NTU Singapore turns to Alibaba on Artificial Intelligence

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with Professor Subra Suresh, the university’s new President.

Image: NTU Singapore

To pursue his education, Mumbai-born Professor Subra Suresh travelled to the US with less than $100 in his pocket, toting a half-filled suitcase.
His story is one of the power of education, a value instilled in him by his mother from an early age, he notes.

Suresh rose to become the first Asian-born academic to lead the National Science Foundation, an American agency with an US$8bn research budget, and joined Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University in January as its new President. GovInsider caught up with him to learn more about his vision for the university.

Boosting AI research

In one of his first moves, the university has partnered with Chinese tech giant Alibaba to set up a joint AI research institute - the first of its kind outside of China. The research tie-up will explore applications of Artificial Intelligence to solve real-life problems - diagnosis and prevention of diseases, for instance, and urban design, according to a Straits Times report.

Alibaba is dedicating US$15 billion to its Discovery, Adventure, Momentum and Outlook Academy programme, and the contribution to this research institute will likely come from this fund, Channel NewsAsia reported.

NTU Singapore was chosen for the partnership because of its AI expertise, the Straits Times report said. The university ranks in the top three globally in terms of AI research, according to a 2017 ranking that measures research citations between 2012 and 2016. At the signing of the agreement, Suresh said that the partnership would give NTU Singapore students and faculty “an opportunity to connect their basic research in the lab with real life applications that have immediate societal impact”.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative, noted at last week’s Alibaba Cloud Summit that “What we are trying to do, is to transform Singapore now that we are on the cusp of a new revolution. He added: “the real value today is in the ability to derive insights, artificial intelligence, robotics, big data analytics, and deep learning”.

This year, NTU Singapore also launched a new undergraduate degree course in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, in response to rapidly growing demand for these capabilities across industries in Singapore. “Not unexpectedly, it's been oversubscribed,” Suresh remarks.

How to relearn 101

At the same time, the university is taking steps to prepare students for a tech-driven future that will inevitably require new skills and capabilities, says Suresh. “Unlike previous generations, this cohort is going to change not only jobs many, many more times, they are likely to change professions - that means they have to relearn at a much faster rate.”

One piece of Singapore’s skills redevelopment focus is how universities and tertiary institutes can support reskilling. NTU Singapore has announced that it will provide $1,600 worth of additional SkillsFuture credit for alumni all over the world to earn certificates through the university’s online professional development courses.
“If you graduated ten years ago, you've been working in industry and you know nothing about AI, can you learn through online mechanisms?”
These could potentially help professionals earn a promotion or climb the corporate ladder, Suresh notes. “If you graduated ten years ago, you've been working in industry and you know nothing about AI, can you learn through online mechanisms?”

And starting this year, the university is adjusting curriculums across the board so that all undergraduates will take core courses in basic digital literacy skills. “It doesn't matter whether you are an engineering or music or literature major. You will have what our faculty and experts believe is the minimum requirement to be a successful citizen of the digital world,” Suresh explains.

His vision for NTU Singapore’s graduates includes inculcating in them an understanding of how to use technology responsibly and wisely. “We want to make sure our students get as much exposure to the human aspects of technology - things like ethics, communications, leadership,” he explains, adding that the second largest college in the university is Humanities and Social Sciences.

Disruption is transforming economies and employment, and universities such as NTU Singapore are exploring ways to ensure their graduates are prepared. As Suresh summarises: “The goal of learning should be to acquire the skills that enables you to adapt to change.”
He was once the lead of the US’ largest research funding agency; but in a sign of the changing times, Suresh’s has started in his new role by embracing the opportunities being offered by a rising China.