For those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting this effervescent young technopreneur, here is a tip: it is probably best to make sure you are caffeinated and ready to keep up. Annabelle Kwok has the unflagging pep of a Duracell Bunny, and seems ever-ready to share an amusing anecdote.
For example: in junior college (JC), this computer science student taught herself to bypass the school’s firewall so that she could install computer games on her laptop and play them during class. Then, she learned how to run multiple operating systems on a single computer so she could toggle between her game and a more innocuous-looking home screen when suspicious teachers came looking. She shares this story while getting her make-up done for this shoot, provoking peals of laughter from the much-impressed Singapore Tatler glam squad. “It’s very easy, I can teach you,” Annabelle offers immediately. “If a kid like me back then could do it, anyone can. You just need to be motivated to play computer games.”
More laughter breaks out when she explains how she ended up studying applied mathematics at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Essentially, a JC teacher who wasn’t amused by her blatant gaming expressed doubts that she could do well in math, and this provoked her into not just applying herself enough to ace the subject, but also into declaring math as her university major. “The other reason was, I didn’t know what I wanted do in life. So I thought, I’ll just do math since it’s easy. I knew I had to finish university because that was important to my parents. So I saw it as a form of filial piety, but grades weren’t as important to me. My emphasis was more on living life to the fullest.”
She did do well though—first consulting for multimillion-dollar companies as part of the Innovation Immersion Program at NTU, then helping friends run a start-up and, most significantly, discovering her love for programming Internet of Things hardware. “When programming is linked to hardware, and you can see wheels moving and lights blinking, code becomes very physical and you can really see its possibilities.”
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A few hackathon wins and projects later, she found herself with job offers from major companies, and accepted one from e-commerce start-up Garena (now known as Sea). In 2016, she struck out on her own to launch SmartCow, which builds hardware for artificial intelligence (AI) processes. Then, last year, she left to found NeuralBay, an AI company that specialises in vision analytics software. The company’s consultancy arm works with clients to customise software for their businesses, which could range from capturing analytics on how well window displays spur customer engagement, to detecting suspicious body postures at high-security facilities.
There is another important component to NeuralBay that will be launching this year, and to explain it, Annabelle offers to first share her experience of the two months she spent in West Africa working with non-governmental organisations and university students on economic empowerment projects. “Malaria was very rampant there, but when I took out my mosquito repellent spray to use it, the people around me didn’t even know what it was. Because the people there couldn’t afford to buy such sprays, the shops didn’t sell them. And it really made me question why something so affordable to us was not reaching the people who need it the most.”
This desire to make useful things accessible for the people who need them is exactly why she wants to develop an online marketplace of more generic AI software for small- and medium-sized enterprises. Highly customised solutions may be out of reach for such businesses, and “I want to make it easy and affordable for smaller businesses to use AI, because if you just increase their profit by a bit, they can pay their staff more and that will make a bigger difference to lower- and middle-income families who want to, for example, give their kids a better education. There’s a big impact to be made there”, she believes.
“What we’re trying to do is make it so simple that no coding is required for you to use AI. That’s another belief that I have—good technology doesn’t require that much technicality for the end‑user,” Annabelle says with characteristic zeal. “You don’t need to know software coding to use a mobile app. You don’t need to know hardware engineering to use a laptop. AI software can also be very straightforward to use. That’s a sign of good technology.”
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