Dr Clarence Tan Singularity University

Shaping The World of Tomorrow

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Interview with Dr. Clarence N. W. Tan

Dr Clarence Tan Interview
Dr. Clarence N. W. Tan

Lucky me! I was able to secure an interview with the Australian and Malaysian Ambassador for Singularity University Dr. Clarence N. W. Tan just before he flew to Singapore as a guest speaker at the London Business School Alumni event.

We met at the Coffee Club café in Robina Town Centre. Before I could ask Dr. Clarence Tan my questions he said: “Elena, what can a computer do better than a human? What if I told you that a five dollar calculator can calculate much faster than you can? Unless you are Raymond from Rain Man.” Since I was unsure about my answers, Dr. Clarence Tan continued to ask and explain.

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Dr. Clarence N.W. Tan:

“But what can humans do better than computers? What humans are very good at is recognising patterns. When you listen to any music tune, you only need to hear the first few notes to pinpoint the name of the tune and the composer …” At this stage Dr. Clarence Tan begins to hum. “…see, its Mozart! But for a computer it is not so easy. When you watch Wheel of Fortune, all you get are randomly revealed letters and in a matter of seconds you are able to recognise a word or even a full phrase. This is very difficult for a computer to do, particularly if the first letters of the words are not revealed, as the computer will have to match the words to the revealed characters across its database sequentially. That is why I started to look into artificial neural networks of the human brain some 20 years ago. I was trying to make a computer learn rather than giving it rules; I was trying to teach  a computer rather than programming it.”

At this stage, I had already forgotten about my ‘well-researched’ questions and was totally absorbed by his fast-paced knowledge sharing session and I moved my recorder closer to Dr. Tan.

“My background was in investment banking. At first, I started in New York and then returned to Malaysia when Citibank was licensed to operate there. So, they gave me a few million and said that I should go and trade. Being trained as an economist, what do you do..? You analyse the financial data, market movements, trends and so on. But what I discovered was, that in reality the best market traders do not analyse, they feel what the market is doing and where it’s moving. They trade on their gut feeling, which triggers their decision to sell or buy. Investment banking and trading is a very closed environment and when I asked the traders what rules they were following, they said that they do not follow rules, they know because they feel it. I thought, maybe this is the manifestation of neural networking in action in a process of pattern recognition and data classification. I became interested in how Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques can work out a problem by applying physical laws and processes.

Artificial Neural Networks

If you are interested, you can read about it in my book Artificial Neural Networks: Applications in Financial Distress Prediction & Foreign Exchange Trading”, Wilberto Publishing, ISBN 0-9578911-0-5, Australia, 2001; it is also available in Volume One of the Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology under the chapter “Artificial Neural Networks in Financial Trading” where Bruce J. Vanstone and I explain the possibility of achieving higher investment returns  by applying Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs).

The fact is that just one of your brain’s neurons is one million times slower than a computer chip in processing information, but you have 100 billion neurons which are running in parallel, helping you to recognise complex patterns and solve complex problems. Plus it changes all the time but once you learn something about a subject or an object it’s in your brain forever and you don’t have to relearn it again. Look at this glass…” Dr. Tan points to his glass of water. “You can recognise it almost instantly, much faster than a computer because you know what it is. But for a computer using traditional algorithms, to recognise a glass it has to be defined by many parameters, programmed into the computer.


What is interesting, is that when I was trying to predict the financial crash, I became good friends with Bruce Satchwell of Alive Technologies, who was trying to use the same system and build a device that could help to prevent heart attacks and save lives. So, we did some research together, more than 15 years ago at Bond University.”

Elena Ornig:

“Dr Clarence, you constantly refer to the teaching-learning process which is a part of my question for you about education. To push the boundaries of knowledge we need higher education to prosper. What do you think can possibly give us a quantum leap forward in the teaching-learning process?”

 Dr Clarence N.W Tan:

“I don’t know if you are familiar with Sugata Mitra and his experiment – ‘Hole in the Wall’ or Sir Ken Robinson’s education system that nurtures creativity.

Sir Ken Robinson said  “Creativity now is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.” But let me come back to Sugata Mitra and his experiment where he observed a phenomenon in the education process. Without any form of teaching, children were able to self-organise to learn from each other, achieving remarkable results in gaining knowledge at a fast pace. If you are interested to know more about it, go to TED Talks (TED PARTNER SERIES) and listen to the Sugata Mitra experiment and how he tries to build a school in the Cloud. What he revealed is that our present education system is based on an old system, which is about 300 years old because it was developed and implemented by the British Empire to help run the Empire. That system was developed on the principle of identical teaching-learning processes: writing, reading, multiplying, dividing and subtracting. Sugata Mitra explains the necessity of such a system in the past and he says that although the system is good  – the world has changed and the Empire is gone. We are now living in the presence of exponentially growing technology but we are still teaching according to the old system standards and methods.

I personally, do not write anymore, I type. When I read, of course I need to know grammar but how important is it really? When you send short messages, you abbreviate, reducing a word or even a phrase, but if the receiver of your message understands the meaning of it, is it really important to write a whole phrase according to grammatical rules? I think we are spending so much time teaching our kids some things that they will hardly use in the future. I believe that we have to teach them more about how to use advanced tools and let them self-organise their learning process and let teachers act as facilitators. Instead of teaching we need to inspire children to learn how to solve problems. The same goes for Higher Education. In Singularity University no one teaches you. You are given a problem like how to eradicate Malaria or poverty and you have to think of how to solve it or even more often, you are asked to think of a problem and come up with the solution. “

Dr. Clarence N. W. Tan

Elena Ornig:

“You attended the Graduate Studies Program at California’s Singularity University about two and a half years ago. How much were you influenced by their goal and I quote: “… to enable a new generation of leaders to leverage accelerating technologies to solve humanity’s grand challenges”?

Dr Clarence N.W. Tan:

“Look at what Technology has achieved. A beggar in some poor country now has a mobile phone and is able to access a vast amount of information. In fact, he is able to access more information than President Clinton could 15 years ago. What this means is that if he wants to know something, he can have multiple answers at his fingertips. Advanced Technologies are leveling the playing field and providing access to education to the world’s population. Now, we can all do so many things by just using available tools. The price of hard and software is already coming down, allowing more people to have access to new technology. That access has a positive implication on overall jobs creation, including micro-jobs creation. Technology for all, means new business, new services and new jobs. At the Singularity University I was introduced to many fascinating examples of creating jobs in places you would never have thought of.  Students were asked to develop platforms which would give the user the opportunity to earn extra money by completing micro-tasks, using only a smart phone.

Say, I want you to do a simple thing like watch a car park through a video transmission directly to your phone. Your task is simple. When you think that someone is acting like they want to steal a car, you just have to alert me. I will pay you only a nominal amount of money, but it is better than nothing and this is a simple task.

Just think what a smartphone really represents. You can make photos and videos and you can play games.  You can edit documents, you can produce and publish documents, you can communicate and you can search. You can create, store, buy and sell because you have multiple smart tools on one device. Now imagine providing this tool to undeveloped countries – to everyone. What would happen? You would create countless opportunities for many people to make many things and they don’t have to be rich to be able to afford it.

Let me come back to education. In the past, before you could be a photographer you needed to pay for your education and you needed to buy expensive tools. Now, you don’t have to spend a few months studying photography because if I give you an iPhone you can use it as a tool to capture, edit and publish your photographs. Even without studying photography you can take multiple photographs and the computer will select the best picture for you.

Dr. Clarence N. W. Tan interview

So, this is the thing! All you need is the right tool and it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor. The exponential technology has leveled the field. My grandfather ran away from home to join a Chinese opera in China and ended up in Malaysia in the early 20th century. He became a driver to the Sultan. In those days, there were only a few cars and if you were a driver you also had to be a mechanic. It was like the early days of computers. If you did not know how a computer worked, who was going to fix it for you? Now look at the present day. You drive your car every day, right? Do you even know where the battery is located?”

Elena Ornig:

No I don’t, I’ve never even opened the bonnet. I basically know nothing about what is inside and how it is assembled.

Dr Clarence N.W Tan:

“Exactly, and you don’t have to be a mechanic to drive a car. Today, for example, we use the software program Excel and we don’t have to know how it works, but with this tool we can manage complex interactive data. The question then is: “Do you really need to know how it works..?” The point is that today, with exponential technology, you can do more and you can do better. Now, you don’t have to spend time memorising a lot of information like we all did before.

Guest speaker
Dr. Clarence N. W. Tan

Just imagine a time when I don’t need to remember your phone number or write it down. All I need is to think about you, visualising your face and all information about you comes up on the screen. With such advanced technology in the future, today, the majority of learning processes can be focused on how to use such technology. I am not dismissing the learning of fundamentals in physics, biology or chemistry. What I am saying is that you don’t need to memorise huge amounts of information that can be easily accessed. I don’t even think that in the future you need to learn a lot to be an engineer. Say, you have an idea of building a particular bridge. You know how you want it to look and you don’t need to go through a tedious process of estimations and calculations of all structural aspects of that bridge because a computer can do it for you. You just tell a computer what you want and it will draw and calculate and even choose the right building material or equipment for you.”

Elena Ornig:

I have many friends who feel intimidated by the development of new technology and they have started to feel the pressure of being left behind. What is your view about the older generation? Should they just give up on trying to catch up?

Dr Clarence N.W. Tan:

“I have been trying to inspire young people in Asia and Australia and everywhere I go. But what I really want to do is to inspire older people, like my father. We cannot just go ahead with new technology and leave the majority of the population behind, right? These people must enjoy new technology too. Very often, I come across so many people with valuable experiences who are falling behind just because they do not know how to use the tools of new technologies. The gap is already growing and these are not poor people who cannot afford the advanced tools. It doesn’t matter if they are already retired; it is very important that education systems can reach these people too. Even if we just taught them how to play games they would already benefit from that because we know that games help to keep the brain mentally active.

The other aspect we have to consider is this. There are a lot of people who are consuming content but not enough of them who are generating content. People like to watch movies, listen to audio books and read books. But they don’t have to be just consumers. If they would learn how to use modern tools they could generate content too. What we should do is to help them, encourage them and make them want to be involved. They have heaps of ideas, good ideas and commercially valuable ideas. We need to show them how to make these ideas a reality. We have to show them how to use advanced tools and to be creative. Creativity is a very important aspect of the whole process.

Let me give you an example. There is a woman, a receptionist from the UK, who in her spare time learned how to fold protein in a game called Foldit which was designed to crowdsource people’s ability to solve puzzles to help find a potential cure for HIV. Now she is one of the best protein folders in the world and she doesn’t have a science degree or a degree in biology but she has mastered the use of sophisticated tools. This also comes down to an individual’s ability to solve a problem and not his or her status of formal education. What it also showed to us is that we shouldn’t look down on anybody who doesn’t have a high degree of education because they might be the best problem solvers in the world. All these people need are the right tools and skills to operate them.”

Dr. Clarence Tan about Singularity University

Elena Ornig:

Many are trying to predict or at least analyse the future. How would you interpret this phrase: “The future comes faster than you think”?

Dr Clarence N.W. Tan:

“If you would have come to me 6 years ago and asked me what you should study to find a job tomorrow, I couldn’t have told you to go and study iOS to develop mobile apps. Why not? Because 6 years ago we didn’t have the iPhone; it was only released in 2007. Technology is developing so fast that now it is even harder to predict what you should study today to feel more secure in the future. Every week, something new and exciting is happening in science and technology. That is why at Singularity University we have a program “Futures Studies & Forecasting” about predicting the future. If you go to Singularity University you will learn the number one rule: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”.  Ask yourself the question – what could happen in 10 or 50 years’ time? For example, we can clearly see a trend of prices coming down for hardware and software. So, what can we do with that? Also, we have to look at this question with a particular aim in mind of how to positively affect the lives of a billion people. How can we make people younger, healthier and live longer? We need to cure cancer. How can we do that? How can we bring the woolly mammoth which was found in Siberia to life? Can we do that? We need to explore Space further so we can become a true interplanetary species. How can we solve the greenhouse effect?

By the way, I personally do not believe in the current explanation of the greenhouse effect. My friend,  Professor Steve Webb, a Professor of Anthropology at Bond University and a climate paleontologist, told me that global warming may actually be preventing a long overdue ice age. Now, I think that the greenhouse effect may not be such a bad thing. Otherwise, we are due to freeze. You might want to watch the episode “Crap –Global Warming” by Penn & Teller. They have boldly exposed how Al Gore built a “green money making machine”. I do believe that we are overstating the human contribution of carbon emission to global warming.

But back to your question. At Singularity University I was bombarded with many brilliant ideas, that are constantly generated there, but when I came back, it felt like nothing was moving here, because here, the level of excitement about the future, a better future, is low. Also, I found some strong mistrust of new technology.  I met this lady at one of the talks I gave the business community.  She came to me and said: “You scientists will produce some bacteria or virus and you will kill us all. You will make 3-D printed guns and shoot us all. We should stop progress and we shouldn’t change.” Of course, I was shocked by the amount of negativity, suspicion and mistrust. Why would you stop progress? We need progress because we need to do so much more. We need to cure diseases, improve quality of life, create cleaner energy, produce better tools, eradicate AIDS and Malaria and reduce poverty. We are the ones who are looking for these solutions. At the end of the day, if you believe in the goodness of humanity and people, you will find how good they really are. If you don’t believe in humanity, there is not much we can do. These kinds of people should then sit in the corner and wait for doomsday.

We are often told we should follow our passions. I believe that this is excellent advice as we can only truly be happy and satisfied if we are doing something we are passionate about. However,  passion should coincide with the needs of the community and not just an individual passion. What if someone’s passion is to kill animals or to do something even worse? See, passion is a powerful emotion but it has to combine community values and a higher purpose. What we ought to ask ourselves is what people need and how we can help.”

Before I asked my next question we were joined by one of the directors and co-founders of Silicon Lakes Limited, an Australian not-for-profit public company focused on teaching founders and entrepreneurs, as well as mentoring startups – Aaron Birkby. This meant that I didn’t have any more time left. Dr. Clarence N.W. Tan is a very busy man but he is a fascinating man and I made a mental note:  “I will continue this interview, regardless of the etiquette”.

I want to be comedian

(Chinese symbol for COMEDY)

Elena Ornig:

Dr. Clarence Tan, you are an inventor, academician, investor, innovator, and entrepreneur and yet, you have stated that you would really like to be a Chinese comedian…

Dr. Clarence N.W. Tan:

“I said it because I like making people happy. I found that I can do jolly-good impressions and I can do different accents well. I was actually advised by one of Singularity University’s VPs to use comedy or humour in communicating positive information about science and technology. So, I am working on that.”

(Aaron Birkby and I were caught by surprise because Dr. Clarence Tan started to speak with an Italian accent and it was brilliant!)

Elena Ornig:

Have you tried doing stand-up?

Dr. Clarence N.W Tan:

“Not yet, but I am mentoring a comedian. He is actually a runner-up in a Singularity University competition. His name is Mark McConville of Comedy Unlimited. What inspired me to become his mentor was his personal story. He was trying to bring comedy to his workplace. He was trying to prevent a suicide whilst he himself suffered from depression. He told me that many comedians are depressed or in some state of depression. Imagine this, his company called him to inform him that his father passed away one hour before his stage performance. He had to go and make people laugh while his heart was crying. I could only imagine how hard it was for him. That is why I am trying to help him now.

Elena Ornig:

Can I ask your advice? I am planning to go to Griffith University, to study Information Technology. Do you think I made the right choice?

Dr. Clarence N.W. Tan:

“Griffith is great for studying Information Technology but you can also explore other possibilities. Now, you have so many online courses. Open your eyes and realise that the best lecturers in the world are now at your fingertips.

For example, look up Udacity and look up Sebastian Thrun, a research professor at Stanford. I met Sebastian at Singularity University. His idea is to democratize Higher Education and deliver it to people for a very small price. Sebastian is also the founding head of XLab at Google with projects like Google self-driving car and Google Glass. He took a challenge to help people, to create online interactive classes, reaching simultaneously thousands of students and that is how Udacity was born.

Look up Georgia ONmyLINE, a website that provides all the information about online degree programs within the University System of Georgia (USG). It includes Information Technology and even a Master of Science in Applied Computer Science. Their 3 year Master’s degree in Computer Science costs only $7,000 and they are rank fifth in the US on academic merit.

Look up Salman Khan and his KHANACADEMY. It’s for everyone: students, teachers, home-schoolers, principals or adults returning to the classroom. Listen to his story on TED Talks. He started by posting videos on YouTube in 2004 and now he has built an online academy. Bill Gates was inspired by Salman Khan and gave him a lot of money to support his non-for profit academy. Once, when Salman Khan was interviewed, he was asked about what would happen to traditional universities and he explained that an education system online could only offer two of three vital elements. Let me explain what he meant. When you go to a traditional university you do three things: you learn, you socialise and you get your certification. Now, you can go online and learn, you can go online and socialise, but online universities cannot conduct proper assessments. Universities follow the same standard procedures and these standard procedures have to be the same at different universities. That is why he feels that in the future, universities will become simply assessment bodies, what Cambridge and Oxford were before.

The same system is used at Singularity University. You are given a problem to solve and no one is teaching you what to do and how to do it. There you work with fellow students in a collaborative atmosphere and you learn among yourselves.

Gold Coast Future

Elena Ornig:

As a resident of the Gold Coast and adjunct professor at both Bond and Griffith Universities, located on the Gold Coast, do you think it is possible to commercialise technology and build something similar to Microsoft or Silicon Valley right here?

Dr. Clarence N.W. Tan:

“Why not? I have personally invested in nine companies on the Gold Coast. For example, one of the local plumbers, during an organised competition was very nervous at the beginning but eventually he was rewarded with second prize. He invented a very clever tool. Imagine a concrete slab with tubes sticking out that have to be cut (from the concrete surface). Traditionally they are cut with a grinder or a mechanical saw – a potentially dangerous process. If you made a mistake, chipped concrete could fly everywhere and cause injury. He invented a cutting tool that can be added to a drill and the tubes can be cut from the inside out. So, I liked it, I invested in it and now you can buy this tool at Bunnings.

See, in the Downtown Las Vegas Project for example, Tony Hsieh of Zappos are trying to revive the economy there and they are measuring success not by return on investments but by returns to the community. Here we have a different situation but I think we can achieve commercialisation by finding the right niche. I think, we just need to look around for more people like you, Aaron or I who are already here and coming together. The Australian population is small compared to countries like China, India, USA and Indonesia. China and India both have over a billion people and have faster growing economies, but we still came here because we like to live on the Gold Coast. The infrastructure is good, the food is multicultural, the air and water are clean and the sub-tropical climate is pleasant. The legal system is working well and investors feel protected by the law. Yes, the cost of living is high and that is something our government could try to reduce but overall, none of us want to live anywhere else but here.

Australians are happy people, they are content and smile all the time. It is a different situation in Silicon Valley where people are stressed due to high levels of competition which may also explain why Silicon Valley and Israel have some of the most innovative companies!

In Australia, the social security system is working well and the worst that can happen to you is that you end up on the dole. Centrelink will provide you will assistance for food and rent if you lose your house. You can be on the dole for a very long time receiving assistance. So, you would still be okay.  Sunshine and sandy beaches come as a bonus, for free. On the one hand this is great but it also places one in a situation where they do not feel like doing something, trying to solve something out of necessity, like many people in different countries. That is why Australian people are very relaxed.

Gold Coast is a happy place to live
The Gold Coast, Australia.

I think what we can do here is to create excitement. We have really good and clever people here, on the Gold Coast. What about you? You can do something about it and change perception. I can even tell you why you can succeed here, on the Gold Coast.

Maybe not every person wants to be an entrepreneur but someone said that there is no better time to be an entrepreneur than now. All you need is a great idea and that’s the beauty of it, right? What you can do as a publishing company is quite different to the past, thanks to technology.

At Harvard Business School, they have a capstone class where they give you $100 and ask you to set up a business. One guy presented his product, an organic juice. He managed to find someone who made the juice for him and someone who built a website for him all for a measly $100.

Now, look up Eric Ries, the entrepreneur and author of the number one New York Times bestseller “Lean Startup”. He says “Be more innovative. Stop wasting people’s time. Be more successful.” In his book he explains how to build and launch a new product, any product.

What is interesting is that at one stage Eric was analysing a competitor for Coca Cola. He said to Coca Cola that their competitor is a guy who is making an organic juice. Coca Cola laughed at him and said that they are a multibillion dollar corporation and they do not compete with a single individual. If they saw a small company grow and become a threat they would buy it out. Eric said that this was fine but to remember that this individual guy had spent only $100 to set up his company. If many individuals started to produce juice and people started to buy it, it would mean they were not buying a Coca Cola product. He asked them what they would do if there were now 10,000 individuals or 100,000 individuals producing juice. How were they going to buy them all out?

Anyway, let’s come back to the Gold Coast. Can we commercialise great ideas on the Gold Coast? The answer is yes.

Elena Ornig:

Thank you very much, Dr. Clarence N.W. Tan.

Dr. Clarence N. W. Tan:

“Dosvidaniya!” (Means “Goodbye” in Russian).


A couple of weeks later, Dr. Clarence N. W. Tan was a guest speaker at the Gold Coast Writers Association. Dr. Tan was speaking about Exponential Technologies and their Impact on society:

Video 1

Video 2

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4 thoughts on “Shaping The World of Tomorrow

  1. I am so glad that you got inspired by Dr Clarence Tan presentation. I felt the same when I was interviewing Dr Tan. He is fantastic conversationalist and wonderful communicator. I am looking forward to read your new manuscript, David! :-)

    My warmest regards,
    Elena Ornig

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