Making Sci-Fi Dreams a RealityPresident’s Assistant Professor at NUS
A unique research programme intersecting materials science, electronics and medicine, and bringing about positive socioeconomic impact: that was Dr Benjamin Tee’s dream.
An avid sci-fi fan, he was inspired by the likes of prolific author Isaac Asimov, and the Star Wars and Star Trek movies. “This affinity for scientific possibilities led me to pursue this field,” he explains, adding that his doctoral experience at Stanford University, at the heart of Silicon Valley, also influenced him.
Focusing on what he calls “physical AI” – a field which includes sensor devices, robotics, and human-machine interfaces – Dr Tee’s research has also won him a slew of prestigious awards, including the NRF Fellowship, the MIT TR35 Innovators under 35 Award, and the Singapore Young Scientist Award in 2016. Today, he is a faculty member at the National University of Singapore, where he leads the Sensors.AI Systems Labs, a research programme which aims to discover and apply nanoscience to create intelligent materials, devices and systems.
The ambitious multidisciplinary programme, which Dr Tee was able to launch after receiving his Fellowship grant in 2017, has churned out a number of innovations since its inception. Within the first year of obtaining the Fellowship, his research group developed and patented an artificial nervous system that is able to transmit tactile sensory data more than 1,000 times faster than the human nervous system. “It’s also highly power-efficient as it mimics aspects of the human nervous system,” notes Dr Tee.
Besides this groundbreaking innovation, the team has also developed new electronic materials that can self-repair. In addition to being fundamental in the development of successful human-machine interfaces, such devices can help to drive more sustainable use of electronic gadgets. “Imagine if your mobile devices could self-repair!” Dr Tee enthuses. “We can reduce electronic waste and help you save some money too.”
In all of these, however, nature remains Dr Tee’s key inspiration. “Nature is probably the world’s greatest engineer,” he explains. “It has developed highly complex systems that are extremely power-efficient…The human brain, for example, uses only about 10 watts of power, and yet it can perform exquisite operations such as human thought and muscular dexterity.”
In order to perform these processes, nature needs sensors – for instance, humans have our five senses in order to understand our environment and learn new skills and abilities, says Dr Tee.
“In almost all science fiction scenarios, there is some form of AI assistant that can perform tasks in a human-like fashion,” he says. “Yet, the ability to sense the environment at such high speeds and across so many sensors still remained an elusive goal. Hence, I decided to tackle the gap between sensory inputs and machines to realize physical embodiments of AI, such as robots and prosthetics.”
“And as I love to build things and see them work, I thought – why not merge Nature’s design principle with artificial electronic systems for machines?”
Bridging ideas and reality
Back in 2017, , AI had not yet become as ubiquitous as it is today. However, Dr Tee’s passion for his idea led him to apply for the Fellowship, which would provide him with the necessary resources to launch his programme.
“I was very interested in continuing my work in the field of advanced sensors and soft flexible electronics,” he adds. “I felt that there would be an inflection point soon, and we would witness exponential growth in how such newer forms of electronics can be applied to healthcare and robotics…I also believed that AI would become critical in the next stage of human technological growth.”
As such, it came as a shot in the arm when the Fellowship panel accepted his ambitious proposal, allowing him to assemble a team of like-minded students in order to achieve his research goals.
And even as the five-year Fellowship period nears its end, Dr Tee is confident that this is just the beginning. With many of his innovations on the cusp of translation, and many more ideas in the pipeline, he’s hopeful that he will be able to continue contributing to the local tech, venture, and enterprise sectors in the years to come.
“I think what I am most proud of is my students, research, and postdoctoral staff, whom I had the privilege to train and work together with to develop many of these exciting technologies that I expect will start to see socio-economic impact in the next three to five years,” he says.
“Research is a marathon, and I will continue to work hard to innovate and bring the technologies developed out of my research lab into the real world.”