Trailblazer, whiz-kid, disruptor, extrovert, entrepreneur... there are many ways to describe Annabelle Kwok, founder and CEO of Neuralbay (located at Pixel Building, in a space given to them by the Infocomm Media Development Authority), but perhaps it would be most apt to call her a humanitarian, one using artificial intelligence (AI) to better the world.
The poster child for Singapore’s AI industry is no stranger to the media. She’s just returned from Hawaii, where she took part in a leadership programme design workshop by the Obama Foundation – she was one of the key individuals making a presentation to former US president Barack Obama – to help next-gen leaders better serve their communities. She helped set up Smartcow, which builds industrial-grade AI deployment services, and now, with Neuralbay, she is developing a vision-analytic AI software for everything from keeping an accurate score of vehicles passing toll booths to how well customers engage with window displays. Her aim is for it to be accessible to small and medium enterprises, “to give non-techie people technology”.
Her motivation, while technologically driven, is rooted in humanitarian intent: “Today it’s about financial disparity, but tomorrow we’re going to be talking about technical disparity. Smaller companies are not innovating fast enough to catch up with the big companies. What’s worse than exploitation is being made redundant. Unfortunately, a lot of companies don’t see the need now; they’re more concerned with the immediate economic benefits, so what we’re trying to do is to give them something so simple, so cheap, that even if they don’t reskill or relearn, implementing this software will buy them time to realise they need to upgrade themselves and their systems.”
Photo: Straits Times
For the layperson, this may sound like a well-rehearsed elevator pitch to venture capital firms (which, for the record, she stays away from), but she fleshes out how AI software doesn’t need to be complicated; in fact, it should be a simple, smart concept that meshes human and machine.
“From year one, we train the neural net model to recognise various body postures by having a human stand in front of the camera in various body postures. This neural net model can then be used in the security industry. For instance, it can alert you if there is a person squatting in the corner, which could be suspicious. Or in the medical industry, if a doctor or physiotherapist is not present, it could help you to do your exercises properly at home.”
While some may recoil at the thought of such AI applications and their potential for replacing human roles, Annabelle, who studied theoretical mathematics at university, sees them as an enhancement. She admits, though, that the hardest part of her job isn’t designing the technology but dealing with the ethical dilemmas that come with it.
“I’m very hopeful that in the future, humans will become smarter and stronger. But I am also fearful that we might lose our humanity in this pursuit, so it’s a double-edged sword,” says Annabelle.
“More engineers need to have an existential crisis because we have increasing ethical responsibilities, and this is not taught in school. If I need technical help, I have mentors, and Google, but for ethical issues, whom do I ask?”
“I like what Minouche Shafik, director of the London School of Economics, said: ‘In the past jobs were about muscles, now they’re about brains, but in future they’ll be about the heart’, because it’s really about what you can give – your passion, and building innovative things for the future.”
If machines are the future, we’re counting on this human to keep us safe.