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Little Red Dot: Home is where the Heart is

What makes a place a home? For many, home is where we were born. However, in the increasingly mobile world we live in today, it is common to see professionals leave their places of birth to settle down in cities that offer greater opportunities. Speaking to Prof Miao Chun Yan, who has spent over 20 years living and working away from her birth country – China, The IT Society seeks to understand what Singapore means to Prof Miao after all these years.


First impression of Singapore.

Prof Miao: Even before coming to Singapore, I had heard a lot about how Singapore is a garden city and a livable place where people live longer and healthier than many other nations. Singapore enjoys a good reputation as a global hub connecting the East and the West. Numerous international meetings, conferences and exhibitions are held here. Singapore also houses regional headquarters of many leading tech companies and multinational corporations. These factors make Singapore a very attractive place for top talents to research and develop ground breaking technologies.


First real brush with Singapore.

Prof Miao: In the early 1990s, I was offered an opportunity to work on a collaborative project between the then National Computer Board (NCB) and Trade Development Board. The TradeNet project I worked on was not only the first-of-its-kind in Singapore, but also one of the few in the world at that time. The developed technologies were subsequently transferred to over 50 countries, evidence of Singapore’s great capacity for innovation.


Going to school in Singapore.

Prof Miao: My involvement in the TradeNet project and the rapid development of the Internet convinced me of exciting possibilities in technology. This vision inspired me to enrol in the graduate school. I was fortunate that my PhD supervisor was very supportive of my research work in artificial intelligence (AI) and provided me with a lot of room to explore. My sense then was that the industry, the research community and the government were all working in unison to advance the state of the art. I went on to do my post doctorate fellowship and taught in universities in Canada before doing my PhD study at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). With all the knowledge and skills gained, I came back to teach at NTU in 2003.


A government-backed digital nation.

Prof Miao: Singapore’s government plays a pivotal role in aligning research and development activities, education, manpower training and the economy to realise the ambitious and novel Smart Nation masterplan. In addition to helping businesses digitise their operations, the government is also working closely with schools and the industry to ensure that fundamental technological knowledge and know-how are systematically structured and readily transferrable. I would say that the government’s commitment to innovation and the digital economy is one main reason why Singapore is producing the highest density of AI talents in the world.


Passion for Humanised AI – first and foremost.

Prof Miao: For many years, I have been engaged in a variety of AI research projects. In particular, I spend a lot of time studying humanised AI so as to discover how we can inject human-like traits such as curiosity and empathy into the interactions between humans and machines. The potential for this technology, when integrated with smart appliances and homes, is boundless. For the first time in human history, there will be more elderly people than young children in the global population. The humanised AI enables seniors to age well and gracefully – with a dignified lifestyle at home.


A growing passion that extends beyond AI.

Prof Miao: While technology plays a major role in driving AI development, successful AI research and development work requires a deep understanding of other academic disciplines such as psychology. But that is not all – a good understanding of ethics, law and business can also reveal important perspectives. Due to AI’s interdisciplinary nature, I have learnt and greatly benefitted from new insights made possible by research results from other fields.


A teacher but also a collaborator.

Prof Miao: The teaching landscape has changed significantly over the years. Nowadays, information and learning resources are readily available online. Students no longer come to class just to acquire knowledge. As a course instructor and research supervisor, my focus is to inspire, encourage and guide students to devise solutions for complex societal challenges. At the same time, I constantly urge students to enrich their classroom knowledge by applying it to solve real- world problems.


“Good ideas and friendly technologies can empower and enrich ageless ageing”


Co-creation of knowledge – the next wave of education.

Prof Miao: The next wave in the education sector has already arrived. If you come to the NTU campus, you will see that the university has close research and development collaborations with many companies. Although a solid understanding of theories is important, it is arguably even more important to learn how to apply them in tackling real-life challenges. Students who are able to do so will enjoy rewarding and successful careers.


Singapore is our home.

Prof Miao: Singapore is where my family and I share our most precious memories. We live on the beautiful NTU garden campus. As parents, we are glad that our children are able to benefit from a world-class education in Singapore. 2019 marks Singapore’s bicentennial and it is an auspicious time for everyone who treasures this Little Red Dot to reflect on its rich history, culture and values.


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