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Technology / AI and automation


Singapore is moving into information technology in a big way. It spent years mounting chips, wiring boards, assembling disk drives and doing low-tech chip fabrication for peanuts while it built up its infrastructure expertise. But as the other off-shore assembly nations have found, there is little money in it – the high added value operations stayed behind in the US and Europe with the big investments. So Singapore invested in training its workforce and providing the infrastructure to attract the big bucks – the high-investment, highly profitable parts of manufacturing. The island has an all-digital telephone systems, dedicated high speed digital networks, an Integrated Service Digital Network, Teleview/Ceefax, 8Mbyte-per-second Intelsat Business Service digital satellite links, Telebox, Telepac, Prisnet and on-line links to commercial databases all over the world. With the judicious use of the carrot and the stick the government has persuaded the big computer manufacturers to help local suppliers provide more components. The help ranges from providing courses in quality control to helping build and equip entire new factories and train the workforce to provide components. 100% local parts Winchester disk drives are now made with 100% local components, while in other sectors it is growing rapidly. The computer industry’s next major target is research and development, which is getting maximum encouragement from the government in its current National Plan. So, with the emphasis on re-search and development, Unix is set to figure highly in the developments of the Singapore high-tech industry. Singapore has come a long way: 20 years ago the island was a sleepy, colourful colonial village with the local brewery providing three-quarters of its manufacturing output. Today, the city-state has been torn down and rebuilt as the high-rise Milton Keynes of Asia, a clean (unheard of in Asia) city of joggers with an economy that has made it one of the Five Dragons of the Pacific Rim along with Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea. The government is already pumping hundreds of millions of pounds into research and development, mainly through the newly-formed Information Technology Institute and has a National Information Technology Plan to turn Singapore into an international IT centre (whatever that may be). Almost every week another major company sets up a research and development centre here, encouraged by generous government grants and incentives. Data General is spending $20m to set up a Regional Software Development Centre to develop software for its local, regional and world markets, the Asian equivalent of its European software development centre in Cambridge. It has already sent 35 local software engineers to Europe and the US for training and has started work on a joint venture with the Telecommunications Authority of Singapore to develop a public office automation system. IBM got in first for once by helping to set up a whole research department at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of Systems Science. IBM has donated and loaned equipment and software; seconded teaching and research staff and sent ISS people to its research labs and training centres around the world. The government has matched this with a $20m grant. The Institute’s research includes an Intelligent Public Information Service that aims to answer business and technical problems rather than just provide information; an Office Automation system using local area networks that will actually improve efficiency rather than just handle the increased amount of information it itself provides; Intelligent Chinese Language Input and processing and a Chinese Prolog. Grumman International has set up a CAD/CAM research centre at the local Nanyang Technological Institute and the French Bull computer group has set up an Artificial Intelligence lab to develop engineering and general AI applications and to train students and computer scientists. The AI centre has two 68020-based Bull SPS7/300 workstations, each with four terminals, running under the SPIX 30

operating system, Bull’s version of Unix System V. The workstations are networked to micros and other computers in the Institute housing the lab, which in turn is linked to other local research labs through the Telepac public network and, via a gateway and satellite, to US and European networks. Apart from the Ethernet and X25 communications software, the workstations have an expert system development tool called Kool; and a range of third party software. The centre’s first product, an expert system to help diagnose the cause of failure in welding equipment, is on trial with the local firm that commissioned it. The National University of Singapore also has an expert system out on trial – the first locally designed medical software. Called ACUP, it is an acupuncturist’s as-sistant. The developer, Dr Ho Yin Seong, explains that a complaint – a headache for example – is keyed in. The computer prompts for the exact location of the pain and its severity. It then offers a diagnosis and suggests treatment: dispelling the pathogenic wind and removing the evil heat. It then spells out how to do this by picking out five pressure points – three on the head and two on the arm – and indicates how deep to insert the needle at each point. Expert systems The government is also promoting the use of expert systems through a newly-opened Knowledge Engineering Resource Centre at the Information Technology Institute. This is bas-ed in the Singapore Science Park next to the university and more than half devoted to information technology research and development. Major companies and institutes have built large research labs there, and the government has spent over $100m to provide the accommodation, equipment and infrastructure for small start-up companies to develop their research ideas into marketable products. The start-ups get labs and offices, starting with a single room but can expand to an entire floor or building; there’s advice on running a business, tax holidays, grants to live on, access to powerful computers, seminars and technical advice – all the help anyone could want. The Knowledge Engineering Resource Centre will promote use of expert systems in local industry, train software engineers, provide access to computers and software at the Institute and encourage local firms to develop their projects jointly with software engineers from the Institute at the centre. The development teams and foreign consultants will guide and hand-hold the projects through the development and implementation stages if necessary to keep the costs of development low, familiarise users with the technology and build up a pool of trained people in the industry. The institute is planning to open similar centres for software engineering, communications, and integrated office systems next year.

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CBR Staff Writer

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