Mention the phrases “artificial intelligence”, “machine learning”, or “neural nets” to any group of software engineers, and you’re bound to hear some commotion break out. In this day and age, the top tech players are all looking to utilize this type of technology in the products they produce. Every young budding software engineer is looking to break into these fields.

Artificial intelligence is, at its core, about building and scaling human minds. As a society, we want to make machines intelligent enough to where they can detect the subtleties that the human brain can detect. It’s not an easy task. That’s why here at Vietcetera, we decided to meet with Herve Vu Roussel, an IBM AI XPRIZE mentor, a Cornell alumnus and the current head of data engineering at AI firm Sentifi, to see what his thoughts are on the state of AI in Vietnam. We’ll be exploring the biggest players in Vietnam’s AI scene, the AI communities here in Vietnam, and the potential improvements for AI in Vietnam. Let’s dive in.

Herve Vu Roussel

What’s the state of AI in Vietnam?

That’s a complicated question. Unlike San Francisco or Montreal, Vietnam’s AI scene just isn’t at its full potential yet. We’re still growing and developing. Off the top of my head, there are a couple big players I can think of: Tinypulse and Trusting Social. Through the use of surveys, sentiment analysis, and natural language processing, Tinypulse aims to improve employee retention in companies. Trusting Social, I’d say, is a rising star. Partnered with Viettel, it has just raised a few million in funding. The concept behind Trusting Social is that it gives you a credit score based on non-traditional input values (frequency of which you pay your bill and how much of it you pay and other factors). It’s a lot of cool stuff.

Herve State of AI

I think, as of right now, Sentifi is still the biggest player in AI here in Vietnam though. As the most established AI company, we’re pioneering the field by using AI in non-trivial applications. Here at Sentifi, AI is used in our core product. In our data engineering team, we use machine learning, deep learning, and AI to analyze over one billion tweets every month in order to extract financial insights from “the crowd.” Essentially, we are bringing the social dimension to financial analytics, using what people tweet, comment, and post in order to help investors make decisions on their portfolio. What we do is actually a lot more nuanced, but this is just a simplified explanation. With Sentifi, what differentiates us from other top tech companies in Vietnam, is that the core product is developed here in Vietnam; all engineers, data scientists & product managers work on our cutting edge technology from our Vietnam office.

Herve Vu Roussel

I think, in the future, AI is going to be used to improve the quality of service here in Vietnam. For example, if we can get a functioning medical AI, then we can send xrays to that AI and have the same level of service that other nations have.

Are there any big AI communities here in Vietnam?

Unfortunately, no, there aren’t. There are a couple small Facebook groups, but the engagement is low. Actually, this past March, IBM AI XPRIZE organized the first ever AI event here in Vietnam.  More than a hundred people came to the event, so the interest is definitely there, but most people didn’t have enough background or hands on experience. We’re trying to promote AI in Vietnam, but it’s going to take some time.

I do a lot of work with AI XPRIZE, mentoring several teams here in Vietnam. XPRIZE is a nonprofit organization that hosts large scale competitions to improve the world’s knowledge. For the next 4 years, the organization is looking at AI to solve humanity’s biggest problems. There’s five million dollars prize money, and the winner will get a chance to speak at TED 2020; there is also a lot of technical expertise & resources, awesome marketing and branding that will help the XPRIZE teams. I want to send the message that Vietnam has potential, that we can emerge in this AI scene.

Herve State of AI

Regarding my work with XPRIZE, my main focus is on mentorship for Vietnamese teams. The teams I’ve mentored are currently working on a lot of interesting projects. One team for example, named Altoera, is looking to combine computer vision, hardware, and software to apply image recognition to detect pests in crops. We’re still developing the software side, but in the future, we want to have physical robots that can detect the pests and exterminate them, if necessary. Another project that one of my teams is working on is Dropdeck. Essentially, we’re trying to build a trust score to connect investors to startup entrepreneurs, in order to help foster transparency between startups and VC. It’s kind of like the Klout score, in that Klout measures influence and our score measure trust. We aim to lower the barrier for money transfer between investors and entrepreneurs. The end-goal is to foster innovative solutions for the problems in this world.

If anyone is interested in getting involved in the AI scene or getting involved with the work I do here at XPRIZE, please feel free to contact me through my LinkedIn or via my personal website: herveroussel.com.

What would you recommend for someone trying to break into the industry?

Try to find companies here in Vietnam and work for them. Do self-projects, and solve some Kaggle competitions. There are a plethora of resources online, especially on sites like Coursera, where they host courses from the top universities in the world. There’s really no excuse today for not being able to learn something on your own.

What’s holding back AI in Vietnam?

A big problem that we have with AI is that there is such a high barrier of entry. It’s normally required to put in a year or two of research, and there just isn’t enough manpower here in Vietnam – not enough data, machine learning engineers, data scientists. To add onto that, AI is still fairly new; there just aren’t a lot of companies here or even in the world. R&D can be very costly.

Another crucial hurdle that we need to overcome in Vietnam is our lack of data. When you talk about AI, data comes first. There just isn’t a lot of good data here in Vietnam. Even if you take a look at Google Maps, you’ll see that often times, not all the roads are mapped correctly. AI is a data driven field, first and foremost, so without good data, we’re at a dead end.

Herve Vu Roussel

Further, the incentive to develop AI just isn’t here yet in Vietnam. Since our labor costs are so low, it’s tough to justify implementing AI. Take, for example, security robots. If I were to sell my security system to you, it would probably be far much more expensive than just hiring security here in Vietnam. The cost benefit just isn’t here yet. In order to justify the investment in AI, the salaries of the workers here have to be higher.

On the upside, people are starting to take AI more seriously. If we look at Google, we’re seeing that it’s becoming an AI first company. What Vietnam can do is to put more programs for data engineering, data mining, and databases. It’s important, first and foremost, to foster communities here. Fortunately, tech moves fast. Ten years ago, I chose to focus on data mining and machine learning (subfields of AI) at Cornell, and I was searching for a job in AI, but there was honestly no way I was going to find one; AI was for academia and sci-fi movies. In these past few years, big companies are betting on AI and you see a lot more AI startups rise up.

Herve Vu Roussel

Are there any final thoughts you want to share?

Because of the hype, there are a lot of startups trying to apply AI to everything. I want to remind startup founders that solving a real world problem for a real customer is still the most important thing to do for startups (whether they use AI or not).

Who should we talk to next?

  • Loup-Sinh Rouan: he is leading the Altoera XPRIZE team. Altoera wants to use AI to get rid of pesticides in our food!
  • Anh Vo: he is leading the Dropdeck XPRIZE team. He has an inspiring story about how Dropdeck wants to solve the world’s future problems.
  • Definitely talk to Toan. He’s working on Perkfec, a startup that is helping other companies maximize employee performance through retention and incentives.