The Accidental Internet Pioneer

Tan Tin Wee brought the wonders of the Internet to Singapore in the 90’s—starting with a videocast of the 1994 National Day Parade for those living or working overseas.

SG50 banner for web

AsianScientist (Jun. 16, 2016) – Overwhelmingly white, male, and chock-full of advanced degrees in computer science and electrical engineering, the Internet Society’s Hall of Fame could not be more different from its Rock and Roll counterpart.

Alongside luminaries such as Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, and Vint Cerf, who co-designed the Internet’s fundamental architecture, is an unassuming Singaporean: Tan Tin Wee, associate professor of biochemistry at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

From first using the Internet to facilitate his own molecular biology research in the early 1990’s, Professor Tan ended up pioneering a slew of technologies that has made the Internet accessible to non-English speakers around the world.


Wiring up a nation

Professor Tan’s interest in the natural sciences began in childhood, when he would peer through a telescope—a gift from his father—at the night sky. In 1990, after doctoral work at the University of Edinburgh, where he developed vaccines to protect sheep against bacterial infections, Professor Tan returned to Singapore.

In the wake of the gene cloning boom and the initiation of the Human Genome Project that same year, Singapore’s government was keen to develop local molecular biology expertise.

While in the UK, Professor Tan had accessed gene sequence databases—valuable resources for molecular biologists—via the Internet. He soon realised that Singapore sorely lacked the essential bioinformatics infrastructure to support the fledgling molecular biology research sector here.

NUS was then linked to BITNET, an Internet predecessor with origins in the United States. Professor Tan quickly became one of its biggest users.

“In the daytime I was doing experiments, and in between incubations I was on the computer, connected to the network,” he says.

He soon caught the attention of senior administrators at the NUS Computer Centre. They asked him to take over the running and development of TechNet, Singapore’s first dedicated network for the nation-wide research community. Professor Tan recalls having to teach immunochemistry in the morning, and then having to sign purchase orders and tenders in the afternoon.

In reality, his new afternoon job was to build the Internet for Singapore. Singnet, Singapore’s first Internet service provider, was established in 1994, offering dialup connections to the public. By 1998, almost a quarter of households had Internet access; by 2013, some 87 percent did, almost all via broadband. Today, Singapore has the fourth highest Internet penetration rate in Asia, behind South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong.

In the early 1990’s the Internet was primarily used in scientific circles—unicasting and multicasting, early versions of webcasting, for example, were only used in deep sea and space explorations. However, Professor Tan sensed its potential to transform many aspects of society. In 1994, his team successfully initiated a videocast of the National Day Parade, beaming it to Singaporeans far away.

Keen to see how the Internet could benefit disabled children, Professor Tan also personally wired up the Singapore School for the Deaf, making it the first primary school in Singapore with Internet access. Its students, hitherto reliant on sign language for communication, suddenly had a new way to chat.


Making the internet globally accessible

In the 1990’s, the Internet was hailed as an “information superhighway”. But Professor Tan—who lived in multicultural, multilingual Singapore—noticed a huge digital divide. The Internet’s graphical interface could only display ASCII characters (A-Z and 0-9). Entire communities using non-Latin-script languages—Asia’s millions of Chinese and Tamil speakers, for example—were unable to access to a wealth of online information without first learning English.

In 1994, taking advantage of the fact that fonts for the Chinese language already existed, Professor Tan and his team wrote a program that would match the code for each character to its corresponding image, and then piece the images into a bigger picture that could be displayed in Internet browsers. They extended this concept to the Tamil language, and in 1995 demonstrated their work by displaying Singapore’s National Pledge online in Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil.

By 1996, web browsers were able to display multilingual content. But there was another major accessibility problem. The domain name system (DNS), which translates human-readable Uniform Resource Locators (URLs)—www.google.com, for example—into numeric Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, was still ASCII-only. The digital divide remained—Internet users had to know English in order to type in an address and navigate the web.

In 1998, Professor Tan’s team had an answer. If a user entered a URL in a non-Latin script, the team’s proxy software would convert the multilingual characters into Unicode, a computing standard for text, and then into ASCII. This got passed into the DNS, which would recognize the ASCII format and return the IP address.

“Everyone got very excited for obvious reasons—the Internet was not big in China back then,” says Professor Tan. “It was the same thing for all the different Indian languages, Cyrillic and Arabic.”

Properly implementing a multilingual DNS would require some reconfiguration of the Internet’s underlying infrastructure. Although no one person or entity runs the Internet, some of its technical aspects are overseen and standardized by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a governing body headquartered in Los Angeles.

More than a decade after Professor Tan’s team proposed their solution, ICANN voted in 2009 to allow domain names in non-Latin scripts, calling it the biggest change to the coding of the Internet since its invention. But because the technology had stagnated for so long, progress to fully integrate it into the Internet’s infrastructure has been slow.


Pioneering a new Internet protocol

In addition to his NUS position, Professor Tan now also chairs the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s Computational Resource Centre (A*CRC), which is tasked with equipping Singapore with supercomputing capabilities for the twenty-first century.

In that vein, he is now pioneering the use of new technologies for computers to communicate online. TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), the decades-old communications language used by the Internet today, is a low-efficiency, computationally-intensive technology that can barely cope with the billions of devices now online, he says.

A newer communications technology called InfiniBand transmits data with much shorter lag times, less information loss, and higher efficiency than TCP/IP, but is currently used only in supercomputers for short-range communication.

In November 2014, together with Australian, Japanese and US universities, as well as industry partners Obsidian Strategics and Tata Communications, Professor Tan’s team at the A*CRC demonstrated the first long-range, high-speed InfiniBand link between supercomputers on three continents, on a platform called InfiniCortex.

In conventional grid computing, distributed processors perform tasks in parallel but more or less independently of one another. InfiniCortex instead allows for concurrent supercomputing, where intermediate results can be swiftly communicated between processors located across global distances. This allows participating centers to run more complex tasks—such as computational fluid dynamics or genomic data analysis—at greater scales without having to invest heavily in their own supercomputing resources.

Professor Tan is also addressing the limiting factor for computing speed: the energy needed for exascale computing—a billion billion (1018) calculations per second—could power entire towns. Data centers worldwide use an estimated 30bn watts of electricity, equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear plants.

Even with the most efficient chips, servers generate a lot of heat. Lots of energy is required to cool them. One proposal to mitigate this involves locating servers in a distributed manner in homes and offices, and using the waste heat they generate to warm buildings.

In Singapore, Professor Tan leads the DataCentreX initiative to explore ways to couple supercomputing operations with heat-requiring processes. In tropical Singapore, there is only one bitterly cold spot—the liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant on Jurong Island, where LNG exists at -162 degrees Celsius. Data centers could theoretically provide the heat needed to re-gasify it before it is bottled and sold, says Professor Tan. The expanding gas could even be used to drive turbines, which would further offset supercomputing energy requirements.

Combining the DataCentreX concept with high-performance InfiniBand networking would allow computing load to be redistributed depending on temperature conditions—between Northern and Southern hemispheres, for example, so that computing would always take place during the winter. But data security—as sensitive information is shared globally—remains a major hurdle.


Laying the ground for paradigm shifts

It’s easy to forget that throughout all this, Professor Tan has also built a successful career as a molecular biologist and bioinformatician, with a long-standing interest in vaccines and infectious diseases.

Professor Tan is also kept busy by his two teenage children, who grew up in NUS’s Eusoff Hall where he was hall master—a job that involved “looking after 485 students who don’t sleep till 4am”.

Reflecting on what he sees as inevitable societal change, Professor Tan uses the example of how no one was willing to make data freely available in the early days of the Internet. Similarly, he is confident that what may seem outrageously daring today—locating a data centre next to a seemingly volatile LNG plant, for example—will eventually come to pass.

“It’s only a matter of time, it may be another 10 to 15 years before mindsets change,” says Professor Tan. “But we want to be 15 years ahead.”

That mindsets do change, his family must surely be thankful. After more than 20 years of NUS campus living, in early 2014 Professor Tan finally moved them into their own home. A hyper-connected, energy-efficient one, no doubt.


This feature is part of a series of 25 profiles, first published as Singapore’s Scientific Pioneers. Click here to read the rest of the articles in this series.

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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Cyril Ng.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Shuzhen received a PhD degree from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA, where she studied the immune response of mosquito vectors to dengue virus.

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