Our Finance Minister recently released Singapore’s Budget for 2016. A big plank of Budget 2016 is set on “transforming our economy through enterprise and innovation”. Amongst other things, the government expects to spend $4.5B on Industry Transformation Programmes, and $450M for a National Robotics Programme. The government will also set up a TechSkills Accelerator, which is a new skills and development and job placement hub for the ICT sector, that will facilitate training and development for in-demand ICT skills.
The hope is that all these will transform Singapore’s economy and make us ready for the future. Will it really? To paraphrase a tagline by BMW, the best way to predict the future is to create it. But Singapore hasn’t been creating the future. Instead, we have been chasing trends, jumping on the bandwagon only when the economic trend has proven to be hot.
We have been here before. Way back in the 80’s, Singapore poured massive resources into developing the IT and software industries. But in the late 90’s, that industry was deemed as a sunset industry. Then with the dotcom bubble burst in early 2000s, students were discouraged from taking up programming. Instead, students were encouraged to pursue life sciences because Singapore decided to develop the biomedical industry.
Imagine. If we had stayed the course in the late 90’s and early 2000s. If we had continued to encourage students to do computing and software development, we won’t have such serious shortages of programmers now! We might even have been the ones to lead the trends of the tech startup world! Who knows, we might have had a few more homegrown unicorns that dominate the tech startup world.
But we didn’t. When things got tough, we lost our balls and bailed. We weren’t crazy enough to ride out the storm. And that’s why now we are chasing the trends rather than setting them.
I think the lesson is that we ought to be bolder. To the extent of being crazy. Instead of just trying to play catch-up, which is necessary but inadequate, we need to break new ground. Beyond just trying to keep pace with the advances in the fourth industrial revolution, we need to be the pioneers in the fifth industrial revolution.
What would the fifth industrial revolution be like? I don’t know. But I can imagine a few things.
There will be fundamental changes in the core computing architecture, which essentially hasn’t changed for the last 70 years. One way that could happen would be through advancements in quantum computing. That would take some time. A development that could be achieved sooner would be optical (photonics) computing. And that could be achieved through biomimicry.
Indeed, I think the fifth industrial revolution will be a result of blurring the distinction between man and machine, nature and technology. If Singapore were to lead in the fifth industrial revolution, I think we need to commit serious resources into two areas of research: biomimicry (also known as biomemetics) and bionics.
There has already been various research in both fields.
For biomimicry, the few interesting and easier to understand technology include creating crystals to change the core computing architecture as described above, artificially engineering altered forms of spider silk, and also having insanely high density of data storage using DNA.
For bionics, these videos show the exciting possibilities that have already been developed
Bionic eye helps the blind see again:
Need a hand? Bionic arm that can be controlled by the mind:
Bionics can help us get a leg up!
Singapore needs to be at the forefront of turning Ironman and Mechas from science fiction into science fact.
These are areas which are not yet “hot” but hold great potential to transform the world. I believe that they would not only drive the fifth Industrial revolution, but could also be the foundation for the next stage of human evolution. By grafting technology onto human beings (e.g. implanting chips into our brains to fight Alzheimers), humans of the future will be superhumans by today’s standards.
To be the trendsetters in these areas, we need to expose students to the possibilities of biomimicry and bionics early. Start courses in our polytechnics and and universities to study these areas. Fund research and development in these two areas. Let people try and test crazy ideas in these two areas. Do whatever it needs to get in early at the start of the trends, set the pace and lead the world in the fifth industrial revolution (and maybe the next step in human evolution).
Beyond these two specific areas, on a more general note, I think if we truly wanted to transform Singapore to be future-ready, then we need to do crazy things. After all, Singapore started off as a crazy idea – that a small nation, bereft of any natural resources, made up of people from different ethnicities and religions, could possibly survive and thrive. So we need to go back to our roots. Do crazy things.
To do that, we need a drastic change in our culture. In addition to moving away from academic qualifications to developing deep skills, our education system needs to develop in our people an attitude of daring of challenging conventions and questioning assumptions. More than just learning what to do and how to do them, we need to learn to ask why and why not. We need to be inspired, we need to learn to dream, once more.