​Speech by NTU President at the launch of the NTU Institute of Science & Technology for Humanity

Published on: 11-Mar-2019

​Opening Address by

Professor Subra Suresh

President, Nanyang Technological University


11 March 2019
Lee Kong Chian Lecture Theatre
Nanyang Technological University

Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 
NTU Pro-Chancellors and Trustees,
Mr Peter Ho, Chair of the NISTH International Advisory Board, 
Your Excellencies from diplomatic missions in Singapore,
Distinguished guests,
Colleagues, students,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Today marks a milestone for NTU Singapore as we officially launch the NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity or NISTH.  

What is NISTH?

The NTU Institute of Science & Technology for Humanity (NISTH) is established as a university-wide effort to synergise and coordinate NTU’s strengths.  It is a multidisciplinary forum to foster dialogue, discussion and research into how science and technology impact society and humanity.  NISTH will bring together industry, government, academia, and non-profit organisations to develop ideas and concepts for the prudent and ethical development of technology and policy for the betterment of the human condition as the Fourth Industrial Revolution impacts the global society in profound ways.

Now is an appropriate occasion to ask two questions:  Why NISTH and why now?  Why NISTH at NTU Singapore?  

First, why NISTH and why now?

Global society will continue to undergo rapid changes over the coming decades in response to the accelerating pace of technological progress catalysed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  While many of these changes will have positive outcomes for the individual citizens, organisations, governments, and society, there are also potential concerns, challenges and questions surrounding ethical dilemmas, inequality, work force disruption, privacy, confidentiality, cyber security, protection of personal dignity, cultural sensitivity, policies, regulations, sustainability, and more broadly, the impact of technology on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people. A human-centric and ethical approach to science and technology is therefore necessary.

Never before has the world faced such a critical need for scientific knowledge and expertise that is predicated on sound evidence as well as reliable and reproducible data and information.  However, to tackle global challenges effectively and in a sustainable manner, technology must also be grounded in deep ethical foundations and sound governance. In a borderless digital world where information travels instantly, our shared global future depends on making wise choices today about the key challenges that human society will face in the coming decades, particularly in energy, climate change, health, food, dealing with Artificial Intelligence, robotics, autonomous systems, personalized medicine, Internet of Things, and other core ingredients underlying the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0. 

For example, the future of work in Industry 4.0 will be quite different from what it is today. What does it mean to be an educated person in the age of artificial intelligence? In a future where human enhancement or augmentation or work force reskilling becomes a matter of choice, and necessity, what is the role of the individual, the organization, the government and academia in fostering life-long learning in a sustainable manner? As the boundaries between human and machine intelligence become less distinct, there is a need to reflect on the unique attributes and advantages of merely being human.  As technology relentlessly pushes us to be more immediate, precise and perfect, how do we balance that continuous pressure with the inherent human need to rest and reflect, to use our faults, failures and imperfections as a catalyst for innovation and human creativity, and continue to remind ourselves that there is truth and beauty in Nature’s imprecision and imperfection.  That also brings in the need for the arts, humanities and social sciences not only to shape the impact of technology on society, but equally to ensure that technology, especially that increasingly enforced by automated machine decisions, does not interfere with creativity, originality and discovery. NISTH’s mission to marry technology with humanity and its launch today are therefore timely, given the immense significance and impact of Industry 4.0 on global society.  

Second:  Why an Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity at NTU Singapore?

With its unique and diverse intellectual strengths, the NTU community is well-positioned, and some would say uniquely positioned, to play a leading role in fostering activities that bring together global thinkers.  The goal here would be to identify ways to maximise the benefits of technologies while minimising technology’s possible negative effects and unintended consequences for individuals and societies.  Academia in general, and NTU in particular, can serve as a catalyst for multi-disciplinary, intellectually deep, and evidence-based activities with a long-term perspective at the intersections of technology, humanity and human behaviour through discussion, debate, education, research, conferences, seminars and critical questioning in a manner that industry and government do not have the luxury to undertake.

So, why NTU?  By some global metrics, NTU has emerged as the world’s best young university for the past five consecutive years, as well as the fastest-rising young university in the world.  Just last month, by one global benchmark, NTU was named one of the world’s Top 6 institutions for engineering and technology.  Last year, the Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, IEEE, one of the largest and most influential professional societies based in the US, prepared a list of top 10 young rising faculty in the field of AI, which is a key area of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  In the list of top 10 stars in AI identified by IEEE, three are NTU faculty members.  Last year, Nikkei in Japan and Elsevier in the Netherlands did a study of institutions and companies whose research in the area of AI had the most impact in terms of citations for publications and patents over a 5 year period from 2012 to 2016.  At the top of their list was Microsoft, followed by NTU.  Consider this:  three major industry leaders, Rolls Royce, HP and Alibaba, have chosen to locate their largest theme-based university projects at NTU.  In addition, some 175 other industry partners are currently working on this campus with NTU faculty and students.  The NTU Smart Campus initiative is positioning this beautiful campus as a living testbed for trials of technological innovations in areas such as autonomous cars and buses, electric vehicles, sustainable energy, new water treatment technologies, waste management, preparedness for climate change and sea level rise, a topic that could pose existential threat to island nations such as Singapore.  

In other words, NTU is at or near the top of global universities whose multidisciplinary research strengths and industrial connections are increasingly recognized worldwide in areas that are poised to have a profound impact on society in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  NTU is also situated in Singapore, a small nation at the crossroads of Asia, which is poised to emerge as one of the early Smart Nations and Smart Cities of the 21st Century.  NTU’s key activities involving technology trials and their possible extension beyond our campus are undertaken in partnership with Singapore government agencies such as the Economic Development Board, PUB the national water agency, Land Transport Authority, SMRT, Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, and many others.  This unique partnership among NTU, local and global industries, and government agencies makes the potential for substantial impact of an institute such as NISTH even more possible here than most universities in the world.

While the term “technological” is in our name and the College of Engineering is the largest on this campus, the second largest college here is the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.  NISTH thus provides a unique opportunity for NTU to have a profound impact on society in the 21st Century by not only bridging the gulf between science, technology and medicine on the one hand, and humanities, arts, social sciences and business on the other.   

NISTH’s interdisciplinary focus

NISTH’s initial focus will be on three main thrusts: Responsible Innovation, Governance and Leadership in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and Emerging Urban Asia.

By investing in research and education on these subjects, by posing the right questions, and by serving as a catalyst and a forum to nurture new ideas and pathways to respond to these questions in an actionable manner through industry and government partnerships, NTU and NISTH, can codify the values and lessons learnt, and impart it to the next generation. If we are successful in this new initiative, and we have every reason to expect that it will succeed, just imagine the kind of world we will have when they start creating impact with the values we have imparted to them.

Public engagement

Indeed, public engagement is a core component of NISTH’s work. Even before today’s official launch, NISTH has been active in various projects to engage the public. NISTH began a series of workshops, seminars and lectures involving leading scholars and policy makers. NISTH had also launched the NTU Global Digital Art Prize that attracted some 500 submissions, and the NISTH Ideas Challenge that received some 90 entries. The winners of the Ideas Challenge will receive their prizes shortly. NISTH also took an active part in the Summer Davos in China last year, and collaborates with the World Economic Forum (WEF) Centre for the 4th Industrial Revolution in San Francisco.

NTU is grateful for the participation of top representatives of local and international institutions and companies in the inaugural NISTH Round Table this afternoon, another positive step in the Institute’s public engagement efforts. In particular, I wish to thank Mr Peter Ho, Chair of the NISTH International Advisory Board, and Senior Advisor at the Centre for Strategic Futures, Mr Esko Tapani Aho, former Prime Minister of Finland, and Mr Enrico Letta, former Prime Minister of Italy.

I would also like to thank the representatives from the Singapore’s Smart Nation and Digital Government Office, Info-Communications Media Development Authority, National Heritage Board, Surbana Jurong, and Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities. Credit also goes to representatives of the World Economic Forum, European Research Council, Infosys, FLOGEN Technologies, Micron Semiconductor, Rolls Royce, the global law firm Jones Day, Harvard University, University of California Berkeley, University of Applied Arts Vienna, Sorbonne University, University of Twente, and Dartmouth College. And, of course, I express my profound gratitude to our talented colleagues and staff at NTU.

As we begin this journey into new frontiers, I am delighted to announce that Professor Vanessa Evers has been appointed the new Founding Director of NISTH.  Vanessa joins NTU on 1 August 2019, following the unanimous recommendation of an international search advisory committee comprising NTU faculty. She is renowned for her work in the field of socially intelligent computing and human-computer interaction, and has guided teams to create real societal impact through science. She is presently Professor of Computer Science at the University of Twente’s Human Media Interaction group in the Netherlands, and also serves as the vice dean of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science, and Scientific Director of the university's DesignLab.

Professor Evers will marshal NTU’s extensive capabilities and assemble a group of leading minds at NISTH who will enrich NTU’s learning and research environment. NTU already has an array of very talented and motivated faculty working in areas of science, technology, business, medicine, the humanities, arts and social sciences. I am confident that Professor Evers will create vital synergy that will propel NTU to new heights.

I am also pleased to announce that NISTH and France’s Sorbonne University intend to collaborate through a new visiting fellowship. The NISTH Visiting Fellows, who will be experts in areas related to Science and Technology Studies, or in areas that have a bearing on science and technology policy, to work on knowledge exchange, research and teaching. By expanding our global network and promoting collaboration, we hope to strengthen our resilience and create new opportunities and synergies for collaboration.

I would also like to thank Micron Technology Foundation for its gift from its Advancing Curiosity grant to support NISTH's activities. 

I am also pleased to acknowledge the Austrian and French Embassies in Singapore for supporting this launch ceremony.

Today’s launch of NISTH is the first step to an exciting future. I thank you for joining us today to witness the launch, and to be a part of this global movement to make science and technology work for the benefit of humanity.

Thank you.

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