From math major to Singapore’s poster child of AI: Women in Tech (update)

Curiosity and luck have fueled Annabelle Kwok’s career in AI.

Image by Kwok Annabelle Kwok.

At 26 years old, Annabelle Kwok has already founded two artificial intelligence companies. The first was SmartCow, where she created Tera, a hardware board powered by the Nvidia Jetson Chip that could run artificial intelligence software.

After leaving SmartCow, Kwok pivoted from hardware to software. She founded NeuralBay, this time focusing on developing detection and recognition software for large corporations. Her list of clients include one of the largest airports in the world, an automation industry company, and confectionery company Ferrero.

Kwok has made frequent media appearances. She has spoken at regional tech conferences, and was elected to the selection committee for the President’s Science Award in Singapore. She has also participated in the Obama Foundation—former United States’ president Barack Obama’s signature program—to strengthen leadership development and networking in Southeast Asia.

KrASIA recently caught up with Kwok, the “poster child of AI” in Singapore, to understand how a unique mix of curiosity and luck has brought her this far.

KrASIA (Kr): Can you share with us how you found your footing in tech and artificial intelligence? 

Annabelle Kwok (AK): Actually I’ve been in tech for quite some time. It officially started in my junior college (high school equivalent) days when I took computer sciences as a class for the Cambridge GCE ‘A’ Levels examination. After junior college, I went to university where I majored in mathematics. As part of the course requirement, I had to take many concise modules related to software and programming so I’ve got that background.

However, I really got into tech after my university days when I worked on a project with National Geographic. I had to build a bot that could identify or detect human faces. I didn’t know that was considered AI per se, we simply called it a “distributed intelligence network system”. It was the Singapore government who said that “Annabelle made a bot for AI”.

Kr: How did you go from manufacturing hardware to developing AI software? 

AK: It was a long journey whereby one thing led to another. It was also unplanned for. As I was selling these boards to my clients, the first thing they asked was whether the boards came with various AI software and when I told them no, they would express disinterest. In order to convince them to buy the boards, I told them I would develop the software for them since I had the knowledge to do so.

Another reason was hardware is a big boy’s game where economies of scale is a huge determining factor. As a small company, we could not compete with big corporations who could afford to reinvent new models every few months. It was hard to survive in the game.

Kr: What is it about AI that attracts you? 

AK: I think it is very fun because there is always new research coming out and I get to experiment with and try new stuff and play with it. It is like I am right at the forefront of the AI wave.

The other element is that it gives me plenty of exposure to many different industries. One AI software and application can be adapted and used in different sectors and industries so I could be on a boat in the middle of the sea one day and eating chocolates in a factory on another day. AI takes me around the world and I get to have fun while doing the things I’m passionate about.

Kr: Why did you choose to major in mathematics instead of computer sciences or other tech-related courses? 

AK: I took mathematics only because I thought it was easy. From zero to nine, there are only ten numbers. “How hard can it be?” I thought.

Another reason was to “get back” at my junior college teacher who didn’t believe in me. I used to be really bad at mathematics and my teacher once told me that I would never be good at it. I got very angry when I heard that so I studied very hard and got really good at math very quickly. I ended up doing very well in my ‘A’ Levels and when my math teacher asked me what I was going to pursue at university, I told her “mathematics”.

Kr: So how relevant is your undergraduate study to what you are currently doing? 

AK: It depends on how you look at it. School is a really good environment for building strong foundations. Apart from the few software and programming modules I took, what my school really taught me was understanding how AI works. Not the technical part but the logic and principles behind it. If you want to build AI software, you need a whole spectrum of knowledge to do so, not just the ability to code and program.

Kr: So you picked up your knowledge of AI, skills in software, and business management all by yourself? 

AK: No, of course not. A lot of it was luck. I had the good fortune of meeting very experienced people who were very willing to share and teach me along the way. I also read up a lot online because I’m just interested in it.

Kr: You have spoken a lot about using tech for good. How are you doing on that front? 

AK: I build AI software that is more culturally inclusive. For instance, what my company does is build facial recognition software. In the market, there are many impressive software solutions but they are made to recognize Western faces and features. That is culturally biased so NeuralBay collects our own data here in Southeast Asia to build our very own localized software. I believe that when there is cultural inclusiveness there can be greater social impact.

Kr: What plans do you have for NeuralBay for the next one to two years? 

AK: To get hold of more data. I’m not data greedy but we believe more data can be collected and only when we have this can we get the technology to reach the masses.

Kr: How do you feel about being called the “poster child of AI” in Singapore? 

AK: It is pure luck. I am 100% Singaporean. I am female. In the eyes of the public, I’m young. And I’m in AI, a field largely dominated by males. I just happen to be doing the right thing at the right time when AI is gaining the attention of the world.

Kr: What advice would you give to even younger people? 

AK: If you’re interested in something, just go do it. Because when you’re interested, your curiosity becomes a very strong competitive advantage that works in your favor. So when you’re interested in something, you learn it much faster and when you become good at it, doors will open and you’ll find yourself having different opportunities.

Kr: What valuable advice have you received in the past? 

To always be humble.

 

(Corrections: Added “hardware board powered by the Nvidia Jetson Chip” to describe Tera. Also, “board” was wrongly spelled as “bot” and the President’s Science Award name has been updated)