NTU President's speech at the 100th Anniversary Annual Meeting of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences

Published on : 17-Feb-2020

Speech by

Professor Subra Suresh
President, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

100th Anniversary Annual Meeting of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences

City Hall, Stockholm
Friday, 25 Oct 2019

Your Majesties, your Royal Highness, your Excellencies, distinguished guests, the world’s best-dressed engineers, ladies and gentlemen!

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak at IVA’s Centenary celebrations here tonight.  My congratulations to this distinguished body, the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, on this very special occasion.  As an international member elected to this Academy in 2011, it is my honor and privilege to deliver this speech. 

Engineering and technology are poised to have an even more profound impact on the course of humanity in the coming decades than ever before in human history.  We are in the early stages of what we now commonly refer to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0.  

Industry 4.0 is the unique and unprecedented convergence of the physical world, the digital world, and the biological world.  This convergence is catalyzed by advances in many fields, including computing hardware and software, mobile technologies, robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep and massive data analytics, genomics, precision medicine, additive manufacturing, and digital printing of hard and soft materials. 

The pace of change is unprecedented.  Let us see why.

It took 75 years for the telephone to reach a global market of first 50 million customers.
It took 64 years for the automobile to reach a mass customer base of 50 million.  
For television, it was 22 years. 
For the computer, it was 14 years.
Mobile phone, 12 years.  
Internet, 7 years  
It took Facebook 4 years to reach the first 50 million users. 
It took WeChat 1 year. 
For PokemonGo, only 19 days.

That is the accelerating pace of the adoption of technology worldwide.

What is different now in Industry 4.0 compared to the three previous industrial revolutions? Here are some mega trends.

1. Unprecedented speed of development of technology and its widespread global adoption.

2. Unlike ever before in human history, the individual citizen of the world has the opportunity to connect with the cutting edge of information in a two-way communication process through mobile technologies:  access information instantly and also contribute data (personal, physical, commercial, medical, behavioral, conversational, etc.) to the massive global data base.    This trend will significantly accelerate soon with the widespread adoption of 5G.

3. Ever-widening disparity between “the haves” and “the have-nots”: income disparity, opportunity disparity, digital disparity, justice disparity, fairness disparity, etc.  Consider access to the internet.  Only a little more than half the world population of 7 billion people has access.  Nearly a half does not.

4. For the first time, Industry 4.0 has raised fundamental questions about whether technology, or more precisely how humans intentionally or unintentionally use, misuse or abuse technology, will affect the very core of what it means to be human.  In other words, does Industry 4.0 have the potential to alter humanity itself?

What makes technology great and at the same time, what makes humanity great, is our individual and collective ability and capacity to do grand and great things, and at the same time do small, seemingly simple but very creative, things that have a profound impact on society.  Consider this example. 

 In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy famously announced that we would land on the moon before the decade was over, and Neil Amstrong did land on the moon in 1969. That grand vision and great achievement motivated generations of people to go into engineering and science.  But someone pointed out that we put people on the moon before we put wheels on the suitcase.  Wheels have been around for millennia, and suitcases have been around for a very long time.  But apparently the patent for putting wheels on the suitcase was filed only after Armstrong landed on the moon.  Wheels on the suitcase are much more useful on earth every day than landing on the moon.  Ideas come in big and small flavors and sometimes the simplest technologies have the broadest use.

The other unique aspect of humanity is the subtlety and individuality of the characteristics that all of us possess, that makes us uniquely human.  Characteristics such as:  dignity, ethics, empathy, love, respect, compassion, etc.  Each of these characteristics is unique in that the sense of ethics and empathy for each person depends on his or her individual life circumstances and experiences and inherited traits.  These characteristics could vary greatly even among siblings growing up in the same household.

The question about the potential impact of Industry 4.0 on humanity centers around the following.  If machines make more and more real-time decisions that affect almost every aspect of our day to day lives based on massive and aggregated data, is there a potential danger of failing to capture the individuality of each of us?  So, are we likely to run the risk of even losing some of our innate, individual human characteristics that make you, you, and makes each one of us who we are?

So, what are some of the big issues that we are likely to face in Industry 4.0?  I have FIVE issues and questions for your consideration.

1. Job creation versus job elimination.  Every previous industrial revolution eliminated tens of millions of jobs.  But it also created many more jobs than were eliminated, but over several decades.  Given the inequalities that exist and given the very rapid pace of change, individuals and societies will lose patience if there is a huge time lag between job destruction and job creation.  

A related question is:  will society value different professions differently in the future than it does now?  Consider the field of radiology.  Machines can read images with much more accuracy and precision than perhaps the human eye can.  Some argue that a profession such as radiology could be highly disrupted by technology.  If so, will we reach a point in our lifetime where a nurse who provides loving care to a sick patient is paid a higher salary than a highly specialized radiologist with extensive training, the bulk of whose work can be displaced by machines, artificial intelligence, and technology?

Developing countries have an opportunity to leapfrog technologies significantly.  Will we, as global society, help them to do so?

2. A young person graduating from a university today is expected to change jobs and careers many times because of disruptive changes catalyzed by technology.  If so, what is the minimum body of knowledge she is supposed to possess after four years of college?  Will it prepare her to continuously change jobs and even professions, as she lives a very long and productive life.  In other words, what does it mean to be an educated person in the era of the 4th Industrial Revolution?

3. As machines increasingly make decisions in the future with aggregated data, do we run the risk of not being able to use our individual characteristics, preferences, idiosyncracies and innate strengths and weaknesses in many daily activities? In other words, what does it mean to be human in the era of Industry 4.0?  

Technology is pushing us to be more and more precise and perfect.  GPS can precisely pinpoint location.  Atomic clocks precisely tell time.  Precision medicine can do gene splicing.  But human creativity is strongly derived from intrinsically imprecise and imperfect behavior.  We learn from mistakes.  We need time to reflect, relax, laugh, iterate and reinvent.  Will the relentless pressure for greater speed, efficiency and productivity and the ever-accelerating pace of technology force us to lose the truth and beauty of imprecision and imperfection which constitute an essential part of being human?

4. If machines make critical real-time decisions based on multi-source and high-speed data, some of which may not be authenticated for veracity either by the same source or in some cases, by any source at all, will there be serious situations where humans may not have the opportunity to intervene and reverse machine decisions in time to stop them, or reverse them to prevent dangerous consequences?  Will machine decisions increase or decrease conscious and unconscious human biases?

5. Every technology has intended benefits and unintended consequences.  Consider this.

Another Academy of Engineering to which I belong, the US National Academy of Engineering, published in the year 2000 a list of the twenty greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century:  electrification, air conditioning, commercial aviation, nuclear power, internet, robotics, advanced materials, etc.  Each of these achievements brought major benefits to humanity and improved the lives and livelihoods of billions of people.  A few years after that list was published, the same US National Academy of Engineering, published another list of the 14 grand challenges of the 21st century:  climate change, carbon sequestration, containing nuclear terror, securing cyberspace, etc.  If you put the two lists side by side, you cannot help but wonder if some of the grand challenges of the 21st century are direct consequences of the some of the greatest achievements of the 20th Century.  What was missing in our thinking?  

Some postulate that perhaps we did not pay enough attention to the intersections of human behavior and humanity with technology.  We should include these intersections in our thinking now so that we not only solve our current grand challenges, but also do not end up repeating our mistakes of the last century by creating even grander challenges for the 22nd century.  In academia, this means, better integration of science, engineering and medicine on the one hand with humanities, arts and social sciences on the other.  

How do we address these issues?  I want to give a couple of examples of what we are doing at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.  Last year, we established the NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity or NISTH to address a number of these issues.  

Second, starting last year, each one of our 23,500 or so undergraduate students will have to satisfy a minimum set of course credits before they graduate in what we call “digital literacy”.  That includes topics such as ethics.

In conclusion, whether Industry 4.0 is a net positive or a net negative for humanity, will inevitably depend on how we, as a global society, address the intersections of technology with human behavior and characteristics.

Thank you again for inviting me to speak at this very historic event.  

Tack så mycket!

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