SPECIAL REPORT

Hello, Tomorrow!

by Li Haohan
Photography by Chino Sardea
07 Mar 2018

If you’re concerned about a robot takeover looming in the future, here’s good news: it’s gonna be more Judy Jetson than Stepford Wives

A diverse group of scientists working on a project at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design set out to explore the impact of digital technologies on the future of work, education, and healthcare, and how we should respond. Their findings have been collated in a new book, Living Digital 2040, published by World Scientific. Portfolio reunited this exceptional group for a pictorial and candid interviews where they talked about their present work, and what keeps them excited about the future. Hint: None of them sees a sci-fi-style nightmare in the horizon.

Mr Poon King Wang
Director, Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities
Singapore University of Technology and Design

I spot trends and design practical strategies that combine ideas across disciplines. My current focus intersects smart cities and digital economies with people and societies.

As an engineering student, I met Sara Little Turnbull at Stanford. She was a pioneering designer who mentored and encouraged me to develop a deep understanding of culture and commerce. I’ve found it exciting to triage different disciplines to find ways to lift lives ever since.

In education and work, we urgently need to make it easier for students and employees to tackle the technology changes ahead, whether we call these disruptions, transformations or revolutions. We can’t keep asking them to run harder or faster.

We can make it easier by using technology to tackle technology change. For example, in our book, we show how we can assemble global teams of mentors – made possible by the gig economy – for every student and employee to guide them through technology change. We can also design integrated expertise networks where established experts, non-traditional experts and technologies help them tackle challenges and seize opportunities.

Instead of telling you why I am hopeful about the future, I’d flip the question: given the scenarios, can we help each other be hopeful? We can—if we design practical strategies to help people struggle less and thrive more, so that day by day, we are more hopeful, even confident, about the future. That’s what drives our research.

 

Dr. Hyowon Lee
Assistant Professor, Pillar of Information Systems Technology and Design
Singapore University of Technology and Design

My field of expertise is Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), more specifically interaction design for novel usage scenarios and applications. The study I do requires a focus and sensitivity towards people, often termed within the field as ‘end-users’, rather than mere in-depth knowledge in technology and computation. Thinking about how people interact with technology as the central theme makes this field complex and challenging, as it is not easy to come up with one universal, clear-cut approach or solution. This is what excites me; I am most motivated wading through the uncertainty, where it is difficult to quantify, difficult to frame the issues and difficult to evaluate the solutions.

Only 20 years ago, “’interacting with computers’ meant a person sitting in front of a desktop computer with a keyboard and mouse. Today, we interact with computers in a dramatically diversified way – looking at the smartphone screen on the train, social networking using the tablet in bed, wearing the smart watch throughout the day, and so on. This trend of diversification of interaction modalities and gadgets will only increase in the coming years. Even though nobody is certain exactly what kinds of interactive devices will dominate in, say, 10 years from now, we can certainly expect it will not be only smartphones and tablets – they will likely be around but used in conjunction with other devices that offer alternative ways to interact with. We can imagine that the general public will be affected as we spend increasingly more hours each day interacting with the technologies. Even the same functionalities and services that we have been using (e.g. video browsing with YouTube, social networking with Facebook, online purchasing with Amazon, etc.) will be operated in different ways (just compare the different behaviors between browsing the web using the desktop PC and using the smartphone).

I am very hopeful about the future. As more diverse ways to access information and interact with technologies will appear in the coming years, we will no longer try to accommodate the diverse and colourful activities we do in just one or two fixed ways (‘one device fits all’). Instead technologies and devices will be customized, tailored, and fine-tuned to each of our activities, making our day-to-day interaction with technology much more fulfilling and satisfying.

 

Dr Lim Wee Kiat
Research Fellow, Asian Business Case Centre
Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University 

I am a sociologist who studies technology use in organizations. Our lives are organized around organizations and their products: schools and qualifications, hospitals and treatments, workplaces and careers. I pay close attention to the social milieu in which technology emerges and evolves. Technology has a biography, too: we cannot talk about Twitter and Facebook as though there weren’t dialup Internet, Friendster, blogging, ‘dumb’ mobile phones, and texting before them. 

Technology makes it more convenient and challenging for researchers like me. Convenient because newer technology with their sensors beget more data for analysis. Challenging because of the sheer speed, volume, and variety of such data are being proliferated. Big Data analytics using advanced statistical models offer a partial solution. We also need to do interviews, observe how people behave in real-world scenarios to get through this thicket of things and text, just like how ethnographers and anthropologists venture into and returning with rich understanding of worlds less known. We need to combine Big Data and ‘Thick’ Data to arrive at deeper, more complete insights.

Technology will rob us of our familiar tasks, but it will also reduce the dull, dirty, and dangerous ones that few willingly do. As tech strips away our old tools, we return to our core as beings who make sense of our worlds, not only by finding better solutions, but also by asking better questions. In the face of tech, we neglect arts, humanities, and social sciences at our own peril. Our competitive advantage is not in becoming more like robots or algorithms, but in reclaiming our humanity. Empathy and ability to ask thoughtful questions will become more salient.

 

Mr. Mohan Rajesh Elara
Assistant Professor, Engineering Product Development Pillar
Singapore University of Technology and Design

My field of expertise is in robotics. Specifically, I am interested in a new class of self-reconfigurable robots that are capable of changing their morphologies from one form to another to overcome challenges posed by the environment that they operate or the tasks they handle. The shape-shifting abilities of such robots open up new innovative applications often unimaginable in the case of traditional fixed morphology platforms.  

Robotics is set to revolutionize the way we live, work and play in the near future. A strong push towards maximizing productivity coupled with a rapid rise of artificial intelligence and a rapidly aging population in the most developed world is significantly driving advancement in the field of robotics.

The change is already happening around us with robots replacing often dull, dirty and dangerous jobs such as cleaning, logistics, maintenance, and inspection. This trend is set to continue at an even more rapid pace with maturing technologies where the robots would increasingly replace humans in jobs that require less creative skills and human empathy. 

Although robots are set to take over dull, dirty and dangerous jobs, they would generate numerous other jobs in the areas of robotics design, manufacturing, testing, repair, maintenance, safety, networking, and security. I believe that there would policy responses in the near future by governments around the world to protect jobs for humans once a tipping point has been reached.

 

Dr Youngjin Chae
Visiting Researcher, Yonsei University (South Korea)

I combine my fashion design and engineering backgrounds – I’m a Design Scientist of functional textiles, wearables, and smart clothing system, designing them for a better life through enhanced wearer comfort and usability. From developing new materials to delivering new design concepts, it is always exciting to conduct collaborations with multi-disciplinary experts in different disciplines to better meet the wearer’s needs and comfort, and to resolve the limitations of the technologies.

My vision of an integrated system of functional materials or smart clothing would combines an understanding of the wearer’s profile, including identity, preference and style, with the external environmental conditions, such as temperature, humidity, etc., so that the clothes become an intelligent medium between the body and the environment. I see this happening in 10 to 15 years as it is a matter of a seamlessly integrating and connecting different types of technologies that already exist.

I am very hopeful about tomorrow. The innovators I know in my field are all supporting one another to build an collaborative eco-system for everyone.

Ms Gayathri Balasubramanian
Staff UX Design Researcher, Baker Hughes, a GE company
(formerly GE Oil & Gas)

I am educated and trained in the field of human-computer interaction (HCI). I currently work as user experience (UX) researcher and designer, dealing with practical applications of HCI concepts. I am particularly interested in studying users, identifying problems and challenges they face in specific contexts, and designing technology and users’ interactions with technology. Following decades of struggle faced by UX practitioners, there is now increasing understanding that UX is beyond the user interface (UI), and the emphasis on solutions is shifting from technology-driven to user-centered.

The contexts of use of technology are no longer restricted to specific instances or environments. Prolonged use of technology can weaken users’ cognitive skills over time, as indicated by several research studies. This presents a new challenge for all of us. On the one hand, we have an aging workforce nearing retirement. They have valuable expertise, judgment, and decision-making honed through decades of experience On the other hand, firms are now tapping into this retiring workforce’s rich experiences to build technologies to automate future decision making. This could lead to younger members of the workforce being deprived of valuable learning experiences for developing their decision-making.

The challenge would be in designing technology for people, that delivers the promised results while minimizing any negative effects on cognitive skills and learning opportunities.

I believe this is a golden opportunity to develop a human-centered approach to automation whereby automation can be reimagined as ‘human intelligence augmentation’. This could mean redefining human-computer interaction as human+computer collaboration, and designing the ‘+’ relationship as tasks that combine humans’ and computers’ individual strengths while overcoming their individual weaknesses.

Mr Aaron Yong Wai Keet
Lecturer and Industrial Designer
School of Technology for the Arts, Republic Polytechnic

My field of expertise is Industrial Design. I believe that good user experience design is the basis of design. I have been fortunate to have been given many opportunities in my career to design everyday objects to make them enjoyable. The advent of new technologies and their combination with old technologies through the years constantly changes the way a designer perceives good user experience, pushing me to design with an expanding array of imaginative possibilities.

As a designer and educator, I see technology as an enabler that improves work efficiency. I anticipate how mundane, administrative-type tasks could easily be replaced by AI, allowing both designers and educators to be focused on their craft. Technology advancement is already taking place incrementally, evolving and improving everyday life.

It is not the technology but the people that decides and defines the future. Technology by itself is just an enabler or a tool. Combine it with user experience, and that creates a better future.

Mr Raymond Yeong
Transformation Project Specialist, Luxasia

I’m interested in robotics, especially bio-inspired reconfigurable robots.

When I was young I helped my dad in his own manufacturing company, so I guess his passion got passed down to me. It also helped that Marvel superhero Ironman makes robotics look cool.

I’m excited about robotics augmenting us in our daily activities; this will become more common. Robots will become reliable to function in an uncontrolled environment, hence the applications for robotics will increase.

I think robotics will change tremendously in the near future. I don’t see it happening overnight, but by phases. Future technology across all industries (semiconductor, manufacturing, computer, etc.) will be better in performance specifications, have more robust functions, and smaller size. Robots will be able to work on more complex applications; they will be smaller, manufactured to be more affordable, yet more robust to work in any environment.

Hence, future robots will have an upgrade and transition from a research-heavy industry to tool that the general public will own and use. Users will enjoy getting their mundane activities automated.

I believe the intention of many roboticists is to create robots to make life better. Robots should aid and augment humans so that we can better invest our time. It is up to us to leverage on robots to create a better future.