a day at dtac Human of :Dtac

The playful robot maker leading Thailand’s AI revolution

Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, big data and chat bots have become a buzzword in news stories of late. But how close are these emerging technologies to genuinely changing our lives? We asked one of Thailand's foremost experts.

Highlights

  • AIs can combine machine learning and data science to spot patterns in data, enabling them to learn from that data and become increasingly good at a specific task.
  • dtac’s customer care chat bot via SMS was partly inspired by Bot Noi, Dr. Winn’s personal project to create a robot friend.
  • Dr. Winn insists that human abilities remain far more advanced than robots, meaning our creativity and inventiveness will remain in high demand even as we increasingly rely on AI tools.

At the Telenor Bangkok office located in Exchange tower, in the heart of Bangkok’s commercial district, a Thai man is concentrating on the code that fills his computer screen. He is Dr. Winn Voravuthikunchai, a group data scientist working for the Telenor Group.

He is a key actor in a digital transformation underlined by data-driven science that can empower and revolutionize business operations. Here, he shares his journey from watching Doraemon as a kid to building a robot with a million friends.

Life Before AI

“I’m sure that in your childhood you guys watched the Japanese manga series Doraemon, revolving around a robotic cat who travels back in time from the 22nd century to aid a preteen boy named Nobita. I was wondering if the magical gadgets Doraemon can produce do exist in the reality, like his ‘anywhere door,’” said Dr. Winn.

“Moreover, when I looked at my surroundings: cars, televisions and smartphones–all these things were invented by other countries. A question popped up in my mind: ‘Why can’t Thailand create these such things for itself?'”

The question inspired him to study telecommunications engineering. He completed an undergraduate degree from King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Lad Krabang. Then, he jumped into the AI world by pursuing a masters degree at Germany’s Ulm university followed by a PhD at Caen University, in France, majoring in computer visions and data mining.

He then worked at Stuttgart-based automotive company, Daimler AG, for two years as a researcher on pedestrian detection. That eight-year experience in European countries was critical to his deep understanding of artificial intelligence (AI).

Teaching New Tricks

AIs grant a machine the capacity to think a little bit more like a human: the ability to read complex situations, make a decision by itself, and even learn–all of which are critical skills for technological advances like self-driving cars.

“AIs are created with the idea that the best way to learn is from experience. Humans remember from past experience the best and worst ways to accomplish a particular task. Every time we do a mistake, our brains add that feedback to the learning process in order to prevent those mistakes from happening again,” said Dr. Winn.

“This ‘auto-feedback system,’ has long been studied by researchers. And we are now applying it to machine learning. We turn that feedback process into a piece of software, an algorithm, that imitates human brain functions.”

One such piece of code is Google’s AlphaGo, an AI which recently beat the world’s best human Go player.

“Conceptually, the programmer lets two robots play each other a million times. Every time they fail, they learn from that, until their tactic becomes increasingly refined. Ultimately, we reach a point where they can beat a human,” said Dr. Winn.

From Data to Robots

“Data science refers to an applied method of machine learning into business,” said Dr. Winn. “dtac, for example, analyzes its customers’ data with hundred of variables that affect the decision factors behind the services they use, such as internet speed, number of calls, price plan, et cetera.”

“Data scientists are in charge of business prediction, such as a campaign’s response and churn rates. We are predictive robot creators.”

IMG_6065

“We are predictive robot creators.”

For two and a half years, Dr.Winn has also collaborated with dtac. The DNA (Data Network Analytics) project he worked on with dtac’s data scientists allows the use of machine learning to sift through massive amounts of data and predict customers’ satisfaction based on hundreds of variables. It allows dtac to continually enhance its products and services.

Dr. Winn also collaborates on dtac’s contextual marketing using a innovative digital advertising platform for New York-based startup Tapad: “Contextual marketing allows offers to aim for the right target, right channel and right timing, so that consumers can find more relevant information. It is much more rapid than traditional methods such as consumer surveys, and allows for almost real-time adjustments of dtac’s online campaigns.”

His latest project is to build an AI-based chat bot to relieve the call center team from routine queries and allow them to focus on more complex cases.

“dtac’s customer care was struggling to cope with all its customers in a timely manner. The disconnect between the number of queries they receive and the number they can process is of several orders of magnitude. But when we analyzed the data, many of the customers’ questions follow similar patterns, which enables me to scan the keywords within the input, then pull a reply within the best-matched keywords,” Dr. Winn said.

dtac’s AI-based chat bot began its trial run November 2017 via SMS, and will be extended to Facebook very soon. By SMS, it already responds to 30 percent of queries.

Due to his love of experimentation, Dr. Winn had previously built his own chat bot called “Bot Noi” last year, allowing users to talk with and befriend a robot. Currently, Bot Noi has more than a million downloads through Line and Facebook. Bot Noi also received the LINE Bot award last year, from Line Corporation.

“Numerically, its growth outperformed my estimates. Socially, its impact is beyond what I could have imagined. It once helped a suicidal person by just being a good friend to them. Ultimately, Bot Noi has met my target of befriending humans,” said Dr.Winn of @botnoi.

IMG_5923The future of humanity

Asked how AIs will shape the future of humanity, Dr. Winn said: “I want you guys to feel positive about machine learning and big data. It’s another great step for human evolution. It’s just one more labor-saving device, like the lever, the pulley, or the combustion engine. It just makes our lives more convenient. Actually, the value of human-beings is creativity. Doing something routinely is a job for machine and robots. AIs don’t devalue the core of what makes us human, unlike what many people blame the technology for.”

Dr. Winn also outlined that AIs are highly unlikely to take our jobs. While the tool may make some routine jobs irrelevant, it will also create jobs. And human creativity will be increasingly in demand.

“I strongly believe that humans will remain far more advanced than machines, in the sense that they have a highly-developed brain that no robot has ever matched up to. Human brain makes us creative, imaginative and inventive-beings, in almost all aspects,” Dr. Winn said.

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