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NTU: Fostering the leaders of Industry 4.0

Interview - September 26, 2018

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is an autonomous research university in Singapore which was namedthe fastest-rising young university globally by Times Higher Education. Professor Subra Suresh sits down with The Worldfolio to discuss how NTU is preparing its students for the jobs market of the future, new programs such as the Degree in AI and Data Science, and its partnerships with some of the world’s top companies.



Innovation and creation are some of the drivers for Singapore’s transformation towards a value-creation economy. How much of a competitive advantage does Singapore’s ecosystem have in the wake of Industry 4.0 along?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0 is going to have implications in manyareas. The drivers for Industry 4.0 are technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning, 3D printing, big data, precision medicine, block chain,etc. These are areas in which in the last 10 years, NTU has emerged as a global leaderin terms of new research and translation of research into industry or societal applications.

One example is theAlibaba-NTU Singapore Joint Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence. This is Alibaba’sfirst institute outside of China, and Alibabachose NTU in Singaporeinstead of Silicon Valley or Massachusetts, USA, or Geneva, Switzerland. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. As a university,NTU has the intellectual horsepower in each of these areas that would drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Being located in Singapore, a small and very well-organized country, with its Smart Nation initiative, NTU has the opportunity to move forward in a nimble manner.

One of the things we are looking at as part of our vision to become a Smart Campus is to use the campus as a test bed to try out technologies and activities that will impact the Fourth Industrial Revolution in thecontrolled environment of thisuniversity, where young people with interesting ideas develop new solutions to technological and societal problems.We have 40,000 members in this community coming from some100 countries and nationalities.But we cannot do it alone as an academic institution.

So in the area of autonomous vehicles, for example, we have been working with Land Transport Authority of Singapore and SMRT using our campus to test different autonomous vehicle technologies. We are working with Volvo Buses to develop driverless electric buses that can charge their batteries and move autonomously. We are also working with BlueSG, a subsidiary of French conglomerate Bollore Group, and a Netherlands company called 2getthere. On our Smart Campus, we are really interested in walking and even driving the talk!

The other major aspect of Industry 4.0 is not just technology but also the positive and potentially negative aspects of technology. The question is how do we maximize the positive and at least, minimize the unavoidablenegative aspects of technology?


Regarding the disruption to the jobs market as a result of Industry 4.0:How can NTU, as aneducational body,find solutions to the negative side?

The university’s role is extremely important. Today’s 18 to 22-year-oldgraduates are going to have very different careersfrom past generations. They will have to continuously change jobs – perhaps even change professions – because of the rapid pace of change. There is still a misconception in society that thesole purpose ofa university degree is to develop a particular skill that will serve you lifelong to make a living.Of course, at the most basic level, that is what you would look at addressing.

We also have to challenge our professors and students to think about what it means to be educated in the 21st century. That forces ourcommunityto think about what the appropriate curriculum should be in order to prepare our students to be productive global citizens of the 21st century. We are already making it a requirement for all undergraduates to take core educational modules that address how digital technologies are going to have a profound impact on the world they are graduating into.Also students should not confine themselves to their core discipline.  If you are a computer science major or engineering major, are you likely to be a productive human being if you haven’t had literature, if you can’t speak different languages, if you don’t have appreciation for arts and music?NTU is known for its strengths in technology and innovation. And that is why we established the NTU Institute for Science and Technology for Humanity. We are going to have a series of eventsfocusing on things such as ethicsand artificial intelligence, ethics and robotics, among others. While we are not the only ones doing this, NTU and Singapore are uniquely positioned to do it.

Speakingof disruption and loss of jobs, according to the International Trade Union Confederation’s predictions, in the next 10-20years, 30-40 percent of routine jobs are expected to be disrupted at all levels: from accounting to tax preparation, to radiologists who read mammograms, to lawyers who prepare routine legal paper work. But there will still be a need for specialization. Precision-medicine and machine learning, for example, will make disease diagnostics easier for doctors.

As we will live longer, one of our responsibilities is to prepare students for many different professions with up-skilling and re-skilling.The Singapore government has announced SkillsFuturecredits for all its citizensto take ownership of their skills development and lifelong learning. NTU has almost 230,000 living alumni in more than 150 countries around the world. Last year, we announced that we will give our alumni up to S$1,600 worth of course creditsthat they can use to apply for more than 120 skills-based courses at NTU, no matter where the alumni are based. We created technology-enhanced learning on our campus, so that our alumni – whomay have graduated from NTU 10 years ago –can learn more about, say,biotechnology through an NTU online course. This is our attempt to help our alumni to upskill and reskill.


Singapore has globally recognized universities such as NUS and NTU. NTU has the most citations for artificial intelligence and one of the best engineering degrees in the world.Within the ecosystem of preparing the Singaporean workforce for tomorrow, what would you consider as priorities in terms of teaching? How do the autonomous universities complement one another in Singapore?

NTUannounced the introduction of a new undergraduate degree this year in AI and data science. It is a four-year program that includes ethics,mathematics, AI, algorithms and so forth. One issue is how do we understand and verify data. As part of the Smart Nation initiative, Singapore is also looking into how to validate data. The veracity of data is going to be very important. The challenge we are going to haveis that there is no control over data comingfrom different parts of the world. If the decisions are made by algorithms, how do you make sure that the data is valid? I don’t think anyone has a solution to this.

So part of what we need to do is how you educate people with global thinking. Just in the area of big data, we have partnerships with Alibaba from China, Rolls Royce from the UK, Delta Electronics from Taiwan and SingTel from Singapore – all on our campus. They are all engaging with our students.We want to expose our students to the best industry practices worldwide and bring them together. In fact, in September, I hosted a summit of CEOs in Singapore in partnership withthe Boston Consulting Group, talking about some of these topics and exposing our faculty and students to these kinds of issues.

The other thing we need to do as university leaders is to address the unspoken silos and barriers based on majors or colleges. NTU is still relatively young and these silos are not deeply entrenched. We want to make sure that there is crosstalk among the disciplines. In February, we announced that we willcreate12 Presidential Post-doctoral Fellowships for bright young research stars who can work in any discipline or any combination of disciplines across the university without being burdened by any organizational or administrative silos. They will receive a very competitive salary, as well asa research budget every year for two years. We publicized thisearlier this year, and within four weeks, we received 538 applications from all over the world and we selected the top 16.


NTU uses Singapore as its test-bed for technology, research and innovation. You have stakeholders from researchers to students to industry partners to government officials etc. How do you manage such a dynamic ecosystem at NTU?

I was fortunate to have positions in the USprior to this. I was Dean of Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Director ofthe National Science Foundation(NSF) in Washington and the President of Carnegie Mellon University. Each job was very different.

For example, MIT has always been strong in engineering. The audience was global because engineers from around the world  people look up to MIT. NSF is an American government funding organization, but it is the largest basic science research funding agency in the world. In fact, I startedthe Global Research Council in 2012 while at NSF. It turned out that sitting at one table at that meetingwere more than 50heads of funding agencies from all over the world.We realized that 95% of the people in charge of science funding in the world were sitting at one table for the first time ever. Each job has been global.

Singapore is unique, and this job is unique.Even though Singapore is quite small compared to the size of the US, it's a global hub. It has the second largest sea port in the world after Shanghai. It is the second most competitive wealth management center in the world; it’sthe fourth largest financial center in the world after New York, London and Hong Kong. Singapore has always been global. In Singapore, I can reach outand meet the CEOs of many American companies. I've already met with a number of them in the last 6 months here in my office. So there is a lot of opportunity to be a global player.

Singapore is strategically located at the heart of Asia.Ithas a unique role in the region, coupled with its own mix of cultures: Chinese, Indian and Malay.Given its stable government anddespite its short history, small population and geographical size, Singapore’s influence can bemuch larger than expected.

Sothis is one of the things I have found appealing about coming here. I have been in the US for over 40 years.NTU and Singaporegive me a unique opportunity to do something different and I can still engage with the US. In fact, I was just at Northwestern University in June, and the collaboration between Northwestern and NTU is much stronger than the collaboration between Northwestern and most American universities, for example, in many areas. The collaboration between MIT and NTU is also much stronger today than between MIT and most American universities.

Sometimes global collaborations work in very interesting ways. For example,we currently have 55 full-time PhD students from Germany on our campus, and Germany has wonderful universities. There are more than 230 Swedish students every year at any given time in NTU and an equal number from NTU to Sweden. So it's really global.