Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Thursday, April 18, 2024

CEO Demonstrates the Power of Education 

Dr. Sameer Maskey Credit: Fusemachines

If education is the great equalizer, then an education in computer science must be the most equalizing force currently available to humanity.  Computers are central to just about everything modern society does, and the people skilled with these machines can reach great heights regardless of where they come from.

Sameer Maskey’s story of triumph is a perfect example of what education can do for someone motivated to make a difference in the world. Originally from Kathmandu, Nepal, Maskey very little experience with the internet during his formative years. Now, he’s the founder and CEO of machine learning company Fusemachines, which provides a variety of AI products such as information extraction and fraud detection. He also serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University.

“Education has been transformative for my life,” Maskey said in an interview. “The only way to transform lives and make a change is through education.”

While his career accomplishments are enough to mark Maskey as a success, his desire to improve the education of underserved communities is evidence of the transformative power of computer science and AI.

Getting on the Right Track

Maskey’s voyage to becoming a tech business owner certainly wasn’t traditional. Growing up in Kathmandu, Nepal, Maskey stated that he didn’t have a computer at home. Although his aunt did give him access to an internet-connected computer, he had little experience with the technology before embarking on his educational journey.

After high school in 1998, Maskey decided that he wanted to travel to the US for college. He found a Peterson’s guide that listed all the schools he could apply to, and he made a list of the ones that gave full scholarships. Sometime later, he got a call from Bates College.

“They made a phone call to my house,” said Maskey. “We talked and they said, ‘just go to’ And at that time, I didn't really know exactly what that meant. I didn’t know every university has a website, you can go there, browse, find information.”

Upon arrival at his new educational home, Maskey found himself in the middle of the dot-com bubble. He remembers multicolored Macs everywhere in the library and the joy of discovering just how useful the internet could be. He said this is when his computer science journey started.

Based on some science fiction movies he’d seen in his youth, Maskey had a deep interest in language translation. This led him to research speech synthesis, and he would eventually build the first Nepali speech-to-text voice recognition system and a Nepali-to-English speech-to-speech translation system. Maskey would go on to earn a PhD in Computer Science at Columbia University, and would eventually work his way up to an Adjunct Associate Professorship at the university. This would lead to a job at IBM Watson, where he once again got to work on speech-to-speech translation.

The Journey to Business Ownership

Although he enjoyed his job at IBM Watson, Maskey knew he wanted to start his own company. So, in January 2013, Maskey quit his job and began asking himself what he wanted to build.

“I figured I know how to build a dialogue system because that's what I've been doing for 15 years,” said Maskey. “Think of a chatbot now, but in 2013 LLMs were not there. It was a very different way of doing question-answering systems and dialogue systems. And that's what I did. I sat down in my living room and wrote a ton of code and built the first version of our natural language dialogue system.”

With that, Fusemachines was born. What’s more, the company got off to a roaring start. Maskey acquired the New York City government as Fusemachine’s first client. The process was fast-tracked, as it was the last year of the Bloomberg Administration and they wanted the system to go live before he left office.

“It gave a completely false sense of how difficult sales is,” said Maskey. “With large enterprises and governments, signing a deal takes forever. Everything takes forever. But here, everything was fast-tracked. I didn't realize how hard sales is. Then we struggled after that for quite a bit of time because we had a false sense of how good we were in enterprise sales.”

Thankfully, Maskey and the rest of Fusemachines team figured out the industry and would go on to work with companies like Time, OTG, H&M, and more.

Giving Back

Although Maskey recognizes how hard he worked to get where he is today, he also acknowledges that he was extremely fortunate to receive his educational opportunities.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” said Maskey. “There are a lot of other kids in Nepal who are better than me, but they just didn't get lucky to get a scholarship to come to the US.”

Of course, Maskey is a problem solver and he decided to do something about this. In 2017, as Fusemachines began to collect a respectable clientele, the company provided a course from Columbia University for free to people in Nepal. The overwhelming response they got from these students made Fusemachines push the education program even further.

“The results were amazing,” said Maskey. “The students were as good as my students from Columbia. The completion rate was through the roof. So we went on to create what we call the Fusemachines Fellowship. We hired a team of about 20 engineers to create the content. We hired animators, videographers, and writers to create all the animations and videos to run a very full, organized class. Then we created our learning platform as well. And that became a flagship mission fellowship program that we run. We teach machine learning, deep learning, computer vision, and natural language processing as well as a foundations course in math as well.”

The Fusemachines AI Fellowship has since grown to a comprehensive six-month course that has been offered both for students in Nepal as well as Latin America. What’s more, Maskey is very proud to say that the course is completely free with no strings attached whatsoever. Students don’t even need to sign anything legally binding to join.

While this all ties back to Maskey’s belief in the power of education, it also goes beyond that. Maskey and the entire Fusemachines team believe in the necessity of democratized AI. He explains that this term means making AI resources accessible to everyone, including people in underserved communities.

This philosophy isn’t just about being kind to those who need a little help. Rather, it’s about making sure the world has access to the human talent that may be otherwise overlooked.  What’s more, Maskey isn’t solely focused on underserved communities in Nepal and Latin America.

“There's a lot of talent in rural America that needs to be addressed as well,” said Maskey. “And so if there's a conscious effort made to make that education possible, then I think it will make AI accessible to everyone. People will learn AI skills and they will start to build things for their own communities.”