Indian-American brothers look to harness artificial intelligence for greater good

Artificial intelligence could be deployed by dictators, criminals and terrorists to manipulate elections and use drones in terrorist attacks, more than two dozen experts said on Wednesday, 21 February 2018. (AFP)
Updated 25 February 2018
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Indian-American brothers look to harness artificial intelligence for greater good

SAN FRANCISCO: As debate swirls on whether artificial intelligence will be a boon or a curse for humanity, two Indian-American entrepreneur brothers are out to ensure the emerging technologies don’t just benefit the richest in society.
Romesh and Sunil Wadhwani this week launched what is billed as the world’s first nonprofit institute dedicated to putting AI to work improving lives of poor farmers, rural health care workers or teachers in communities with scant resources.
“AI will go where AI will go; it is difficult to predict where,” Sunil Wadhwani said of the conflicting views on the emergence of computers more brilliant than their human creators.
“Our focus is how many tens of millions of lives can we improve in the next five or 10 years. Where AI goes in 100 years, it will go.”
The entrepreneur brothers, who have a series of lucrative startups to their name, have committed $30 million over 10 years to the Wadhwani AI institute, established in Mumbai with the Indian government as a partner.
Areas targeted at the outset will include health care, education, agriculture and urban infrastructure.
The project’s founders hope AI could help nurses in rural areas with diagnoses, advise how to optimize crops, translate text books into various languages as needed or even spot signs students might be on paths to dropping out.
“AI is a game-changing technology,” said Sunil Wadhwani, who is based in Pittsburgh as a trustee for Carnegie Mellon University.
“A lot of developing countries are getting left behind; US and China are leapfrogging ahead.”
Students from New York University and the University of Southern California will travel to Mumbai to collaborate, while the brothers also plan to partner with players in Silicon Valley, where Romesh Wadhwani is based.
The ethical issues raised by AI — from its potential to destroy jobs to the power it could exert over people’s lives — will be front of mind, according to institute chief P. Anandan, a former Microsoft Research director.
“It has the potential to be used badly, or run away on its own,” Anandan said of AI.
“At the end of the day, you are going to manage that by being aware of it from the start and applying it where intentions are good.”

Internet giants have been investing heavily in creating software to help machines think more like people, boosted by super-fast computer processing power and access to mountains of data to analyze.
AI has been put to work in the form of virtual aides, for recognizing people’s friends in photos, fighting “fake news,” stymying the online spread of violent extremist messages and more.
But the rise of artificial intelligence brings mighty new challenges too, and the new initiative coincides with the release of a report by AI scholars warning the technology has the potential to be exploited for nefarious purposes.
“These technologies have many widely beneficial applications,” said the study produced by the Future of Humanity Institute, the nonprofit group OpenAI and others.
“Less attention has historically been paid to the ways in which artificial intelligence can be used maliciously.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which took part in the study, expressed concern that “increasingly sophisticated AI will usher in a world that is strange and different from the one we’re used to, and there are serious risks if this technology is used for the wrong ends.”
High-profile figures who have expressed fears about the potential dangers of AI include tech visionary and innovator Elon Musk.
SpaceX founder and Tesla chief executive Musk in 2015 took part in creating the research organization OpenAI, which aims to develop artificial intelligence that helps rather than hurts people.
Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, IBM, and Google-owned British AI firm DeepMind are also members of a nonprofit “Partnership on AI” which seeks to promote the technology’s use “to benefit people and society.”
Sunil Wadhwani has meanwhile promised an “aggressive” timeline at the brothers’ eponymous institute, with testing of potential AI tools starting by the end of this year.


Start-up of the Week: The app that restores work-life balance

Updated 19 June 2018
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Start-up of the Week: The app that restores work-life balance

  • MRSOOL helps consumers to transport goods from any store to their door
  • Since 2017 MRSOOL has had more than 80,000 couriers across the Kingdom, potentially earning the couriers an average SR 10,000 ($2,700) within two months.

JEDDAH: Too many errands, too little time? This is how MRSOOL co-founder Naif Al-Simri used to feel, so he decided to do something about it — and not just for himself.

Realizing that he was not managing to successfully juggle the demands of his job and his family, he started to think about how he could manage things better.

His thought processes eventually led him to develop MRSOOL, an app that helps consumers to transport goods from any store to their door. All consumers need to do is post their orders, and an MRSOOL courier will go to the store to pick up and deliver the desired items to them. 

“I used to work a lot and I was not at home. My family always needed something, but I could not do it for them because of work commitments. So I would suffer because I could not do their errands and also could not find a solution. The fact that I could not find a solution would upset my family,” he said. 

Thinking about the problem — and how it affected so many people in the modern world — triggered a lightbulb moment for Al-Simri. He came up with the idea of creating a platform that would deliver anything, without him having to leave the office and pick up his family. 

“If I had to run errands I would have to leave the office and take them (to the shops). That is like five trips, so I thought to myself what if I have someone who lives close by pick up what is needed on his way and make money by doing it,” he said. 

He started to outline his idea to some of his close friends who work in app development. He talked through whether they thought there was market demand for such a service and analyzed the challenges. As he threw around ideas with friends, he was starting to formulate a business plan. It was at this stage that he started to see the potential.

He discussed the concept with Ayman Al-Sanad (a friend?), and although Al-Sanad had come up against Al-Simri’s ideas before, and was cautious about practicalities, his future partner was impressed by the proposal. Nevertheless, Al-Sanad made some suggestions for tweaking the original idea. 

“I took Ayman’s feedback and went back to the drawing board. We were both working at the time so we would touch base on weekends to discuss our development and progress,” Al-Simri added.

The two future partners started working together to develop the application, which was eventually launched in 2015. Today MRSOOL serves the whole country and there are plans to expand to the GCC and Arab countries.

Not only is MRSOOL now ranked in the top 10 applications in the Kingdom, with a star rating of 4.8 out of 5, but it is even listed in the top 200 active applications by the US Apple store. 

Since 2017 MRSOOL has had more than 80,000 couriers across the Kingdom, potentially earning the couriers an average SR 10,000 ($2,700) within two months.