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​Speech by NTU President Professor Subra Suresh at the Alibaba-NTU Singapore Joint Research Institute launch

Speech by

Professor Subra Suresh

President, Nanyang Technological University Singapore

Launch of the Alibaba-NTU Singapore Joint Research Institute


Nanyang Executive Centre

Wednesday, 28 February 2018, 1.30pm


Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources and Ministry of Health, Singapore,

Mr Jeff Zhang, CTO of Alibaba Group,

Distinguished guests, colleagues and research collaborators from Alibaba, my colleagues and friends from NTU,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon and a very warm welcome to all of you. It’s indeed warm outside.

To begin, let me wish you all a very Happy Lunar New Year. Xin Nian Kuai Le!

I’m very excited to spend my first Lunar New Year in Singapore. Even though I’ve been here many, many times, this is the first time I’ve had the honour and privilege of participating. And I think at last count, I’ve done nine lo heis. I understand that the Lunar New Year lasts a full 15 days. Any day within 15 days is deemed to be auspicious so it is good that we are celebrating the new partnership between NTU and Alibaba during this very auspicious time of the Lunar New Year festivities.

Alibaba, as we all know, has emerged as one of the world’s top technology companies.  Founded by the charismatic Jack Ma, the Alibaba Group provides the technological infrastructure to aggregate merchants and using the power of the Internet and computing, allows them to market to, and engage with their customers all over the world. Alibaba’s mission is to make it easy to do business anywhere. Their businesses span from core commerce and cloud computing to digital media and entertainment and many other innovation initiatives.

And what draws Alibaba to Singapore? In setting up its first joint research institute outside China, Alibaba has chosen to partner with NTU in Singapore, making a multimillion dollar per year investment over 5 years at the initial phase. This constitutes NTU’s largest direct funding for research from a corporate partner for a joint research institute with the industry.

Besides being widely known as a leading research university in engineering, technology and science, NTU is also recognised as the top university for artificial intelligence – or AI in short – in research citations, as reflected in a recent assessment based on citations or publications in AI by Elsevier in the Netherlands, and Japanese media company Nikkei.

As centres of knowledge, universities are responsible for educating the young and contributing to the global body of knowledge through research. But equally, universities should collaborate with the industry to translate research into innovations that are relevant to the market, and that benefit society.

In that sense, NTU is extremely well-positioned to serve as a catalyst for innovation and economic growth, not just for Singapore but beyond Singapore to other societies as well.

The Alibaba Group is renowned as a strong innovator, always pushing the limits, creating new value chains and business opportunities. It is also a socially minded company and I’m inspired to learn that Jack Ma had said that a healthy and prosperous business ecosystem can only be achieved through solving large-scale problems of society, as finding the solutions to global issues is at the centre of global universities such as NTU.

So you can see that NTU and Alibaba are a perfect match as the two organisations believe in using technology to improve human lives and enhance society’s possibilities not just within the region but around the globe.

Last month I had the pleasure of announcing the new NTU Smart Campus initiative here, which will transform this beautiful university campus into a living testbed for smart technologies developed by NTU faculty, scientists, students, and our industry partners. This aligns with Singapore’s Smart Nation vision, which seeks better living through harnessing technology for all citizens of Singapore.

The NTU campus, which is about the size of 240 soccer fields, has a community of almost 40,000 people. With a population density on this campus that is about twice that of New York City or Silicon Valley, this gives us the critical mass to test new technologies in a controlled manner before they are deployed in Singapore or in other parts of the world.

In a few moments, Alibaba and NTU will be signing a five-year partnership to collaborate on research in emerging AI technologies. This is an exciting area as the world is transforming rapidly because of the convergence of a multitude of digital technologies in what has come to be known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The Alibaba-NTU Singapore Joint Research Institute will combine the strengths of Alibaba’s AI technologies with NTU’s Humanised AI technologies to create smarter, healthier and happier cities for people of all ages.

I know that Alibaba has already deployed its technologies in several cities in China and in the world, to demonstrate how AI can bring about measurable improvements to the quality of urban living – such as reducing traffic congestions and improving the response time of ambulances.

The Humanised AI developed by NTU is enriched with human characteristics and values such as trust, emotions, persuasiveness and curiosity. It is aimed at helping us, humans, to interact with AI in a safe, simple and intuitive way.

Using AI technologies, we can address fundamental societal challenges such as the ageing population which is a major issue for cities with rapidly ageing population demographics such as Singapore. For example, virtual AI assistants can be deployed to improve work productivity and smart sensors can be used to watch the health of the elderly, with data stored on the cloud for continuous monitoring.

These AI technologies will be developed and tested on the NTU Smart Campus to demonstrate the effectiveness of solutions so that our partners can have confidence before taking them to the market in Singapore and rest of the world.

Of course, some of the most exciting and interesting outcomes will be those that we can’t yet imagine. That’s the fun part of research. It will also be important for us to think carefully about what the introduction of these new technologies may lead to – both intended and unintended – and that is where our new NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity will have a great interest in the work coming out of the Alibaba-NTU institute.

NTU’s students and faculty will also have opportunities to go on exchanges at Alibaba while working on cutting-edge AI research on this campus. Just last month, we announced that in the new academic year starting this August, all NTU undergraduate students will take core modules in what we call digital literacy and we are also introducing an innovative new undergraduate degree programme on Data Science and Artificial Intelligence. All early indications are that it’s going to be significantly oversubscribed.

In closing, I would like to add that today's launch of this milestone in research partnerships between NTU and Alibaba would not have been possible without the hard work of many faculty colleagues who are sitting in this room – colleagues both from NTU and staff and researchers from Alibaba. I thank all of them for their enthusiasm and hard work that has culminated in the launch of this new institute.

I would particularly like to thank NTU’s VP for Research, Prof Lam Khin Yong, who has been working tirelessly to bring the biggest industry partners to NTU, and to Alibaba’s CTO, Mr Jeff Zhang. The two have played a major role in fomenting this relationship over the last two years.

I would also like to thank the NTU and Alibaba teams of AI experts, led by Prof Miao Chunyan and Ms Liu Xiangwen, who have fostered this partnership and defined the research directions for our new institute.

I wish the new research institute, and our colleagues, faculty, researchers, and staff at both NTU and Alibaba all the best and I very much look forward to watching all the great things that you are going to do in the months and years to come, and to hearing of your progress and its impact all over the world.

Thank you.