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Given the momentous changes driven in by digital technology over the past two decades it might be tempting to see the future as simply a more sophisticated version of the present. But that would be to misunderstand the transformational power of technology and its exponential trajectory, said associate professor Tan Tin Wee, director at National Supercomputing Centre Singapore (NSCC). “The growth of the internet hasn’t even started. [What we’ve seen] is the tip of the iceberg, with many new developments and disruptive technologies not even underway yet.”
He cited the area of precision medicine as an example: “The convergence of the internet with medicine and biology will lead to tremendous developments. The ability to personalize medicine and precisely treat an individual’s specific condition is now well underway. This has been brought about by years of arduous research, but if we can accelerate this, imagine the possibilities.”
Part of this acceleration is driven by increased access to high performance computing (HPC). Fujitsu recently implemented a one-petaflop supercomputer at the NSCC — currently the fastest processor configuration in South East Asia. Aware of its potential, Tan advocates much wider access to supercomputers. “Unlike many other supercomputing infrastructures where HPC is only accessible to elite scientists, the vision of NSCC is to democratize access to supercomputing so that as many people as possible who have wonderful, creative ideas, and are highly talented will have a petascale supercomputing facility at their fingertips.”
Working with three universities in Singapore and A*STAR, Tan’s vision for a more inclusive approach to HPC is becoming a reality. Its supercomputer is now directly accessible to users across the country via infiniband data transfer, allowing for remote connectivity from various locations.
Local remote connectivity to the supercomputer is one thing, but Tan has global ambitions. “We’ve experimented with global connectivity,” he said. “Today, the NSCC is part of the InfiniCortex Project to create a galaxy of interconnected supercomputers, creating a supercomputing cloud where we can share our resources across the globe. We have achieved the world’s first infiniband network ring around the world.” For users, that means being able to transfer data at more than 10 gigabits per second between Singapore and Europe, and 100 gigabits per second between Singapore and the US.”
With a professional background as a biologist associate professor Tan is open in his ambitions for creating an environment where research matches the ‘speed of thought.’ As he joked: “I’m a lazy researcher, I want to do things quickly.” This has led him to look into creating a data ‘wormhole’ between Singapore and the US so that the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research in San Diego can become mirrored in Singapore and make it look as if the whole system is just next door. “We want to make distance disappear for research labs, so they can conduct research over a global research platform,” he said.
Working together with intelligent machines
Continuing the theme of future technological advancements, Yoshikuni Takashige, VP marketing strategy at Fujitsu, explained how the “fourth technology wave” of AI and robotics is fast becoming a reality. While the first two waves — consisting of the internet and mobile internet — have had a major impact on business and society, the current wave of IoT and the impending fourth wave will provide “tremendous opportunity for business growth,” according to the Fujitsu executive. “The first and second wave enabled many innovative online developments such as ecommerce and social networking, but now the third and the fourth waves combined are giving rise to a more connected world, impacting all industries and bringing about a new industrial revolution.”
Takashige is confident that such technological development can help to address many serious global challenges, such as mass urbanization, an ageing population, food shortages and natural disasters. He detailed the work Fujitsu has undertaken with Singapore Management University on dynamic mobility in maritime environments.
“The shipping lanes around Singapore were congested with too many vessels, so there were increased risks of near misses and collisions,” he said. “We have developed a solution to collect the real-time location data of all vessels and estimate the probable movements of these ships to calibrate the risk of collision and near misses, and send warning messages immediately.”
Fujitsu is also developing a new solution to predict and ease the congestion in public spaces and transport hubs in Singapore. When an issue is predicted, the system will send mobile coupons to groups of people in an effort to tempt them into nearby shops and restaurants — easing congestion while boosting the economy. Lastly, Takashige revealed how Fujitsu has worked with the University of Tokyo to develop a heart simulator on one of its supercomputers. The ‘digital twin’ of a human heart will enable doctors to plan surgery more effectively by predicting the results of their interventions.
While this demonstrates fantastic gains in the field of machine learning, Takashige highlighted the concern many people have that AI will ultimately take over many of the jobs currently carried out by people. His view: ensure that the application of AI is human-centric. “Of course, we should respect these views, but we also have to look at the positive aspects of technology. In this digital era we have to be more human than ever.”
He highlighted that while computers can crunch vast amounts of data in a way the human brain never can, our emotions and intuitions — the very things that make us human — provide us with a creativity computers aren’t capable of. Together, the two will be a potent combination, he argued. “Humans and intelligent machines will be able to work together collaboratively, complement each other and achieve the previously unimaginable.” Read more about Fujitsu's vision for a human-centric society here.
Digital transformation in motion
While these examples of cutting-edge digital change provide a vision for many IT leaders, not everyone is as far into the digitalization journey. Aw Jian Huei, IT director at solar panel manufacturer REC, mapped out for conference attendees a more modest but equally inspirational journey. When he joined the $755 million company four years ago he knew he had to both update its legacy systems and, in parallel, transform its IT to ensure the business’s future competitiveness.
Huei ran a digital transformation initiative alongside his five-year IT roadmap that was designed to establish the infrastructure to enable mobile working, robust connectivity, the benefits of hybrid cloud and a flexible network.
The transformation project began in 2013 when the Norway-headquartered company split with a local partner and moved its operational and manufacturing center, along with its core IT systems, to Singapore. That presented it with the opportunity to virtualize its data centers and adopt cloud services — in essence, “prepare for digital transformation,” says Huei.
The second stage (in 2014/15) saw REC replace its legacy ERP system with a cloud option that would better support business growth. “Instead of simply upgrading that system we decided to move ERP into the cloud and integrate it with other on-premise applications. So we have to somehow restructure the infrastructure to integrate the systems,” added Huei. REC then started to embrace cloud-based apps and the setting up of a hybrid cloud environment, before entering a final phase over 2016/17 to focus on improving productivity with the provision of full mobile working. Huei characterized the journey as a “digital transformation in motion.”
The whole process is designed to position IT as a strategic asset to the business, once and for all moving it from being viewed as a support function, he says.
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