NUS Computing Professor Leong Tze Yun is a forerunner in Singapore’s artificial intelligence (AI) drive to power the future economy. As Director of AI Technology at national research and development initiative AI Singapore (AISG), Prof Leong works at the intersection of machine and human intelligence.
An “accidental computer scientist”, the ASEAN scholar, who is now a Singaporean, actually grew up gunning for a “traditional” career — in teaching, medicine, writing or filmmaking — like many of her peers at Hwa Chong Junior College. “I could not get into the A-level computer science class that was offered for the first time in Singapore then as I could not pass the aptitude test — I probably still can’t!” shared the affable academic.
She took her first computer science class as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “On the first day of class, the professor walked into the lecture hall dressed like a wizard, with a pointed hat, a purple cloak and a wand and said, ‘Computer science is like magic’. Soon after, I wrote my first programme to create some ‘dancing’ triangles on screen. At that time it was a big deal, I had never seen anything like it before! It was just like magic, and I was hooked,” she said.
Upon graduating from MIT in 1994 with a PhD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Prof Leong joined NUS “since it was, and remains, a top choice for an academic computer science career in Singapore, and indeed the world”. She would soon go on to serve the School of Computing in several capacities, including as Vice Dean (External Relations) and as Head of the Medical Computing Laboratory.
“I like the work of an academic. There are always opportunities to explore new ideas, learn interesting things, and work with different people — especially young, curious, and creative students. There are spaces for personal reflections and scientific research, forums to address national issues, and venues to work with international communities on global challenges,” said Prof Leong. She added that she is very thankful to have a good support system at home, where she often switches into “owl mode”, staying up into the wee hours of the morning to research, code and write papers.
Prof Leong regularly gets invited to sit on working committees and panels of local government bodies and initiatives, contributing to discussions on how computing and IT can help to chart the way forward for Singapore. Internationally too, her expertise in biomedical and health informatics is highly recognised, as evident in her election as Fellow of the American College of Medical Informatics, Founding Fellow of the International Academy of Health Sciences Informatics, and former Vice President of the International Medical Informatics Association.
However, Prof Leong’s focus these days is on leading a multidisciplinary research group that develops technologies designed to augment human capabilities in reasoning, planning, learning and decision making in biomedical and healthcare applications. This includes projects that use data and images about changes in the brain to detect and track the progression of dementia; as well as an assistive care robot that can learn to perform household tasks with minimal supervision. She also oversees the AI in Health Grand Challenge at AISG, which aims to help prevent and reduce the devastating complications of major chronic diseases in Singapore.
“The idea is to bring together academics, researchers and practitioners from different disciplines and backgrounds to solve national and global challenges with significant socioeconomic impact,” explained Prof Leong. She is also building up an AI engineering team to accelerate practical deployment of fundamental research results. “Solving practical issues and implementation bottlenecks are sometimes just as intellectually challenging as proving theorems,” she said candidly.
“So indeed I am now fulfilling ALL my childhood career aspirations — I am a teacher, trying to inspire the next generation of computer scientists in the same way my teachers inspired me; I am a computer scientist and a health informatician working closely in the biomedical setting; and as an academic and researcher, I do write a lot and make presentations involving movies and videos, so I am a writer and an occasional ‘filmmaker’ too! I am happy,” beamed Prof Leong.
Even during her personal time, Prof Leong enjoys tinkering with systems and programming and taking new courses online. “I used to play a lot of computer games — I was actually a very high level wizard!” she quipped. She is also a big fan of Star Trek and Chinese period dramas.
Although she feels lucky that she was never made to feel “different” as a woman in her field thanks to colleagues who were always professional, Prof Leong did note that the number of female computer scientists has stagnated over the years and that conservative mindsets are still slow to change. She added that encouraging more women to join science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields would benefit Singapore and the world socially and economically in the long run.
Her advice to young women in science?
“Work with your colleagues and peers who share the same values and objectives, and leverage that collective strength and camaraderie. Address and solve problems of biasness and discrimination one at a time, find opportunities to be a change agent and impart the same values to the next generation, boys and girls. All of us are obligated to help make the world a better place in ways that we know how and do best — with our scientific knowledge and love for humankind.”