How to Go Anywhere (Even in a Pandemic)

“It was the done thing to travel at that age. The different stellar systems were spectacular but you could see just as good a view in virtual, and he still didn’t really understand what people saw in actually having been in any particular system.” These lines from Iain M. Banks’ The Player Of Games reflect what many futurists dream about – the age when VR is so immersive that physical travel is all but impractical. But until recently, virtual travel was the domain of enthusiasts. Still, the vision is increasingly becoming reality. 

Virtual reality (VR) technology has been steadily improving over the years, and travel is poised to become its “killer app”. Who wouldn’t want, at least sometimes, to skip airport queues, red-eye flights, tiny hotel rooms and just enjoy exploring new places? Yet, breakthrough technologies always take time to catch up with the imagination.

Take the VR Plunge
I’ve been experimenting with virtual travel since the first modern headsets hit the market. But after COVID-19 broke out and all international travel ceased, I came to really appreciate the power of VR. As someone who is used to jetting around, being stuck at home made me feel like a fish out of water. That’s when my high-fidelity Oculus headset came to the rescue! 

I started revisiting places I knew from the past but could no longer go to: New York, San Francisco, Bangkok, Barcelona, among others. Surprisingly, even though the experience was virtual, it created the feeling of presence and allowed me to “walk” through streets I missed. Encouraged, I started exploring cities that were on my to-do list – Venice, Osaka and New Orleans were the first stops on my digital journey around the world. 

Presence
I enjoyed walking virtual miles through these cities, learning their history, geography and architecture. And now I would even be comfortable to give a tour to someone visiting these places for the first time. While VR travel is a new and different experience, it can certainly provide a sense of wonder and adventure that we crave. And although VR may not be quite as “real” as experiencing a place with its crowds, sounds, smells and tastes – it works well for a quick run around the city and a glimpse of its landmarks (which is what many travellers limit themselves to anyway).

Travel Anywhere
Actually, I’m not alone in my virtual travels. Take the example of The Agoraphobic Traveller, Jacqui Kenny. Unable to physically travel because of her condition, Kenny realised her dream of exploring the world ­– with Google Street View. Recently, iconic travel magazine National Geographic launched exciting guided VR tours around the world. VR venues are also drawing ever larger crowds to concerts, shows and education events. 

The COVID-19 situation has accelerated technological trends and the adoption of new habits and behaviours. Hence, while VR travel is not yet at the level experienced by Iain M. Banks’ spacefaring protagonists, we can already participate in that promised future – now.

First published in the IT Society Magazine from the Singapore Computer Society

From Healthcare to HealthTech

For centuries, millions of people struggled to get adequate healthcare because they lived too far away from quality hospitals. Now, technology enables medical professionals to evaluate, diagnose and treat patients regardless of where they live. And as regulations and innovations like remote surgery, drone drug delivery and portable scanners mature, having an always-on care anywhere may well become a reality. In fact, I regularly send data from wearable devices and annual checkups to my doctors to get their professional advice. I also educate myself on the latest diet, exercise and lifestyle with quality information and research available from the Internet.

Medical Attention Anytime, Anywhere
But that’s not all. Not too long ago, I experienced first-hand a basic form of telemedicine – one of the technologies poised to transform healthcare in the coming years. I was jolted awake one night at 3am by my wife who was gently but urgently shaking me. She was feeling severe pain in her back, and asked for any help I could think of. I frantically looked through our first aid kit, but was clueless which pills could help.
On impulse, I started a videoconference with my dad – one of the best general practitioners in his country. It was afternoon in Europe and he was still at work. After asking my wife a few questions, he made a diagnosis – neuralgia, pain caused by a nerve stuck between bones and muscles. Using the camera to show him our medical supplies, he picked a few medications that could alleviate the pain and treat the condition. Within 30 minutes, my sweetheart was able to go back to sleep.

New Treatment Possibilities
My other remarkable experience with the new biomedical technologies took place when I accidentally broke my tooth in half (yes – that hurt). The x-ray looked nasty – and a few years ago, it would have been impossible to treat this kind of damage. To my surprise, the dentist used a scanner to produce a digital model of my tooth and 3D-printed the missing part, which fitted into the rough contours of the broken bone perfectly. Seeing and going through the whole procedure left me with an absolute sense of wonder.

The Promise Of Better Quality Of Lives
However, compared to the cutting-edge implants that allow people to feel the touch, smell the scent, and see the world around them; my 3D-printed tooth is nothing. Bionic implants are not only increasingly enabling people who struggle with disabilities to lead productive lives, but also outperform “natural” ones. The famous TED talk by the MIT engineer Hugh Herr showed him running, dancing and rock climbing with the new generation of bionic prostheses.
Indeed, progress in medicine has been so rapid that even predictions promising radical lifespan extension from futurists such as Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey De Grey, have started to draw a second glance. Believe them or not, there is no denying that HealthTech advances have empowered us to live longer and lead more fulfilling lives. The future of HealthTech is truly exciting.

First published in the IT Society Magazine from the Singapore Computer Society

The Old Temple

The Sri Thendayuthapani started as a small shrine in the 19’s century Singapore. Today, it’s one of the most magnificent temples in the city and an important monument to its long cultural heritage.

In the mid-1800s, a fairly large number of newcomers to Singapore arrived from the region of India called Chettinad. A lot of them were merchants and bankers by trade who fit very well into the commercial scene of the cosmopolitan melting pot. The Chettiars, as they were called, built a small temple to observe Hindu holidays, which over time grew into the splendid piece of architecture we know.

Just like back then, today the Sri Thendayuthapani temple often attracts massive processions of people who come to celebrate together. The place is at its most active during the holiday of Thaipusam, an important occasion in Southeast Asia. The tradition is observed by devotees of other religions as well, who come to fulfil their wows together – one of the most heart-warming sights in modern Singapore, that is definitely something to look forward to seeing again once the world goes through the current health crisis.

Do You Speak Data?

Data literacy is fast becoming as important as writing or math. It has been compared to gold, oil and other precious resources of the world. Today, data skills are essential not only for engineers and researchers, but also business workers, entrepreneurs and, increasingly, creative professionals. However, working with data can be challenging even for technical specialists, let alone for people from other backgrounds. So where does that leave us?
Before you jump to the conclusion that data is not for you, perhaps you can draw some inspiration from my experience of learning and later teaching this important skill set.

Speaking the Language of Data
I immersed myself in the early Web when dial-up Internet was introduced. Among other interests, the Internet sparked my passion for learning new languages and connecting with people around the world. Subsequently, working in different countries further spurred my determination to pick up local languages and use them to share the amazing world of technology with my friends.

Fast forward to several years ago, I joined the tech industry. As it happens, the years I spent in the industry were characterised by the emergence of Big Data. One day, a colleague who worked in analytics introduced me to SQL. I recall staring at a barrage of symbols and commands, and imagining not ever producing anything similar.

Then, I started dabbling with this mysterious “Sequel”, and an unlikely analogy crystallised. Like every language I learnt – be it English, Spanish or German, each has its distinct grammar and vocabulary. And as long as these two pillars are mastered, the road to fluency becomes open. Similarly, I realised that SQL commands are in fact a tongue in its own right with its unique grammar and vocabulary.

Sharing about Learning the Data Language
This realisation turned a previously technical subject into something close to every human being – speaking languages. It helped me to learn SQL as well as relate to people who struggle to grasp it. So now, whenever someone asks me to explain SQL, I would approach it as if we were learning to converse in a new language – ask a question, get a reply, make a statement and so on.

And when people struggling with this technical subject can finally “have a chat” about it, I would feel really proud. It also heartens me to know that a training course which I created and deployed using this approach for my organisation stays relevant even after several years.

Hence from my experience, it shows that even the most technical subjects share parallels with concepts naturally intuitive to people – such as languages. Simply by applying such analogies, learning data skills can become a lot more accessible for everyone.

First published in the IT Society Magazine by the Singapore Computer Society

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Apps of Disruption: A new era for small businesses

These days, the annual release of increasingly powerful computer upgrades hardly surprises us anymore. The recent wave of technological disruptions however is more than just a bump up in specifications. Instead, it gives everyone access to business tools that were available to only a small number of wealthy corporations just a few years back. It is almost as if an invisible force has opened a jar with lots of bottled-up creativity that is bursting with all kinds of enterprises, startups, and freelance outfits. Now, with the lid off, the magical effect of technology is bringing down barriers of entry in almost every important business function – distribution, marketing and operations.

DISTRIBUTION OF WARES DIRECTLY AND GLOBALLY MADE EASY
Remember the early days when merely creating a decent webpage required advanced knowledge of HTML? Otherwise, the alternative of hiring someone to build it would mean a significant upfront investment. Today, you can simply build and launch a site for your latest business idea using WordPress and other similar visual website builders, all within a day. Or, easier still, set up a business profile on one of the major social media platforms. Crafting a compelling online storefront for prospective customers is now entirely accessible to anyone with the abundance of free or open-source solutions.

Regardless of whether you are looking to reach local, international or specific trade buyers, choices are many. For goods, merchants can reach local and international buyers through e-commerce platforms such as Carousell, Amazon and Shopify. Similarly, musicians can skip big labels and reach fans directly on Bandcamp and SoundCloud. Even traditional industries like dining are seeing the rise of online-only restaurants that operate exclusively through UberEats, GrabFood and other delivery services. Be it establishing an online presence or making business transactions, technology has put the tools within easy reach.

MARKETING YOUR BRAND WORLDWIDE AT AFFORDABLE COST
Those who still own a TV may have noticed that advertisements running during commercial breaks come mostly from large, well-known brands. This is because airtime on television remains incredibly expensive. Other traditional forms of marketing like buying print ads or classified announcements in magazines or newspapers are also beyond what most small businesses can typically afford. However, platforms such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others have changed the game entirely. Not only do they allow anyone to promote their work for literally a few dollars, businesses can also choose to target people most likely to be interested in what they have to offer – linking them directly to prospective customers.

This dramatic cost reduction is just one aspect of the democratisation of marketing that technology has brought. What’s perhaps more important is that these new platforms provide intuitive self-service interfaces that give everyone the ability to design, create and analyse their ads without a steep learning curve. Anyone can be Don Draper with a personal advertising agency right on their smartphones.

OPERATING YOUR BUSINESS EFFICIENTLY AND EFFECTIVELY WITH TECH
Then there’s the nitty-gritty of running the business. On one hand, office operations such as accounting, invoicing and inventory management may sound trivial; on the other – how many potential entrepreneurs were turned off by the prospect of having to deal with these labour-intensive, expensive and tedious tasks?

Technology comes to the rescue again, compressing an entire back office into a few phone apps such as QuickBooks, On Shelf and Wave. These software don’t just help to keep costs low and free up more time for creative work, but also facilitate new viable business models, including one- person enterprises. What better use of technology can there be than helping people do what they do best?

OPPORTUNITIES FOR GROWTH ARE EVERYWHERE
As more incredible tools are delivered into our hands, there is every reason to look forward to even more opportunities in the future. As it is, we are seeing startups in Singapore offering 3D printing services today. Combined with increasingly lower prices and availability of intuitive modeling software, it is almost a certainty that on-demand manufacturing will bring back the maker in all of us – only now with the ability to earn a living.

Then there’s also Artificial Intelligence (AI), which many people still associate with sci-fi movies. In reality, powerful machine learning services from Google, Amazon and IBM are already readily accessible through the cloud – even on the cheapest laptop. And as with all things tech, access to AI will only become more affordable and more user-friendly for creators in the not so far future.

Yet, while we are truly at the very start of democratisation of tech and every industry – we should explore these new possibilities with a caveat. Even though some processes have been made simpler, certain elements like expertise and hard work stay unchanged and crucial. The fact remains that anyone can use the technology, but not everyone will be able to use it well. However, for those who have great ideas and skills to support it, the world is their market.

First published in the IT Society Magazine by the Singapore Computer Society

Singapore Is Home

I arrived in Singapore in what seems like ages ago, imagining myself to be an adventurer exploring far lands of the east. The chatter of strange languages, intense smells of food markets and bright lights from towering skyscrapers were all incredibly exotic for a teenager from a quaint part of old Europe. Fast-forward to several years later, among family and close friends in Singapore, there is no place like home than this tiny red dot.

Tracing back, my first encounter with Singapore was a short break I took to escape from freezing winter winds. When my holiday in Singapore ended, I never really left. Enchanted by the Lion City, I wanted to come back and managed to secure a transfer to Singapore with my employer shortly after.

A WELCOMING HOME FOR BUSINESSES
Singapore works hard on attracting high-quality enterprises, and many have decided to set up their regional headquarters, data centres and engineering hubs here. The presence of these multinational companies coupled with a bustling local startup scene, which continues to get more innovative by the year, provide a firm foundation for a vibrant tech industry.
One of the key reasons why Singapore is a magnet for startups despite its small size is its incredible diversity. The multicultural society gives the market a depth that many larger cities simply don’t have. Win Singapore, and you would have created a base and built expertise required to expand across the entire region – or even globally.

AN INCLUSIVE HOME FOR TECH PROFESSIONALS
Prominent global companies, disruptive startups and rich cultural diversity have put Singapore in the same family of global hubs such as San Francisco, New York and London. For tech professionals like me, this presents a wealth of opportunities for career growth as well as exciting challenges to work on. But Singapore’s appeal to tech professionals from around the world is not all work. While career opportunities matter, it is the hard to quantify the charm that wins hearts and minds of many professionals in data, artificial intelligence and health over other tech hubs.
Despite being at the centre of the most complex continent in the world, the city is able to welcome and absorb every culture. My personal experience is one good example. Even though I came from a very different part of the world, I have found great friends, wise mentors and my life partner among the locals. My personal ties have made this city more than just a place to stay for me.

Truly, what can be better than being able to live, work and play in a place where some of the most exciting actions are unfolding?

First published in the IT Society Magazine by the Singapore Computer Society

Stones and Memories

The high gothic Albert memorial was built to commemorate the British prince by his wife, queen Victoria. The monument is designed with incredible detail and is one of the favorite places in London for tourists and as well as locals. The marble figures at its four corners represent Europe, Asia, Africa and America. While the structure is now covered in gold leaf, it remained covered in black paint for almost 80 years. Some believe, the sculpture was blackened on purpose to hide it from bombardments during world wars.

Right behind the memorial stands the Royal Albert Hall. For many years, it has remained an iconic venue where some of the most notable cultural events took place. Music concerts, award ceremonies, exhibitions and sport events never fail to attract large crowds. The architectural style of the building was inspired by Roman amphitheatres, and its enormous dome had to be built in facilities 200km outside of London and then transported to the city. Its size not only ensures that the hall can accommodate over 5000 people but also gives it a unique sounds that musicians love so much. Eric Clapton for instance, performed here over 200 times and said it now almost feels like playing in his backyard.

Education vs Automation

Technology and learning go hand in hand throughout history. Better tools enable individuals to challenge large enterprises and level the playing field for small nations; on the other, quality education provides the backbone for technological innovations and empowers the harnessing of possibilities that technology brings. My recent reunion with two old friends, whom I haven’t seen in ages, may very well lend some answers to this question.

My friends and I had studied together. After graduation, we moved to different corners of the planet but kept in touch. The recent career moves these two gentlemen made, say a lot about the promises and perils of automation at work.

Different Jobs, Same Work
One of my friends recently left his job at an established company where he led a small team to join a tech startup where he works alone. To my surprise, he mentioned that the nature of his work hasn’t changed much. He explained that the same tasks he used to ask his subordinates to help with are now handled by a suite of tools that his more technologically enabled startup has developed.

My other friend has just opened a small retail business that sells quality culinary supplies. Unlike his parents who employed several people, my friend does his business alone. I asked him how he manages to juggle the operations, to which he replied – his bookkeeping app keeps his books for him, his email and customer relationship management (CRM) tool push sales, and all marketing activities are supported by user-friendly digital platforms. According to him, his small operation generates more revenue than his parents could ever imagine.

Education > Automation
In both examples, emerging technologies have enabled them to do more and better work faster. However, even as automation enables them to express their ideas in new ways, education appears to be the common factor that drives future success.

In fact, my first friend told me that he would gladly hire and train his former team when his company grows bigger. Similarly, my other friend doesn’t think he will work alone forever. As the business grows, he envisions that he will require people with deep domain expertise in technology, sales, and marketing. My entrepreneurial friends are optimistic about the future of work. And it is apparent that they are basing their positive outlook on training programmes they are building, in anticipation of their business growth.

Education First and Last, but Not Least
Actually, these same circumstances are also playing out at a macro level. Education has been one of the driving forces which establishes Singapore as a hub for entrepreneurship and deep tech disciplines such as artificial intelligence, smart urban infrastructure and healthtech.

Building on the momentum, Singapore has recently enlisted SCS’ help – with the launch of the Digital Proficiency Programme (DigiPro) – to enhance its national effort of upskilling digital competencies. The programme, which features cybersecurity, data analytics, digital content creation and personal branding courses, will equip professionals with the skills to leverage digital tools to grow their careers.

And the conversation with my old friends has definitely put the interplay of technology and education in perspective. Their stories are not only inspiring, but also evidence new opportunities technology creates and the role of education in transforming technology into a powerful creative force.

Travel Safe in the Digital Age

The growth of affordable airlines and global businesses in recent years has made jet-setting lifestyle a thing of the now. Traveling with several digital devices is also commonplace. At the same time, situations on the road can sometimes get unpredictable, and it’s always worth adopting healthy paranoia to ensure that both the gadgets as well as the traveler can return home safe and sound.

For me, I make sure to observe a few simple rules every time I travel.

Use Discreet Bags
Instead of choosing bags for aesthetic reasons, opt for a plain model to avoid unwanted attention. Also, make sure the material is sturdy enough to weather the journey and any attempts to pry it open. In my case, while my ultra-strong composite fabric carrier never wins any compliments from hipsters, it is not just water and cut proof, but also very functional. Similarly, I keep my mobile gadgets in old and beaten cases to make them look like they are way overdue for an upgrade, as new devices are highly targeted for their resale value.

Encrypt Your Devices and Avoid Open WiFi
It is estimated that less than half of the phones, and even fewer laptops, are encrypted globally. But there is really no excuse for not doing it since most modern operating systems have intuitive one-click encryption options, which doesn’t take a tech geek to turn on. That said, it’s possible to get hacked even with a strong encryption. WiFi Pineapple is one such platform. Cheap, easy to set up and allow anyone to execute a “man in the middle” attack to collect information passing through, WiFi Pineapple is like a regular hotspot that has been modified to execute network attacks. Therefore, get a local sim card the next time you travel. Most countries today have decent 3G or 4G networks.

Exercise Caution when Making Card Payments
The “man in the middle” attacks are also prevalent in credit card transactions. Although wireless payments are very convenient, they also allow thieves to perform undetected Near-field communication (NFC) micro-charges. It is also not uncommon for hackers to attach fake microchips on top of real ones to fake terminal transactions.

Actually, attacks are not always too technically sophisticated. I recall a time when I made a payment to a shop attendant in one of the less secured airports. He claimed that the closest terminal was in another store and disappeared with my card for a good 10 minutes. I only realised much later that he had charged extra expenses to my account. Luckily, the loss was not too high and could be written down as a “life experience lesson”.

Long story short – use cash or services like Uber, which can automatically charge to your preferred payment method.

Watch out when Entering Passwords
Surprisingly, even the most adept tech professional may be susceptible to simple tricks such as video recordings of one typing passwords on phones and laptops. All it takes is a password to a service such as email, and a door will be created for hackers to access other resources. Hence, if you have to work on the go, find a private corner and always use protective screens. Password aggregators can also make logins more convenient and secure.

Feel free to try out some of these rules the next time you hit the road. Combine them with some common sense, and your journey might become safer as well as more pleasant and productive.

Are You Ready to Race Against Technology?

Will machines come for your current job someday? The answer is “yes” – and soon. There is only one way to stay ahead – keep learning more, better and faster. The great race against technology is on.


Artwork by Singapore Computer Society https://www.scs.org.sg/index.php

I started my career in digital marketing as a junior campaign manager. My job mainly involved analysing online advertisement placement reports, and then adjusting the system to deliver the best outcome. Even though work was tough and sometimes monotonous, I loved every minute and lived my dream of an Internet guru.

TECHNOLOGY AS A COMPETITOR
Yet in just a few years my first job has all but disappeared. Or rather, in technical terms, it has been automated. Today, the new generation of marketing platforms use clever algorithms to doa day’s worth of my work in a millisecond and, I have to admit, with a much higher quality. 

Concerns over automation are timely. In the past, many were sceptical of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which didn’t seem to deliver on its many promises. Yet, we often overestimate what technology can do over a short period of time and underestimate its impact in the long run. The new generation of AI, modelled after how human brain learns, is now becoming more capable of performing creative tasks that previously only highly trained professionals could do – writers, designers and even programmers. I can certainly feel how competition with machines is heating up in the marketing and advertising field. AI has completely taken over my fairly recent job. And I should be totally terrified, if… I actually had time to worry. 

TECHNOLOGY AS A PACER
Despite automation, I seem to have more work now than ever before. Hours got longer, plans more ambitious, conversations more passionate. It could be that, so far, I just managed to outrun the AI. Since my first job, I have used every opportunity to build my knowledge of commerce, technology and people, and thus developed a broader and  deeper understanding of my craft. Correspondingly, I also took on projects which are more complex, creative and rewarding. I am even grateful that automation took over my routine tasks and gave me time to focus on more meaningful work.

TECHNOLOGY AS A PARTNER
Many people are struggling to find out how they can stay relevant as AI gets better. I believe the answer could simply be to rediscover our humanity and become even more “human” – to feel, to empathise, to imagine, to excite and to connect. These things come naturally to us, but at the same time, they are most difficult to reproduce with technology. And our instinct to collaborate may very well be the key that will ultimately lead us to victory – working with instead of competing against AI. Together, with technology on our side, we can run faster than ever before. 

First appeared in The IT Society magazine and Infopier: https://www.infopier.sg/blog/-/blogs/are-you-ready-to-race-against-technology-