Mr. Roboto Goes to Singapore: Why This Small Country is Pushing the New Frontiers of Robotics
From driverless cars to military technology Southeast Asia’s smallest nation is leading the way
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Singapore’s small size — 5.6 million people on a chestnut-shaped 720 square kilometer island — has always been the Achilles heel that has goaded it to greater heights.
Nowhere more so than in the looming frontier of robotics where the island nation is leading the way in two promising areas: Driverless cars and unmanned military weapons.
The driverless car’s enabling technology, electric batteries, may have been developed in China and the U.S., but a team of Singaporean researchers, led by Professor Shoushun Chen from the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), are making them safer to drive by producing an ultrafast high-contrast camera called Celex, which could help autonomous cars better handle extreme road or weather conditions.
The current generation of optical cameras still has difficulty with situations that human drivers can more reliably handle such as extreme dark or light conditions on the road. Singapore’s scientists are tackling this problem head-on.
“Our new camera can be a great safety tool for autonomous vehicles, since it can see very far ahead like optical cameras but without the time lag needed to analyze and process the video feed,” explains Chen in an official release from NTU.
Movel AI, an artificial intelligence start-up, is also pushing the robotics frontier, and their technology could very well fill the final piece of the driverless car puzzle. CEO Abhishek Gupta and his team developed the software that improves the ability of robots to see and identify objects, making them “smarter” and consequently more accurate and less prone to accidents.
Instead of the traditional lidar (a sensor that measures distance using lasers), Movel AI employs computer vision using cameras, taking the input from the camera to get feature points from the existing environment. Based on the information it derives from its surroundings, the robot has a firm grasp of his environment, thus making it less accident-prone.
While Movel AI’s technology is undergoing pilot testing to make their technology “more robust and adaptive,” there’s already a ready market in Singapore for rolling out their software as it is in line with the vision of the Singaporean government for driverless vehicles: to provide commuters a safe and convenient way to get from Point A to Point B.
According to a report from The Straits Times, residents and workers of Punggol, Jurong Innovation District, and Tengah will be the first in Singapore, beginning 2022, to ride self-driving buses and shuttles as part of their commute. The plans, unveiled by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan last year, are part of the country’s efforts to adopt autonomous vehicle technology.
War and peace: How robotics is reshaping the island state’s military strategy
The small and perennially vulnerable nation is also incorporating robotics into its national defense.
Last year, Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen announced that a starting seed grant of S$45 million a year would be given to two laboratories in the Defense Science and Technology Agency and the DSO National Laboratories.
According to Dr. Ng in a Channel News Asia report, the work on robotics is already well underway across their military units. Infantry regiment soldiers are experimenting with unmanned aerial and ground vehicles to perform missions, for example, while Singapore’s navy, which is further along in its implementation of robotics, is using unmanned surface vehicles, which can navigate and avoid collisions autonomously.
“The realizable potential is enormous. For instance, our Singapore Maritime Crisis Centre monitors more than 1,500 commercial shipping vessels in our waters daily. It uses AI to generate unique signatures for each, through collating information from multiple sources, including social media. It then detects any deviations from this signature,” Minister Ng says in the report.
In 2015, AI deployed by the Singapore Maritime Crisis was able to detect a possible supporter of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on board a tanker plying Singapore waters. “The person was barred from disembarking into Singapore,” Minister Ng told The Straits Times at the time. “Finding this needle in a big haystack is possible only through modern means.”
The urgency to propel robotics forward in areas like transport and defense is perhaps greatest in Singapore where its small size and limited human resources is a built-in guard against wasting human hands (and minds) in jobs that can be better done by machines.
“Domo Arigato, Mister Roboto,” sung in 1983 by rock band Styx when Japan appeared to be leading the charge in robotics, may need to be adapted into Singlish.
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BY Amanda Pressner Kreuser