Fast Five with Ben Akres

Ben Akres joined Rokt as a Machine Learning Engineer he studied a Bachelor of Advanced Science and Arts, Applied Mathematics at UNSW. Ben has since worked as a data analyst and has tutored students in mathematics. To find out why Ben is passionate about AI and why he thinks young Australians should be skilled and educated in it, we put these Fast Five questions to him.

What appealed to you most about a career in AI?

I have a long-standing interest in science fiction and have always been interested in abstract questions about whether machines could surpass human intelligence generally. I also studied applied maths and philosophy at university, and it was then that I realised a career involving AI could be the ideal intersection between these fields! This is because it allows me to apply my mathematical background in building models which solve real world problems, all while working in a field with profound implications to the future of society.

What aspect of AI are you most interested in or passionate about?
I am most interested in the modelling side of AI, as I find the idea of relatively simple models that can learn complex patterns to be deeply compelling. There is always something exciting about training a new model and seeing it perform well on data which was not originally in its training set. My interest in this side of AI has its roots in my mathematical background, as this process of training models can be viewed as a numerical optimization problem, where you are searching the model’s parameter space in order to approximate the optimal function for performing a given task.
In your daily life, what are the positive impacts of AI that you see playing out in our society?
One area where AI is already having a massive impact on our lives is in solving the “relevance” problem in online content. Most of the largest applications and websites in the world today (e.g. Facebook, Google, TikTok, etc.) rely on AI in order to show you highly relevant and targeted content that you are likely to enjoy and engage with. In many ways this is a similar sort of problem to the one tackled by the Relevancy – Data Science team at Rokt. Another area where AI is likely to have a positive impact over the coming years is in automating tasks that are dangerous or high-risk for humans to perform. For example, once self-driving cars are having accidents at a lower rate than human drivers we can vastly reduce the number of deaths on the road by embracing the shift towards AI.
Why do you think it is important to empower young Australians with access to AI education?
Over time AI is likely to play an increasingly large role in many aspects of our lives, so it would be highly beneficial for young Australians to have a strong education when it comes to these skills. One obvious reason is the demand for engineers to build the next generation of AI systems; however, we also need a broader population who has a basic understanding of AI so they can grapple with the border legal, ethical and societal implications of this technology. For example, self driving cars, automation in the workforce, and issues surrounding echo bubbles on social media platforms are all broad societal issues which will be best solved by having a population that is well versed in AI and all it involves.

What advice would you give young Australians who want to learn more about and eventually work in AI?
If you would like to work in AI my top tip would be to work on your own projects or hobbies outside of school or university. There are plenty of resources online to help you get started, and surprisingly little experience is needed to begin training your own models. Just start building things and see what areas interest you to pursue those further. The rang of problems that can be tackled by AI is absolutely huge- from language processing, to object detection in images, to predicting stock prices- so there is no shortage of interesting projects to get started on!

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