What do the search for Genghis Khan’s tomb and Bus Uncle’s Singlish chatting capability have in common? Here's a hint: Data’s unprecedented potential to reinvent the way we do things.
By Francis Kan
Did you know that the search for the tomb of the legendary Genghis Khan in Mongolia was powered by data analytics?
Bet you didn’t.
This interesting fact was one of the highlights of the keynote speech delivered by Dr Albert Lin — an engineer, entrepreneur, and explorer with the National Geographic Society — at the Festival of Disruptors held on 6 November.
The conference was organised by Gofiee and Sundance Company, and supported by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), Design Singapore Council and NUS Enterprise.
It brought together individuals, from modern-day adventurers to high-tech innovators, and startups that are shaking up the world of innovation and sustainability.
IMpact digs into some of the insights that emerged from the event.
Realising human potential through data
Dr Lin, who wears a prosthetic limb after losing a leg in an accident, is best known for using the power of data analytics in 2010 in a quest to discover the tomb of Genghis Khan in Mongolia.
As the region in Mongolia where the tomb is supposed to lie is considered sacred ground by the locals, he and his team came up with a way of doing non-invasive research using satellite imagery and ground-penetrating radar.
However, this involved having to analyse an immense volume of imagery data. “It was looking for a needle in a haystack, where you don’t even know what the needle looks like,” he said.
He tackled the problem by creating an online platform where anyone could go through images of the region, and mark out unique formations as well as other interesting landmarks to help the team in their mission.
"All we had was a dream and the power of data from tens of thousands of volunteers online. We discovered a new way of exploring, using the crowd to help," explained Dr Lin.
While they eventually did not succeed in locating Genghis Khan's tomb, the team went on to build a company based on the technology used during their mission called Tomnod, or “big eye” in Mongolian.
The company was acquired in 2013 by satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe, and its solution was used in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) MH370 flight.
"When the MAS flight went missing, we had eight million people in the first weekend going through a million square kilometres of data. The future of human potential is our collective power," said Dr Lin.
"That's what the internet will be: a neural network of us all."
Redefining life through AI
During the event, a panel on innovation also explored the issue of how the connection between artificial intelligence (AI) and humans redefines the way we work, live and play.
The panel consisted of three young Asian disruptors who shared their stories and ideas on how they were shaking things up in their respective fields.
Abhilash Murthy, the developer of a chatbot that tells people when their bus is arriving, talked about his efforts to make his "Bus Uncle" app more human by making it check in with regularly with users even whey they were not using the app.
"My inspiration when creating Bus Uncle was to think about how a real human would act. One human element is people get lonely or they get forgotten, so I added this function in just for fun. It turns out to have been really successful," he explained.
He said the future would see multiple chatbots working together to address a user's problem.
For instance, an Uber chatbot and an UberEATS chatbot could potentially interact with each other to help someone who wanted to get a ride — and something to eat at the same time!
Another panellist, Annabelle Kwok, the founder of AI solutions provider SmartCow, said that AI would become more pervasive in the business world as the technology gets cheaper and more accessible.
Her company helps organisations to upgrade their systems with AI solutions.
However, she recognised that some people were still uncomfortable with the idea of AI running more of their lives and businesses.
To overcome this fear, she advised that organisations may assign some employees to oversee the AI solutions.
"With AI you have the possibility of total process automation but there should be a requirement to have human oversight," she said.
The event was wrapped up with a pitch challenge that saw four startups competing for a prize award of US$10,000 and an opportunity to work with sponsoring organisations and the government to develop, customise and commercialise their idea.
Teams had 10 minutes to pitch their ideas on stage in front of a panel of judges at the event known as TEN4TEN. The judges were looking for startups that can address a critical problem or need in a traditional market with the use of a mobile application and a connected Internet of Things (IoT) device.
One team, Footsense, developed a simple device to detect foot ulcers for those suffering from diabetes.
According to Teri Yeoh and Tey Min-Li, co-founders of Footsense, thermometers can keep track of fever but what we lack is a means of detecting foot health. To address this problem, Footsense’s footpad captures data when a user steps on it, and generates a foot-health risk score.
Another team, Good for Food, pitched a smart bin that allows food and beverage operators to measure the amount of food that is wasted from buffets. The bin is even able to break down a food item into its individual ingredients. This information is sent to a cloud system that the user can monitor.
"Our system can more accurately match what kitchen should be producing to the actual demand,” said Raynor Loi, founder of Good for Food, which won the TEN4TEN pitch challenge.