Robots will play increasing role but not replace Home Team officers: Senior MHA official

Ms Tan Joe-Lin demonstrating the use of the 3D Handheld Scanner, which is capable of taking real-time scans of various types of confined crime scenes and hard-to-reach areas. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - Robots could be stationed in protected areas to deter potential perpetrators or sent in to deal with dangerous situations like bomb threats but they will not replace Home Team officers, said a Home Affairs Ministry official

Mr Lee Guoming, senior assistant director for robotics, automation and unmanned systems at the Science and Technology Group, noted that officers perform roles that involve complex human interactions and relationships, which robots cannot undertake.

"As of now, robots do not have the capacity for emotional relationships, as well as the ability to understand the context of what the job requires, such as comforting the next of kin of a deceased," said Mr Lee, who has been with the ministry for around seven years.

He will be among the officers joining the Home Team Science and Technology Agency, or HTX, that will be set up by December.

Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo told Parliament on Tuesday (Aug 6) that there will initially be 1,300 officers from various Home Team departments in HTX.

Mr Lee, who graduated from the National University of Singapore with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2006, said in a recent interview that the new agency will allow closer collaboration between experts from different fields.

"It's an exciting time for scientists and engineers because we get exposure to other technologies, for example, data science and AI (artificial intelligence)," he noted.

"Because the fact is that any solutions that we develop for the Home Team are unlikely to be on their own - they are likely to have different components."

He noted that robots could be stationed in protected areas for perimeter security as they can provide a persistent presence that is not susceptible to human fatigue or error.

"By using robots to enhance the presence in a protected area, we can ideally prevent crime," added Mr Lee, 38.

Ms Tan Joe-Lin, 34, who supervises a team of crime scene specialists under the Singapore Police Force's Criminal Investigation Department, will also be part of the new science and technology outfit.

She said technology has always been a "game-changer" in crime scene investigations.

For example, using a portable kit to recover fingerprints at the crime scene itself instead of back at a lab - as it was done in the past - meant the process took a few hours shorter.

The few hours immediately after a crime is committed could be critical as in some cases, the perpetrator might use it to leave the country, said Ms Tan, who joined the police in 2012 and specialises in blood stain pattern analysis.

Ms Tan, who has a masters degree in forensics science from the University of New Haven in the United States, said her role at HTX will involve research on the technology that can be used by crime scene investigators.

"At the end of the day, when the investigating officer comes to you and says, 'Oh, we've managed to catch the accused based on the DNA evidence that you found or through the fingerprint evidence that we uncovered', that itself is already great job satisfaction," she added.

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