Sci & Tech

Sharif Grad Takes on AI

Sharif Grad Takes on AISharif Grad Takes on AI

A new California-based tech company, which claims to have built a unified algorithmic architecture to achieve human-level intelligence in vision, language and motor control, is making headlines in the West.

But, like many successful technology ventures in United States, Iranian educated brains are in the mix.

Financial Tribune contacted one of the lead researchers, Mohsen Hejrati of Vicarious and local education website MaktabKhooneh to find out how he entered these futuristic ventures. Excerpts follow:

What got you interested in working with technology: Was it your education in Iran or was it a personal obsession?

HEJRATI: It was a combination of both. Like many others, I got interested in computers and Internet when I was very young, maybe in middle school, but I didn't know its real potential and impact.

In fact I think at that time not many people knew what a profound impact Internet and computer technologies can have on our lives. However, it became clear to me after I entered university and became exposed to research in computer science.

I was lucky to meet with very smart people like Dr. Mehrdad Shahshahani who was doing top-tier research in computer vision and I was hooked immediately!

What was your best experience with working in the startup and online sector over the course of your career?

Like many other things, the best experience is when you see the thing you built works! The moment that you see people use your website, product or service and they like it is like nothing else.

What did you learn at Sharif University, which you have kept through your career?

Sharif University provided me with the opportunity of meeting some of the brightest people. A good network is one of the most important assets for anybody and having to study and live with smart students and professors at Sharif University is one of the best things that happened to me.

Your work focuses on research and education. What do you think is important about the future of education?

The future of education is in providing access to high-quality education for everyone. Although education is much more available now than 100 years ago, it is still not accessible. People do not have access to high-quality education due to many factors: location, age, affordability, etc. prevent many from getting high-quality education.

I think for any society to stay competitive in the future, it requires a system that makes education accessible to every single person.

With the advances in technology, many low-tech jobs are vanishing and we need lifelong accessible education to prepare people for high-tech jobs.

During your time at the University of California, Irvine, what did you learn that you could bring back to the Iranian learning environment?

I have learned that great work is done by teams of people with complementary skills. Groundbreaking research is done when two ideas from different disciplines are married to solve a problem.  I think in Iran there are still some traditional approaches that create boundaries between disciplines. [The] higher education system in Iran can benefit a lot by relaxing these boundaries and allowing ideas to flow freely from one discipline to another.

Tell us about your biggest failure in creating new technologies?

In 2013, I tried to build a service that allows people to access state-of-the-art computer vision algorithms through cloud. The idea was very interesting and I could already provide the service to other research groups at UCI.

What I was not aware of was that with new technologies, timing is crucial. Usually new technologies are based on combining many other technologies and if a few of the other technologies are not at the working stage, your technology will fail.

This probably sounds trivial but many times even large companies fail to have correct estimate and their new technologies will fail; take Google Glass, early smartphones, etc.

Tell us about your greatest success in business so far?

I think one of my successes in business is how to evolve the Maktabkhooneh idea. The initial idea was to raise funds and build tablets and give them to students around the country. Then, after thinking more about it, I realized that the main challenge, at least in Farsi [Persian], is lack of content.

I decided to create content and share it on the web. My friends and I spent one year working on that idea but we realized that creating content is a huge challenge in itself; another group of my friends at Stanford has also started to create content very similar to us.

At that point we made the decision that changed Maktabkhooneh; we started to build the platform instead of building the content and gathered content by partnering with universities. At that time there was not a good video-sharing service in Iran, so we built it ourselves and we built the whole platform to deliver educational content from the best universities in Iran.

How do you think your new company will change the Internet and computer industry, and what do you think it will mean for the wider world with the introduction of artificial intelligence?

Artificial intelligence can be the final invention by humanity. If we build something that is as intelligent as humans, soon its intelligence will surpass us. It is very hard to understand the post-AI world, but one thing that many people agree on is that it will be very different. It will have fundamental economic, social, cultural and political impact.

How can your experience in the US be transferred to students living in Iran, and do you think Iran will be able to tap into the huge successful group of Iranians abroad?

I think Iranians are very connected and over the past few years, I have always been talking to my friends in Iran. However, I believe real knowledge transfer will only happen when the two groups are involved in joint projects and have high interaction.

That is why I think we need to open our minds in Iran and welcome contact and interaction with the world, especially the diaspora that has all the reasons to help.