How Women Made the Technological Revolution Possible

Knowing the past can give a glimpse into what the future holds. That explains my interest in the history of tech. Interestingly, this exploration has led me to better appreciate women in tech and their contributions. In many books about technology I recently read, women were the main protagonists. This is not only a sign that our understanding of history has become more inclusive, but is also revealing in terms of the critical roles women played in bringing about the current technological revolution.

The First Computer Programmer – Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace stands at the very origins of computing – and is rightfully called the world’s first programmer. In the mid-nineteenth century, Ada created the first known description of the “analytical engine”, and its workings became the base for future mechanical computers. Not only was Ada ahead of her time, she also wrote the first general-purpose algorithms (or applications) that extended computer functionality beyond pure calculations. Over 100 years later, when Steve Jobs marketed the first Apple computer as the “bicycle for the mind”, he was building on the legacy of Ada Lovelace.

Not only was it a woman who ideated the first mechanical processor, women were actually called “Computers” for the longest time. Books such as “When Computers Were Human” and “The Glass Universe” describe how prior to the invention of silicon chips, people did all the complex mathematical, scientific calculations – first entirely by hand and later with early mechanical calculators. Computer teams comprising almost entirely of women made critical calculations for scientific and technological advancements, including NASA’s first space launch into orbit. 

America’s First Female Cryptoanalyst – Elizabeth Smit
That’s not all. In books such as “The Woman Who Smashed Codes” and “Code Girls”, we found out just how much we owe scientists such as Elizabeth Smith and her colleagues for their invention of modern cryptology, which helped break enemy codes during World Wars I and II. While many books and a Hollywood blockbuster deservedly gave the credit to Alan Turing, he was standing on the shoulders of giants when he cracked the “Enigma” code.

Pioneer of CRISPR Gene-editing Technology – Jennifer Doudna
Speaking of codes, today we know that the DNA code lies at the base of human biology. The book “The Code Breaker” explores the story of Jennifer Doudna who pioneered the CRISPR gene-editing technology that is revolutionising modern science and medicine, and ushering in a new era in biotech. Thanks to it – cures for diseases that were recently considered fatal are already on the horizon, and we are only scratching the surface of what CRISPR and the future innovations it enable will bring. 

These books and stories show the significance of women’s role in creating the three most fundamental technological paradigms that define the 21st century: Computing, Cryptology and Biotech. The fact that Singapore and Southeast Asia account for more women in tech than other parts of the world is indicative of this region’s future in the global economy.

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

The Future of Work Is Here

Business visionaries have predicted virtualisation of the office for a long time now. A popular book of the last decade “Remote: Office Not Required” gave examples of companies thriving without physical offices. For most organisations however, such changes were a distant future – until COVID-19 compressed these timelines by tenfold.

I am fortunate to have colleagues on every continent and work with people across many countries. Even though I used to go to the office every day, I was already meeting most of my teammates over video conferencing. Working from home, I keep a similar approach. But I imagine, for someone who’s never had similar experiences, last year’s changes were disruptive. Good news is, anyone can acquire skills for remote work. Let me share some tips to help scale the learning curve.

It’s Not About Either Or
Eager futurists predict that remote work will completely replace face-to-face collaboration. It’s doubtful that this will happen soon – after all, people are social creatures. That said, the balance between virtual and in-person time will flip for many. I’ve heard several business people who swear by building in-person relationships, say that they will now rather conduct more virtual meetings than travel.

The Right Tools Matter
Anyone with experience traveling business class will say that this improves the trip’s productivity. Similarly, “business class” tools can transform remote collaboration output in the new era. A high-quality virtual setup, which includes chairs, desks, cameras and collaboration software like virtual whiteboards, is a great long-term investment.

It Is Important to Stay Flexible
Just like on-site work has rules, it is important to understand what makes remote collaboration effective and adapt workflows accordingly. For instance, by documenting every step and conversation and allowing participants to contribute based on their timelines, the project team can work asynchronously rather than in real-time. If communication were key for face-to-face work, it is just as critical for digital collaboration.

Virtual Jet Lag Is Real
We feel jet lagged when traveling between continents. Working with colleagues across different time zones over virtual work meetings can lead to odd work and sleep hours, sometimes even over multiple days. Exiting these working sprints is similar to experiencing jet lag, and taking time to recover once they are over is as important as after a “red-eye” business trip.

Remote Collaboration Will Only Improve
We are in the beginning of work transformation, and the technology we currently work with is still primitive. Innovations such as Virtual Reality (VR) can make remote work more productive. Case in point, I used my VR headset to project my office applications to multiple giant screens and collaborate with my colleagues on a virtual whiteboard – this is in some ways better than my “real” office setup.

People Are Front and Center
Work has always been and will remain to be all about people, regardless of technology used. Since the dawn of ages where people sat in caves planning their next hunt, emotional intelligence, empathy and clear communication have been important, and they remain important when the future spacefaring civilisation coordinates its megaprojects across planets.

Being right in the middle of a major paradigm shift can feel disruptive and stressful. Historically however, such changes always led to more productive and fulfilling work lives eventually. This is our opportunity to deploy exciting new tech to transform how business is done – and have a lot of fun while at it!

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

The Future is Female – And Sci-Fi Is Already There

The stories we read as kids greatly influence our worldview, aspirations, role models and choices we make. Science fiction in particular kindle interest in the sciences, spark curiosity and foster creativity. That explains why my peers in tech and I grew up devouring science fiction (sci-fi) stories – reading books, watching movies, playing games, among others. Yet, the vast majority of stories we were exposed to as kids had a fundamental blind spot.

The main protagonists generally fit a specific profile: a white guy who was more adept with a gun than math. If there were scientists in the story, they would play minor roles and of course, be males.

However, the tide has recently started to shift. As a sci-fi fan, I notice ever more storylines written with female protagonists who are great with technology, math and sciences. Here are a few examples from the stories I loved.

New Tech Savvy Female Leaders Save the Day

Take Naomi Nagata, one of the key characters from the cult novels The Expanse – made even more popular by the recent TV series produced by Amazon. Having attended one of the best technological universities in the solar system, Naomi is the chief engineer of the spaceship Rocinante, whose crew frequently finds itself in the midst of interplanetary calamities. Her crew is lucky to have her, as she often saves the day through unparalleled knowledge of the spaceship’s hardware as well as her calm and composed demeanour.

Similar to the Rocinante, the iconic spaceship Serenity from the TV series Firefly also counts a woman as part of its crew – Kaylee Frye. Kaylee is a self-taught engineer – who was so in love with propulsion engines that she snuck on board Firefly to learn about it. And even though she started as a stashaway, Kaylee eventually becomes a valuable member of Firefly with her ingenuity and raw technical talent. 

Female Leads Inject Freshness into Established Franchise

Then there’s the Star Trek franchise – a series that doesn’t need an introduction even to those outside sci-fi fan circles. Its most recent instalment Star Trek: Discovery not only features an incredible storyline but also three leading female characters – Michael Burnham, Philippa Georgiou and Sylvia Tilly. Michael started her career in the Starfleet as a biologist and grew to become a brilliant data scientist on the Discovery spaceship. After graduating into the Galactic Federation’s science department, Philippa had an illustrious career journey to become Discovery’s captain (her other self in a parallel dimension is also the ruler of the Terran Empire). Not to forget shy Tilly, who often doubts her skill but frequently saves the game through both the technical and emotional intelligence.

Larger than Life Females in the Real World and the Future

These women heroes have given me enormous inspiration for my work and life. That is why I am really excited about girls and boys experiencing these stories – aspiring to such protagonists and becoming scientists, builders and creators when they grow up.

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

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.