October 07, 2015      

“When new platforms emerge, great inequality follows where early adopters earn their fortunes and others lose their jobs. The world is currently experiencing that trend, greater access to the skills and tools required will build a thriving middle class.”
— Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s “Smart Nation” minister

It’s not about humans vs. robots

I have yet to take an interview in print, on radio, or TV without the interviewer somewhere in the course of the interchange asking me about robots stealing jobs from humans.

“How many will lose their jobs?”

“What?s going to happen to us when the robots are in charge?”

“What will happen to social cohesion?”

Of course, it’s all about mixing up just the right brew of sensationalism, news, and mild terror for the home audience, and in the process all that yammering gets lots of people feeling helpless, a bit dazed and searching. Needlessly!

The Great Recession hasn’t helped our angst index. Six million names were permanently erased from weekly paychecks, and we survivors carry around a certain degree of anxiety on why our names somehow escaped erasure, even if those paychecks are smaller or don’t go as far any more, or both.

So, when media interviewers or academics or corporate titans or even our own elected officials warn of catastrophic job loss due to robot-driven automation, we cringe a bit and the angst ratchets up a few notches in all of us.

It’s enough to make many begin to fear the future.

That, of course, marks the onset of paralysis: a state of mind that keeps us nervously looking back to the good old days for comfort while time whiplashes us with ever more worrisome revelations on the nightly news.

red dot

Fortunately, little Singapore, population barely over 5 million, can show us — in microcosm — a few things about facing the future together and embracing whatever comes.

Singapore shows us that it’s not humans vs. robots, and praying that our jobs show up on some high-tech Schindler’s list as being spared.

Rather, it’s all about information technology, with robots being IT’s newest form factor, and how we collectively can work to control the IT we’ve created for the betterment of all. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, together we can float all boats.

Right now, we are not floating anything save our own self-interests.

Singapore throws a large light on the way forward. Maybe we should follow the beam, or at least take a look in its direction.

Basically, Singapore’s view is that we’re all in it together, so let’s get cracking. That has sort of been Singapore’s lifestyle since it was expelled from Malaysia in 1965 and has had to fend for itself ever since, even for a dependable water supply which it didn’t have back then.

Singaporeans embraced technology together and have grandly succeeded in bending technology to benefit everyone. Singapore had no choice, but we do, and maybe in that lurks the seed of our discontent.

Always facing challenges

Little Singapore has changed a lot since. It’s still little, but it’s also real big. Real big and powerful and staggeringly successful and comfortable for its citizens.

These days Singapore is also sensing that it must change once again and adapt to a new reality.

“Something fundamental has changed, and it’s going to change the way we live, work, play, socialize, educate, entertain ourselves,” said Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Smart Nation Minister, during an interview with the recently defunct publication FutureGov.asia.

I found the article and outlook of Balakrishnan refreshing, smart and very humane, so I preserved the interview with hopes of sharing it with our readership here at Robotics Business Review.

The publication that produced the piece went under without a trace, but the article lives on; so here it is:

“Independent Singapore has always had to think in strategic terms, because we were always facing existential challenges,” opened Balakrishnan at the interview in early 2015.

“Fifty years ago, Balakrishnan explained, that meant making the radical choice to be an open city in a region of closed markets. Equally, the city sought to be a ‘first world oasis in a third world region,’ investing in its sewerage systems, planting trees, banning coal fires to retain its blue skies, and fining its people for littering.”

“Singapore now sees a new opportunity to set itself apart again. The city is embracing new technologies to become an integral node in a digitally connected world.”

See related: Singapore Builds on Robotics Innovation

See related:Smart Nation” Program Spawns Singapore’s Fifth Lab

“Over the past six months, it has set out an ambitious new program of digital reforms called the Smart Nation initiative, and Balakrishnan is heading up the office coordinating this.”

“The program means massive change for Singapore.”

“New technologies are altering the nature of society, and the minister lists nine key platforms: computers; connectivity; the World Wide Web; social media; the proliferation of sensors; the Internet of Things; big data analytics; robotics; and 3D printing.”

singapore workers

Three steps

“Singapore’s government intends to harness these technologies and other digital tools that may arise, to achieve three key aims. First, we want to improve the quality of life of our people,” Balakrishnan said. In practice, that means better connected, more secure, happier citizens, with better health, education and greater wealth.

Second, “I’m focused on jobs. What are the jobs that are disappearing? What are the jobs that are going to appear? What are the skills and capabilities that my people need to have to get these new jobs and opportunities?”

“In practice, that means making available the tools needed to work in a new digital economy, the minister believes.”

“When new platforms emerge, great inequality follows where early adopters earn their fortunes and others lose their jobs,” Balakrishnan said. “The world is currently experiencing that trend, he adds, but greater access to the skills and tools required will build a thriving middle class.”

“The third aim is a social one: How are all of these things going to affect the way that we function as a cohesive community given our existential challenges — that we’re actually a very diverse people? Race, language and religion continue to be live issues,” he said. “Singapore is a multi-racial city in a region that has suffered its fair share of racial tensions.”

Keeping a ‘cohesive society’

“How, practically, does the minister intend to build a smart nation?” Balakrishnan heads up the Smart Nation Programme Office [SNPO], based in the prime minister’s office, and has set out three key layers on which the plan will be built.

“The bottom layer is infrastructure. Singapore is already a major node in the global submarine cable network. The city’s homes are also well-connected by fibre optic cables, and the government intends to do more.”

“On infrastructure, we intend to beat the world, have no doubt about that.”

“The next layer is ensuring the ability to work on cutting-edge software. That requires technical education, and Singapore will try to teach everybody some computational thinking, if not to code. The country will also retrain workers to adjust to the loss of jobs that become less relevant as they’re taken over by robots and digital technology,” Balakrishnan said.

Third is research and development: ‘We will invest or co-invest with laboratories, companies, hospitals that are developing new technologies and ways of applying them,” he said. “That involves the nation’s universities, research institutes, commercial labs and also the attraction of foreign companies. On top of these three layers, the government will focus on a number of critical domains: education, transport, health care, homecare, community development, but it’s not an exclusive list.”

The plan

“The priority areas have been determined opportunistically,” Balakrishnan said, “and if there’s an opportunity in any other sector, the government intends to quickly jump on it.”

This flexibility is enabled by the unique structure of the SNPO, the minister said. “It’s a whole of government effort, and that’s why [the SNPO is] parked under the prime minister’s office. The office is a very small outfit: our job is to engage, communicate, coordinate, match, push all the actors on to the stage.”

The key task of his unit is “to inject a sense of urgency,” Balakrishnan added. “I don’t just look at it in terms of deadlines, but for every layer, or every domain, a simple question is: where do we stand compared to the competition?” When areas are falling behind, the SNPO will flag it and get action to be taken.

“Its position within the prime minister’s office is vital for getting this quick action: some decisions involve trade-offs between agencies, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has set out this vision as a priority for Singapore over the next decade.”

The SNPO exists to “crystalize the issue, bump it upstairs, get the Prime Minister to decide one way or the other. The point is not to be held up by bureaucratic inertia or infighting.”

Equally, Singapore has an inbuilt advantage: a city state has only one layer of government, “so if autonomous vehicles became the standard, even if they’re not invented here, the first place that could do it on a national scale would be us,” he said. “We should be the first or one of the first to digitize in 3D high resolution every road, every river, every canal, every tunnel in the country.”

Re-engineering government

“Many of the smart nation objectives require government to be restructured behind the scenes.”

“I view the digital revolution as an opportunity to re-engineer your processes, so if you haven’t changed the way you transact, the way you process requests, the way you deliver services, it means you haven’t got it,” Balakrishnan said.

First, he said that agencies must be putting data out in real time to enable developers to help out. “If someone else invents a better app which makes it easier for people to complain, we will give them access to the same back-end database and to the same back-end that will trigger actions within government to go and resolve a problem.”

The minister wants a “healthy competition between in-house apps and third-party apps because it ends up in a more responsive level of services.”

“Second, government should be looking to make its databases machine readable and accessible through APIs. That’s what I mean by democratizing government and services using technology.”

“Third, agencies should be looking to work together on problems. What we’re trying to do is improve the synergy and responsiveness to citizen complaints, and to completely re-engineer the back end.”

“Fourth, automation can really help. For example, he noted that 70,000 cleaners are currently employed to clean the streets of Singapore, and cleaning the drains requires somebody to manually reach in to drag out trapped leaves. The city would be open to robots automatically cleaning out the drains, making it more efficient.”

Seeking expert opinion

“The Singapore Government is admitting that it doesn’t have all the answers, and asking for advice and support from the community. But, unlike some governments, it is looking to actively incentivize submissions, rather than just expecting that they will flow freely.”

“Issue challenges, see what people come back with. You?ve got to reward them by deploying the technologies; buying the services,” Balakrishnan said.

“Ultimately, there needs to be an ecosystem,” he adds, “with government funding research and developing, paying to use prototypes, scaling up businesses. This is a free market economy, and that way you incentivize people.”

“Much of the technology will not be invented in Singapore,” he said, “but the government is attracting tech firms to test their solutions in the city. My pitch to Silicon Valley is that there are some things that you can do here faster: prototypes that you can roll out; systems that you can implement.”

“The SNPO was born on Nov. 24 last year, and since then, it has worked behind the scenes to put together a comprehensive vision for the Smart Nation initiative.”

“At the national level, the government is looking to create a national sensor network. Meanwhile, at the local level the government wants to deliver small projects to allow citizens to immediately see some difference. Even simple things like having the GPS location of every single bus and taxi in real time, and for that data to be available to any app developer,” Balakrishnan said.

“Over the next few months, more will be announced, and a demonstration area will be unveiled to show the full Smart Nation experience in the wild as it grows.”

“Technology has changed. It’s a major tsunami, it?s going to change everything,” Balakrishnan said. “But this is about people, their quality of life, their opportunities in the community.”

Scaling success

Singapore is getting in as early as possible and involving everyone and, best of all, being open and honest with what is in the offing. The best of what is done there can transfer and scale anywhere in the world.

We need to strive mightily to avoid Churchill’s England that had to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

That’s cutting things way too close. To dally might put millions in jeopardy of needlessly suffering their names erased from weekly paychecks.