes or hypertension. Detecting and addressing such conditions early will prevent deeper complications later on.

 

 

HOW THE WAR FOR TECH TALENT IS TRANSFORMING OUR WORKFORCE

 

“Go deep, not broad.” These were the words of Brad Peterson to the audience, in a three-way conversation with Intel, Microsoft, and Nasdaq.

 

 

As the Chief Technology Officer and Chief Information Officer of Nasdaq, Peterson understands the “war for talent” that now characterises the industry. The demand for tech talent, along with the current pool size, has employers fighting tooth and nail for qualified people.

 

Peterson outlined that Nasdaq’s approach was to align with universities, as some of the exchange’s best products came out of PhD holders. But he stressed that, rather than go for a broad swathe of talents in different fields (a more conventional approach), it’s best to pick a few people in a specific field, with deeper specialistion.

 

Kurt DelBene, the Chief Digital Officer at Microsoft, dispensed some accompanying wisdom on the shape of our future workforce:

 

 

“Have your kids go to computer science,” DelBene remarked. “Developers have become essential to what the company is.” According to DelBene, tech talents become the core future of the company they join.

 

Finding talent is now harder, and retaining them is even more difficult. This is the present situation that Intel’s Chief Technology Officer, Parvis Peiravi faces. He shared that we are now “going in a direction where we do need a lot of cultural change.” Employers are now challenged to keep the talent excited, if they want to retain them. This means a continuous culture of training and providing an enabling platform for trying new and innovative ways of doing things.

 

 

MAKING DATA PART OF OUR DNA (LITERALLY)

 

What’s the greatest innovation in human history? You’re looking at it right now. It’s the ability to read and write.

 

 

And this year is a year for ceremony, Professor Kees Immink told the audience. It was around this time, 5,000 years ago, that the first data was stored.

 

Professor Immink, incidentally, is himself a major store of information; the current President of Turing Machines Inc. pioneered the era of digital audio, video, and data recording. If you’ve ever used a CD, DVD, or Blu-ray, you have him to thank for that.

 

He pointed out that, in recent history, we have mostly used magnetic / optical-data storage to hold information. This particular revolution dates back to 1956, when IBM invented the hard disk drive. But the next big leap in data storage may, in fact, come from biology: that’s the ability to write in DNA.

 

Storing information in DNA has numerous advantages. First, the data is packed with incredible density - one gram stores 215 petabytes of data (or 1,000 terabytes). A single kilogram of DNA could store the entire internet  today. Second, DNA is more resilient than any existing form of storage. Most of our current storage methods last a few decades, but DNA can store data for thousands of years.

 

 

MANAGING THE REAL-WORLD IMPACT OF TECH INNOVATIONS

 

“We solve many problems using computer technology,” Professor Isaac Ben-Israel, Director of the Blavatanik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center (ICRC), told the audience, “but we tend to forget that, although the solutions are technological, the problems are not. The problems usually concern human beings.”

 

For example, in our pursuit to make cities smarter and more convenient, we tend to overlook key human factors, such as the social and psychological concerns of the inhabitants. It is important to raise such possibilities at the design phase.

 

Regarding AI, for example, Professor Ben-Israel said we have to think about what could happen when a machine has the power to change its own algorithm from learning. This can make its behaviour unpredictable, he said, likening AIs to children who have the potential to learn and go their own way.

 

Vincent Chong, CEO, ST Engineering, espoused the view that technology is neutral. It is up to us to collectively steer technology toward doing good. He pointed out some examples of how ST Engineering has managed this: the company’s smart transport systems for rail and busses have encouraged the use of public transport, by lowering traffic congestion.

 

They have also made public transport more efficient, through the use of predictive analytics and intelligent algorithms. All these help to lower vehicle emissions on the road and reduce the impact of urbanisation on the environment.

 

However, all of this requires collaboration at all levels, from corporates to governments. Problems have become complex in nature, and the solutions are by virtue also complex. It is impossible for any one organisation to handle the challenges alone.

 

One example of this, he said, is a consortium of companies that came together a few years ago, to solve tech problems like sustainable refrigeration. Some of the companies involved, like Pepsi Co. and Coca Cola, or Unilever and Proctor & Gamble, are competitors - but by identifying an underlying problem in the industry, they were able to come together and find common ground.

 

More recently, Daimler and BMW agreed to work together to develop autonomous vehicles. This sort of collaboration, or “leaning forward” will be instrumental in solving the current challenges.

 

On talk of collaboration Sir Robin Saxby, Former Founding CEO and Chairman, ARM, noted that managing the impact of technology requires a review of the rules. Our political history is saddled with “rules and regulations written hundreds of years ago, that are now out of date”. These are no longer fit for purpose; rules that were written centuries ago were not designed for a world with internet access, AI, and machine learning.

 

As such, it’s time for technologists and regulators to work together on this. We need to develop better ethics, and better laws, for our time.

 

Collaboration across sectors is also important, because we now see that technology seldom advances in predictable ways. Professor Ben-Israel said that the internet, for example, was initially developed by DARPA to make computer networks less vulnerable to attack. But with most inventions, the internet has evolved to what it is today, with new functions like social media, ecommerce and more.

 

Due to this unpredictability, we should consider the consequences of new technology from multiple angles. In Tel Aviv, for instance, researchers examining new tech also include social scientists, thinkers from schools of business, schools of law, and many others.

 

 

HUMANITY MUST REMAIN AT THE CENTRE OF TECHNOLOGY

 

Whatever technology we are considering - we must acknowledge the human user at the centre of it. Due to culture, psychology, or even simple drive for profit, humanity will use technology in ways not initially intended.

 

Predicting the future direction of any innovation, and ensuring ethical use, is thus complex. It requires not just smart people, but a true diversity of perspectives; and we must stay focused on how tech benefits humanity in totality.

 

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