GLAIR’s Michell Setyawati Handaka on her passion for machine learning: Women in Tech

A young woman is pursuing her passion for AI to develop Indonesia.

Few women are interested in computer science, especially machine learning. However, Michell Setyawati Handaka discovered her passion for artificial intelligence (AI) when she studied machine learning at Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB) from 2008 through 2012.

She felt that this subject differed slightly from others. “Although it was AI or machine learning, I felt that it was so human. A machine learns by trial and error. If the machine is right, it receives a reward. If the machine makes a mistake, it is punished. This is just like humans; when we learn something, there is usually a reward or punishment when it goes right or wrong,” Handaka told KrASIA in a recent interview.

She met On Lee, the CEO of GDP Labs and CTO of GDP Venture at university. GDP Labs is a software product-development focused firm and a subsidiary of GDP Venture. The Djarum Group, one of Indonesia’s largest conglomerates, backs GDP Venture. Their conversation about GDP Labs’ goals drew Handaka to join GDP Labs.

“He [On Lee] said that Indonesia had nothing [in its digital ecosystem], therefore GDP Venture would like to develop the Indonesian ecosystem. I wanted to create something for Indonesia. I didn’t want to be like everyone else going international to be successful. I wanted to contribute towards Indonesia’s success,” Handaka said.

She joined GDP Labs in 2012 as a software development engineer, where the team designed, analyzed, and delivered software products. In 2014, she pursued her passion by embarking on a master’s degree in computer science specializing in machine learning with the Georgia Institute of Technology. She pursued her graduate degree while continuing to work with GDP Labs.

Before GDP Venture invested in several AI startup companies, there were some demands of companies in Djarum Group. Therefore,  GDP Labs built a special team to handle and develop AI systems to fulfill the demands of its sister companies. This team evolved into GDP Labs AI Research (GLAIR), where Handaka eventually became CEO.

Today, GLAIR manages the AI systems for about 11 companies in the Djarum Group and those outside the group. Driven by a trend of using AI applications in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, GLAIR has been in great demand by Indonesian companies to implement AI systems.

However, Handaka observed that not all their potential clients understand the importance of AI solutions or what kind is suitable for them. “Some companies try to implement AI, just because of the trend. It is harder to meet the demands and produce a solution when the company does not know the reason to implement it,” she said. This has also occurred with some AI startups in Indonesia, who are in the game because of the trend and not to provide solutions.

However, she believes the potential of AI development in Indonesia is huge and that the country is catching up with others, driven by the many problems that require solving. Recently, she and her team built several AI products for sister companies and external ones. They developed most of the products for banks and financial institutions solutions. One example is a fraud detection system, which can help companies to prevent fraudulent debit card transactions through AI analysis that learns card transaction patterns. By analyzing transaction patterns, the system can identify suspicious transactions.

Another product is credit scoring, developed to fulfill the demands of clients. It helps them classify and determine which customers deserve credit. “Few AI systems in other countries can be replicated in Indonesia. We need to know what the problems and solutions are. Credit scoring is one of the AI systems that provide solutions for fintech firms and banks in Indonesia. Fintech lending firms have a negative image because there have been many cases involving borrowers who couldn’t repay loans. This happened because of the lack of a credit scoring system prior to such firms giving loans to borrowers,” she explained.

Today, at 28 years old, Handaka manages 41 employees, comprising software engineers, AI engineers, and product managers. Only eight women, including herself, work at GLAIR. “Few women are interested in computer science or software engineering. Perhaps it is the mindset, not every woman wants to be a career woman, and I can understand that,” she said.

This article is part of “Women in Tech,” a series by KrASIA that highlights the achievements of women who are a driving force behind South and Southeast Asia’s tech startups.