The Real Whiz Behind Artificial Intelligence

Written by Annamalai Tanisha , Audrey Wan Earn Jia, Ng Ashley
Photography by Alfredo Ryelcius

For those of us who watched Iron Man when it first premiered, we were likely awed by the cutting-edge technology and innovation on display. We may have marvelled at Iron Man’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) butler Jarvis and wondered wistfully what creating our own high-tech device would feel like.

Jiafei, however, was different. Instead of merely fantasising, he decided to make this dream a reality.

Citing Iron Man as his personal childhood hero, Jiafei is achieving heroic feats in the field of AI himself. With a specialisation in data intelligence and processing, the final-year student at the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (EEE) already has years of experience in innovation under his belt.

As the President of a student group on Machine Learning & Data Analytics at NTU and an A*Star Undergraduate Scholar, Jiafei has designed a host of data analytics and AI-related projects, clinching many innovation and research awards in the process. His interest is piqued by general purpose AI, in which AI programmes can be trained to perform different tasks.

One of his projects, a humanoid robotic arm, was built completely from scratch. Displaying the same ingenuity and tenacity as Iron Man himself, Jiafei and his partner constructed and programmed the arm from a single plastic structure. The result – which won the Tan Kah Kee Young Inventor’s Award 2016 – was a skilled robotic arm that could be remotely controlled via a pair of gloves.

Jiafei embarks on a research project where he trains the robotic system to perform general household tasks. Photo credit: Duan Jiafei

It gets even better – Jiafei’s designs aren’t just slick and sophisticated in appearance, they are also designed with the greater social good in mind. His project MaskedHero, a concept created for the MakeMIT 2020 hackathon, is a device that can calculate the lifespan of any N95 mask to ensure this precious resource is fully optimised, preventing mask wastage during the coronavirus pandemic.

With this impressive catalogue of inventions tied to his name, one might wonder: Who exactly is Jiafei under his metaphorical Iron Man suit? What drives him and what does he do in his free time?

Every day, Jiafei’s first order of business is to make himself a cup of morning tea and clear his emails. A typical work schedule comprises frequent visits to his lab, as he applies himself to his projects while simultaneously juggling his university modules. He ends his day by relaxing with friends and playing some board games in the lab.

“I guess it’s quite an average life of a student, but with more of the boring parts of research and study,” he said.

When he does take the weekends to unwind and connect with family and friends, Jiafei’s academic passion for AI and machine learning nonetheless overlaps with his hobbies. Along with augmented reality games, Jiafei also enjoys participating in Hackathons, competitive events where dedicated programmers and developers collaborate on software projects. On top of that, he even purchases technology gadgets, which he colloquially terms “toys”, to play around and experiment with in his free time.

Aside from being a technophile, he is also a seasoned performer! Once a stage magician, he would perform in various settings from school events to corporate shows. With his repertoire of magic tricks, he enjoyed illustrating stories that unfolded before the audience. Given his inclination towards science and academia, one might find his interest in magic unexpected. To him, however, the line between science and magic is blurred:

If science is advanced enough, it is just like magic.

One huge factor that Jiafei plans to tackle is the global issue on food security, one of Singapore’s main focuses in the next five years. He is inspired to create a self-sustainable Smart Farm with limited human intervention at minimised costs. For instance, he is looking to venture into using insects and worms as an alternative energy-efficient source of protein.

Equipped with his host of invaluable skills and bold ideas, Jiafei is ready to take on the world of AI and spearhead impressive future projects.

Jiafei beamed as he told us:

I want to change the world.

Jiafei has been featured as part of our Humans of NTU series, where we spotlight NTU undergraduates and their passion projects. From environmental startups to dating services, these individuals truly bring out the diversity and innovation of the NTU spirit. Check the rest of them out on our website!