BEIJING • When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited Beijing a fortnight ago, he took time out from meeting top officials to tour the office of Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) firm SenseTime and look at cutting-edge facial recognition technology.
While the Government has been talking about digital transformation of society and better use of data, this was the best indication yet of how pivotal a technology like facial recognition - and the computer learning techniques that undergird its accuracy - is to Singapore's drive to become a Smart Nation.
Facial recognition to settle e-payments was cited by Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung last Monday as one way that China has remade itself to stay relevant in the world.
Mr Ong, who is also Minister-in-charge of Innovation, told some 2,300 public servants that government agencies could do more to foster similar innovation at home.
For instance, hotel guests may be able to do self-check in using facial recognition. He said the Singapore Tourism Board will work with hotels to develop prototypes, while the Ministry of Home Affairs will allow hotels to test such technology.
Train operators have shown interest in Singapore Technologies Electronics' facial recognition-enabled fare gates, which can process up to 60 passengers walking through a minute, compared to the current method of tapping-in that tops out at 40 people.
To process payments, commuters need to sign up for an account and have their photo taken. They are billed monthly according to usage.
Besides e-payments and transport, facial recognition technology is also likely to become a core part of two other aspects of Singapore's Smart Nation vision: a national digital identity (NDI) system that will supersede today's SingPass authentication system, and an integrated national sensor network.
In Parliament on Tuesday, Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary said the Government is exploring biometric technologies such as facial recognition for identification and authentication.
"We are particularly interested in form factors that make it convenient for the elderly, the young and the disabled to use and benefit from the NDI," he said.
In Beijing, Mr Lee saw how AI and computer vision analysed, in real-time, the dozens of vehicles and people crossing a busy intersection watched by a traffic camera.
The system could match a car's plate to its model and colour, and tell a pedestrian's gender, age range and attire, among other things.
Bringing such a system to Singapore would fulfil a vision that Mr Lee sketched out in his National Day Rally speech this year: of a comprehensive CCTV and sensor network that will "integrate the inputs from all the sources, analyse and make sense of the information, and (let the authorities) respond promptly if there is an incident or emergency".
Lim Yan Liang