Kazakh scientists recently made a breakthrough by creating a 3D visualization tool that helps blind people ‘see’. However, to take the technology to the next level, they are relying on Kazakhstan’s strong relations with Southeast Asia—and Singapore in particular. John Pennington specially for the ASEAN Today.
Al-Farabi Ydyryshev, director-general of Kazakhstan’s National Center for Technology told ASEAN Today, “Beyond investing in R&D [research and development], there remains another big challenge—to get our technology past our shores. The goal of every invention is, after all, to make a far-reaching impact on people’s lives. What we need is cross-border collaborations.”
Giving sight back to the blind?
Kazakhstan’s new project, known as ‘Sezual’ after the Kazakh word for ‘feel’, is the brainchild of scientist and inventor Galimzhan Gabdreshov. The device hangs from a blind person’s neck and emits a high-frequency click, which reflects off surrounding objects. The returning echo activates a visual processing area in the brain, providing information such as the shape, material and distance, which is then used to build a 3D image of the object.
By mimicking the auditory imaging system used by animals like bats and dolphins, this technology is allowing the blind in Kazakhstan to be more independent. The prototype is now being further refined for commercialization.
Why turn to Singapore?
This project is one of several recent examples of Kazakh teams linking up with Southeast Asia in a range of fields—from science to finance and food—instead of working with their closer neighbors such as China and Russia.
“I believe we align where R&D is concerned, as with most other countries in the world. Science knows no border nor is hindered by inherent geographical differences. It is the purpose that matters,” Ydyryshev said.
In Singapore’s case, that purpose is finding technology partners that can bring Sezual to market in Southeast Asia and potentially the world. Innovation catalyst IPI Singapore—a subsidiary of Enterprise Singapore—is taking the leading role.
Meanwhile, in another similar collaboration, the National University of Singapore is working to commercialize a new kind of cost-efficient lithium-ion sulfur battery which has a large capacity. “This will also fuel the growing appetite for electric vehicles and renewables,” predicted Ydyryshev. He also drew parallels between how the two countries are harnessing artificial intelligence and data science to treat patients with COVID-19.
“Our two countries cannot be more different,” he added. “Singapore is land scarce and resource poor, while Kazakhstan has vast amounts of natural resources, from oil and gas to uranium and coal. We are also one of the world’s largest wheat producers, while Singapore imports over 90% of food consumed in the country.”
Despite those differences, they are fostering ever-stronger links. Last month, the launch of the Kazakhstan Digital Accelerator saw start-ups from Kazakhstan and Singapore receive seed funding in what was hailed as the first economic corridor for start-ups linking central and Southeast Asia.
Kazakhstan has been forging close links with Singapore and other ASEAN nations for some time. In 2017, it worked with Malaysian experts to develop and assess its certification guidelines for halal meat production. The revitalized industry is now thriving and exports halal food to 49 countries.
The relationship between Malaysia and Kazakhstan is growing and prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Kazakh national carrier Air Astana was running visa-free flights between Almaty and Kuala Lumpur. They were in talks to add further flights before COVID-19 took hold.
As 70% of its population is Muslim, the Central Asian nation shares many values with Indonesia, with whom it is also building closer ties. Growing trade between the two nations sees Kazakhstan exporting alloys while importing palm oil and coffee. The two governments are working together to further the relationship in domains including agriculture, Islamic finance and investment.
Furthermore, Kazakhstan prides itself on being the “financial gateway” to Central Asia and is part of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which has free trade agreements with Singapore and Vietnam. Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand have signed memorandums of cooperation with the EAEU’s regulatory body. Several Singaporean companies have a presence in the country.
“New technologies have erased borders and reduced distances, which means countries should look beyond their traditional partners for collaboration,” commented Kairat Kelimbotov, governor of Astana International Financial Center. “This is especially the case in a pandemic-stricken world.”
The lazy stereotype—espoused and exaggerated most prominently by English actor Sacha Boren Cohen’s Borat character—of Kazakhstan as a backward, corrupt, poverty-stricken country deserves to be consigned to the scrapheap.
Kazakhstan’s entrepreneurs, officials and scientists are driving the country forward, coming up with ideas and prototypes that could change the world for the better. But as they cannot do it alone, their relationship with Southeast Asia is becoming increasingly important. By tapping into ASEAN’s established connections, experience and financing opportunities, each technological project—including Sezual—stands a better chance of succeeding.
As Ydyryshev concluded, “It is my hope that this is the start of a long-lasting partnership that will push Kazakhstan-grown technologies onto the world stage, creating a fairer and more sustainable world, starting by bringing sight to the visually-impaired across continents.”