Qazafi Qayyum has headed TenX, an artificial intelligence software and solutions company, for the past four years. For 15 years previously, he had worked at Teradata, a US data and AI company operating in several countries, including Pakistan.
In a recent interview with The News on Sunday, he talked about how TenX is helping its clients, Pakistani as well as foreign, discover insights within their data and leverage those for their business growth and optimisation; how AI is disrupting the world; and the acceptance of AI in Pakistan. Excerpts:
The News on Sunday: Tell us about TenX and the work it does.
Qazafi Qayyum: Many companies these days are talking about the AI as a concept. Only a handful have demonstrated how it effectively generates benefits and adds value in their customers’ world. When we say that TenX is primarily an AI company, it’s because of the sort of work we do with our customers across the globe. We have a team of 25 data scientists working across the globe with AI leaders and businesses.
Arccos Golf, a TenX client from the US, for instance, is disrupting the market in the golf industry. We collaborated with them to develop models of AI machines based on data they are generating and came up with the concept of the world’s first AI caddy. It’s on the mobile phones that the golfers carry. This has disrupted the industry and the fact has been recognised by the likes of The Wall Street Journal, CNBC and Forbes.
TenX has also collaborated with an American biotech startup to reduce the time needed to test food samples for contamination from several days to a couple of hours. It wouldn’t have been possible to scale it across the US with conventional methods. But with our technique, you can scale across the US as well as globally.
TNS: Do you have expansion plans?
QQ: TenX was formed 11 years ago. Today, it employs 200 technology consultants and 25 support function staff. In the last four years it has branched out into the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. There are plans to set up another offshore delivery centre, like the one it has in Pakistan, in Estonia. We are also looking at the Middle East market, especially Saudi Arabia, since it is among the top three places in the world where technology is ‘happening’ currently.
Our objective is to grow our team in Pakistan and provide them with opportunities to work in areas where they can make a difference globally. At the same time, we want to provide them with the potential to expand their careers in or outside Pakistan so that they can receive recognition as top professionals in their field.
TNS: Please explain how data analytics is different from the AI?
QQ: Data analytics is all about how organisations – be they in the financial, government, telecom, or any other sector – can use the wealth of data that exists within their systems or elsewhere and leverage it to drive their decision-making for increasing revenue generation, cost optimisation and risk reduction, etc.
Today, every business generates digital data that contains many insights. The insights exist within that data. You have to use those answers or insights to improve your business decision-making rather than relying on gut feeling or raw experience. This helps you exploit the opportunities that you might miss out on if you don’t use the insights from your data.
AI is the next technology trend data analytics is branching out into. While data analytics draws out insights from data and feeds them to the organisations, AI informs them if human factors can be eliminated from, or augmented in their processes. Can robots or automated machines replace people sitting in a call centre and interact in a human-like manner with the customers? Most probably. In Pakistan, when you call a business or engage with them on WhatsApp, a bot is answering your call, but you won’t know it.
The second element is the augmentation of the human element. In healthcare, for example, doctors use AI techniques to detect cancer. The imagery – be it scans or MRIs or mammograms – is made available to AI algorithms. AI sees if a body has potential cancerous content or not and informs doctors of its opinion. Doctors then match that with their opinions and draw conclusions. Data shows that if you see success patterns of AI machines and doctors in isolation they are almost at par. But when you club the two together, the success ratio in predicting accurately is far better. This is what we call augmented intelligence.
TNS: Will AI completely replace human factors?
QQ: The general rule of thumb in AI is that any decision humans can make in three seconds or less is a very strong candidate for being replaced with a machine. A case in point is self-driving cars. That is why it is becoming a popular area where AI is taking over.
The impression that the AI will take over the world and all jobs will be lost is more fiction than fact because AI cannot mimic the human way of thinking and creativity.
TNS: What’s the AI acceptance level in Pakistan?
QQ: In terms of understanding that the AI is a reality, I think the acceptance is there. Businesses are realising that if they want to get value for their investment, they need to adopt AI tool to get the true value of technological trends and capability. So that awareness does exist.
However, there is more hype about the AI in Pakistan than actual understanding for using it to improve the businesses. One of the main reasons is that many potential AI-use cases are unproven. They have not been tried by businesses until now. So at this point in time, AI is also an investment and experiment for organisations.
TNS: What are the challenges of working in Pakistan for a firm like the TenX?
QQ: We face many challenges on a daily basis. Ease of doing business in Pakistan is something that every government has talked about. But as far as the execution is concerned very few things have actually been done. Pakistan, whether we like it or not, is seen as a high risk country by most clients from more mature markets like the US, the EU, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Every other customer or prospect we talk to has concerns about Pakistan because of its geographic location. The good thing is none of them have concerns about Pakistanis as people, culture or capabilities. We read and watch a lot of negative things said about Pakistan.
There is a street protest and internet connectivity goes down for three days. If my team can’t work for ten days a month, can I, as a business, live with that?
In the same way, electricity outages raise the cost of operations because you need backup generators. To comply with ISO or other advanced certifications you need backup sites to provide customers with business continuity. These are all challenges that we have to address.
We also need to work on our universities. The number of universities needs to increase and IT programmes need to be customised.
Another thing that has hit us in recent times is brain drain. A large percentage of those leaving the country are likely tech experts. It is easier for them to get jobs abroad. You can understand the negative impact it has on the industry.
The silver lining is that there is great potential in Pakistan. If we address these issues how much potential will there be then? We are exporting software worth $2.5-3 billion with these challenges. If we eliminate these obstacles $10 billion should not be hard to achieve. Some people have started talking about a charter for economy. I agree.
TNS: How can AI provide solutions to the government sector and improve its spending efficiency?
QQ: The potential for AI in government - from project planning to disaster response and management to policy making - is, maybe, higher than in any industry. I think government processes can be improved and made transparent with the adoption of technology and by using AI techniques. Pilferage of funds and fraud can be plugged. Globally, mature governments have already adopted AI and technology in these areas. They are better aware of how they can capitalise on data. In Pakistan, the awareness exists, but intention is lacking. We need to overcome that.
The writer is a senior Lahore-based economic reporter at The News International