By Sharon Tan
What got you started on Artificial Intelligence (AI)?
When I was in RI, I did an internship at the National University of Singapore (NUS), where I worked with some professors on a project in AI. I thought it was so astounding that you could write computer programs that would learn by themselves. The idea that you could build intelligent machines to take away a lot of the routine work just amazed me. Partly as a result of that early internship, I wound up getting involved in AI and I’ve been working on it ever since.
Tell us a bit about your work in AI.
Most of my work in AI is about building smart machines and a little bit of it is making its way into education. Frankly, it’s not that much. So in AI, the thing I’m excited about now is building artificial neural networks. The human brain learns by having billions of neurons and so artificial neural networks are computer simulations which are loosely inspired by how we think the brain would work. These neural networks are the best technique for speech recognition and for solving most problems in computer vision today. The speech recognition software on your Android phone is built on top of a neural network technology that I developed. It’s a very exciting technology.
We understand that online education is another great passion of yours. Where do you see education being headed, given all these advances in educational technology?
The online platform is a great way to provide content. I think that far too many teachers today at all levels are spending their time, year after year, walking into the same rooms and delivering the same lectures. I was doing the same thing in Stanford—I’d even tell the same jokes each year! I don’t think this is the best way for us to serve our students. If we want to provide content to our students, that’s often better done via the Internet—which, ironically, can be more interactive than large lecture halls.
Thinking back about my experience in RI, I had some inspiring teachers whom I had wonderful conversations with, and I remember the teachers that, for some inexplicable reason, took me under their wings and found the patience to answer all of my incredibly stupid questions. I still have no idea why they had so much patience to deal with me.
What we’re doing today is that we’re making the instructor spend too much time giving lectures and grading manually. Why do students like you come to Stanford? I think it’s not solely for the content. Content is increasingly free on the web anyway. Stanford delivers an extraordinary experience through the professors and the other students. By using websites to automate grading and lecture delivery, our professors can devote more of their time to interacting and having one-on-one mentoring with students.
What kinds of changes would you make to Singapore’s education system?
Honestly, I really admire Singapore’s education system. It taught me what an impact amazing teachers could have on their students. I think the whole world looks to Singapore for inspiration. That said, I think we should offer our teachers more support. I would love to give teachers better tools. For example, the flipped classroom format is one where students obtain their lesson content online, thus freeing up the instructor from manual grading and content delivery. It’d be a worthy thing to do. But I think NUS has been a huge innovator in pedagogy and teaching tools, and together with the National Institute of Education (NIE), deserves credit for all of these talented educators in Singapore. I admire both institutions.
What was your experience as a student in RI like?
I was really fortunate to have gone to Raffles. Many of the friends I met there turned out to be life-long friends. I think the wonderful teaching I received was what set me down of the path of academia. The extracurricular activities too—playing in the Chinese Orchestra, playing rugby—those are the experiences I remember and cherish. I think Raffles is fortunate to have the resources to provide its students with these kinds of experiences.
One teacher from RI that I still remember well after all these years is Mrs Nora de Silva, who was my form teacher and who taught Literature. Thanks to her, there’re random Shakespearean quotes that I still remember and love today! She really opened my eyes to the world of the arts, which today form a significant part of the courses that Coursera offers too.
What motivates and inspires you?
At Coursera, what motivates me the most is helping the needy in civil society. I taught my first Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) out of Stanford as a free class. I actually got emails from a lot of people saying, why did you do this for free? You should have charged $5 for this, anyone could afford that, and it’d be very lucrative. But what is a cost of a latte to you and me, is far beyond the means of a poor kid in India or in Africa. They not only do not have $5, they don’t even have a credit card. To prevent them from accessing great online courses would just be a tragedy. I think that online education would contribute a lot towards improving everyone’s quality of education.
Is empowerment through education your way of levelling the inequality we face in the world?
This is a story I don’t often tell. Some months ago I was at a party with a bunch of friends. After everyone had left, it was just one friend and me, sitting on the floor. In the course of that conversation, my friend started taking $10 and $20 bills out of her wallet and counting them out on the floor to see if she had $700 to pay her community college tuition fees. It’s very jarring image to see your friend counting bills on the floor—it’s one of those images that sears itself on your eyeball. This happened right here in our backyard in California.
I want everyone to have access to a great education. I think that if we could provide a great education to anyone in the world for free, the world would be a much fairer and more interesting place. I want one’s success to be determined only by guts, hard work and strength of will, and not by the wealth of one’s parents. I want every child to have a chance, which many don’t today.
What do you think is the biggest challenge standing between you and that goal?
Our biggest challenge is to reach out to the neediest in society, including those who have no access to food or an Internet connection. We are talking to some NGOs that work to use Coursera as a justification to invest more in infrastructure in underdeveloped areas. Previously, if you give kids in Africa an Internet connection they might use it to read Wikipedia articles, which is pretty good. But now they can take courses from Stanford and Princeton, and that’s amazing.
Honestly, thanks to Coursera, I think the cat is out of the bag. It’s now clear that it’s possible for one professor to teach 50,000 students. This changes the economics of education. We often think about human rights as the right to vote and the right to free speech. With MOOCs, I think we have the resources to deliver a great education to everyone. It’s a matter of whether we, as a society, can find the moral courage to declare this as a fundamental human right.