Social Impact Tech: Sameer Maskey of Fusemachines On How Their Technology Will Make An Important Positive Impact
An Interview With Jilea Hemmings
…By creating new ways to generate access to high quality AI education and training opportunities, we can ultimately arm people with the knowledge needed to carry out AI-related jobs as well as understand how AI can help make businesses more efficient. This will help unlock new business and career opportunities, thus having a direct impact on economic growth, unemployment rates, and socioeconomic structures.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sameer Maskey.
Sameer Maskey is the Founder & CEO of Fusemachines Inc, an AI talent and education platform and services provider. Dr. Maskey has more than 18 years of experience in artificial intelligence, natural language processing, machine learning, and data science. After completing his PhD in Computer Science at Columbia University, he joined IBM Watson Research Center where he invented various statistical algorithms to improve speech-to-speech translation and question answering systems. He also teaches various AI courses in Columbia University as Adjunct Associate Professor.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Kathmandu, Nepal, where I lived with my two siblings and parents. My mother was a school teacher, which clearly sparked my interest in being an educator at an early age. I’d find myself drawn towards the small tasks she carried out as a teacher from making good examples for learning concepts to cross verifying her students’ grades.
My interest in technology, on the other hand, stemmed from Hollywood science fiction. I found movies about next generation technology beyond fascinating and took keen interest in the ones that showcased a future transformed by high-tech. One of the many things that piqued my interest at a young age was the ability of a machine to translate speech from one language to another on the big screen. Perhaps this is why one of my first college research projects around AI involved building the first Nepali to English limited domain speech-to-speech translator. This sense of curiosity further developed into a passion for learning Natural Language and Speech Processing, which is why I pursued a PhD on this topic. To this day, I continue to find AI research in language extremely fascinating and enjoy teaching it to other curious minds.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Since founding Fusemachines, we have always focused on providing high-quality AI education to underserved areas around the world. In the early days, we were very selective about who could enroll in the programs.
I remember there was this one student who really wanted to be a part of our program. While this student had done pretty well on entrance exams, in his final year of undergrad he failed a number of courses, and as a result, we denied him admission.
However, not long after, I had the opportunity to interact with him face-to-face and the passion he showed for our program as well as the spark in his eyes when he heard about the different things he could learn in our courses, inspired me to give him a chance. He went on to become one of our core leads and eventually received a scholarship for a graduate program in AI in the USA and is now doing cutting-edge AI research work.
This experience fundamentally changed how I thought of students’ ability to change their trajectory if they get the right amount of motivation, framework, opportunity and information.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It is undoubtedly my mother. Her commitment to childhood education and focus on building a strong foundation was infectious. Had it not been for her, I would never have understood the impact good education can have on one’s life.
She not only encouraged my siblings and I in our education journeys, but also the sacrifices she made to make sure we received a fighting chance at education, nurtured me into the leader I am today. Despite making a meager salary of less than $200 a month, she managed to put food on our table and provide us with the tools and infrastructure needed to build a strong foundation and interest in learning. Thanks to her, the education I got in my early years made all the difference shaping my later education and career path. Without her, I would not have been able to compete for a full scholarship to come to the US and start a company in a field I am deeply passionate about.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
An inspiring quote that has shaped my vision for the world is Nelson Mandela’s: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Education has transformed my life. Getting a full scholarship to come to the US to learn computer science and AI has brought me numerous opportunities. But not everyone is as fortunate. The amount of talent in the world is rarely matched by the number of opportunities. As a result, we witness socio-economic disparities across the world.
Like late Mr. Mandela, I believe that we can fight societal issues such as poverty and hunger by arming the masses with high quality education, in highly-sought after fields like AI, one underserved community at a time.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
If I had to highlight three character traits that have helped me on my leadership journey, they would be:
Caring deeply about people: I care about people, a lot. While there are some who believe CEOs should distance themselves from the personal lives of employees, I care because I have seen first-hand how imbalances in one’s personal life can affect their work. Covid-19 in particular showed us how companies with empathy and compassion function better. I want my team to know that if someone has a sick family member they are taking care of, I would like to know what they are going through, so I can provide them with the flexibility they need.
Embodying and inspiring proactiveness: I like to think of myself as a forward thinker. When I identify problems, I also keep an eye out for patterns and how we can potentially solve them. This helps me preempt issues and have a proper plan in place to tackle challenges before they arise. I consistently encourage my team members to adopt the same proactive mindset, which goes hand-in-hand with a problem solving attitude.
Being inquisitive: I am a naturally curious person and tend to ask a lot of questions. Doing this has led me to have a deeper level of understanding of the various business functions within my company as well as of my team members. It has also helped me appreciate the challenges that my teams face and what goes into getting something done very well.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive social impact on our society. To begin, what problems are you aiming to solve?
Most businesses across all industries want to jump on the digital transformation bandwagon. However, not all are equipped with the requisite knowledge, talent or tools to do so. Additionally, the buzz around digital transformation has created an urgency among the workforce to reskill and/or upskill so they are well-versed in the high-paying, lucrative field of AI.
This is where we come in. We want business leaders and entrepreneurs to be able to work with dynamic AI technology both now and in the future, while unlocking career, business and economic opportunities.
Today, even high school graduates with a keen interest in data, AI, and math tend to gradually lose interest because of inadequate training opportunities. We are curbing this challenge by creating training and education opportunities across all levels — from students to professionals. Additionally, we are generating opportunities outside the traditional educational settings and are especially focused on creating access for underserved America.
By doing so, we are meeting the scarcity challenge of qualified AI talent head on, while also enabling businesses, including those in rural and underserved markets, to make the most of AI.
How do you think your technology can address this?
The most prominent way we address the AI talent and opportunities gap is by creating wider access to AI education and training and using AI technology to bring personalized learning to students.
Quality AI training contributes to AI knowledge and talent. Today, we partner with a number of educational institutions in the US and provide them with effective AI curricula along with teachers and industry connections for graduates looking for data science and AI engineering jobs. Most of our tech talent has been nurtured and built by our in-house PhD and AI Experts. In turn, they are either helping solve our clients’ critical AI needs or have moved on to join bigger enterprises.
The AI technologies we have built for personalized learning — the Content Recommendation Engine, Student Status Prediction Engine, Proctoring Engines, Question Answering Engine — provide students an AI Assistant to guide them as they learn new concepts, thus enabling them to learn faster.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
From living in Nepal, going to college in Maine, and then finally moving to New York City, I’ve always been acutely aware of the disparities in opportunities and quality of education across the world and the differences these things can make. On top of this, as I built out Fusemachines, I was exposed to stories of employees’ who grew up in underserved parts of the country. For me, the solution to disparity has been education. As I developed my career and expertise in AI, I realized the opportunity I had to combine education and AI to create real change in the lives of those who didn’t grow up with the kinds of life changing opportunities others take for granted. I’ve always believed talent exists everywhere but opportunities do not. Technology is this opportunity, and I wanted to get it into the hands of those who needed it most.
How do you think this might change the world?
AI education and training initiatives across all levels — from schools to professional settings, will help further global AI adoption. While jobs in AI are one of the most in-demand today, access to AI talent remains a challenge. By creating new ways to generate access to high quality AI education and training opportunities, we can ultimately arm people with the knowledge needed to carry out AI-related jobs as well as understand how AI can help make businesses more efficient. This will help unlock new business and career opportunities, thus having a direct impact on economic growth, unemployment rates, and socioeconomic structures.
As a practitioner and educator in AI, I have a lot of regard for the technology and its countless capabilities. However, despite its ability to bring about many societal benefits, we cannot deny the technology’s potential drawbacks. These include:
Invasion of Privacy: AI systems are powered by data. The more personalized AI systems get, the more personal the data they need must be. As a result, companies building such systems will always shoulder the burden of ethically sourcing personal data and must draw a line around invasion of privacy. For example, should AI systems know everything we do, both online and offline?
Inherent Bias: Current AI systems mimic the data they are fed. We have seen examples of face recognition systems that have reduced accuracy for darker skin tones because data distribution used for modeling such systems didn’t have enough variation on skin color. This is AI’s inherent bias problem. There still aren’t enough checks in place to keep bias out of AI systems. It is the responsibility of AI practitioners to spend more time and energy making sure AI systems are not biased or learning implicit bias from training data.
Misuse by an autocratic govt or institute: Though AI researchers are building AI systems with the good intent of improving human lives, these systems can be misused by authoritarian governments , institutions or leaders. AI can be used for mass surveillance without people knowing, using face detection systems in camera feeds from all over the world. Similarly AI systems can be used to build and automate weapons that target certain races, genders, cities and states. These are all dangerous developments that occur when there aren’t enough checks and balances on the use of AI by autocratic institutions and leaders.
Loss of certain types of job roles: Artificial intelligence and AI-powered automation pose a threat to certain types of job roles. Take a loan officer at a bank for example. AI-delivered insights can help make quicker and more accurate loan decisions, thus possibly doing the task of a loan officer better. When an AI system is able to do the job of the loan officer with high accuracy, the loan officer might lose his/her job. We can foresee a future where AI automation may very well cause job losses, though AI will ultimately create more jobs than it replaces.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
- Deep knowledge of the field: A technology can only have a positive impact if the one building it understands its full potential as well as its limitations. For a technology to have social impact, one must understand how to develop technological solutions that efficiently and effectively handle critical challenges. With our AI technology for example, it’s crucial to understand how complex it is and that it also possesses the ability to backfire if not channeled well.
- Understanding how painful the problem you are solving is: We need to take stock of how big the problem we are looking to address is. Are you solving something that affects someone daily or yearly? Products that solve daily pain points have potential for great impact and growth.
- Knowing what is and is not possible: Having manageable expectations around the impact and magnitude of impact is just as important as understanding the problem. At Fusemachines, we are looking to create AI-powered economic impact for example. We aim to do this by creating access to AI education and career opportunities in remote, underserved areas. We want to purposely limit our scope in the beginning stages in order to completely focus on the areas where we are looking to create an impact in.
- Establishing a mission and ensuring the technology is contributing to that mission: Generating social impact using technology should always be rooted in a mission. Our mission is to democratize AI and we are using AI-powered education platforms as well as our AI experts to create new levels of access to AI education, training and therefore, career opportunities.
- Building a solution is half of the story.You need to understand how you are going to reach your audience: Just because we are building a technology-enabled solution doesn’t mean it will be implemented immediately and start solving problems. We need to identify areas of maximum impact, how to educate around deploying the solution in those areas and make sure everyone who stands to be affected by the said solution is well-versed in the technology.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?
I would encourage young minds to be inquisitive, never stop learning, and deeply care. Every big innovation is rooted in solving a critical need in society and is powered by minds that value the process of continually learning and growing. Education is a never-ending journey, and the next generation should care about learning for the sake of applying their knowledge in the future.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I would love to have breakfast with Jill Biden. She has been a proponent of education for her whole life. As someone who values education myself, I would love the opportunity to tell her how we want to realize our mission to democratize AI through access to high quality AI education, career and business opportunities.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The platform where we share the latest and greatest from me and my team is our website. Additionally, I would love to connect with leaders on LinkedIn. I also periodically share my thoughts and insights on Medium and regularly contribute to Forbes Tech Council.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.
About the Interviewer: Jilea Hemmings is a staunch believer in the power of entrepreneurship. A successful career revamping Fortune 500 companies was not enough for her entrepreneurial spirit, so Jilea began focusing her passion in startups. She has successfully built 6 startups to date. Her passion for entrepreneurship continues to ﬂourish with the development of Stretchy Hair Care, focusing on relieving the pain associated with detangling and styling natural black hair. For far too long, people with tender heads have suffered in pain. Until now.