What I learnt on the journey of pursuing my General Artificial Intelligence dream

My Artificial Intelligence journey started when I was about 19 years old. I had set a clear goal to significantly contribute to the creation of General* Artificial Intelligence: in other words, to the creation of a machine that can think, reason and act intelligently as a human. During that time I was studying Economics and Management in the city where I was born, in one of good universities in Russia, in Siberian Federal University. The reason I had decided to study the Economics and Management was that I hoped to learn how to create and lead companies. I was inspired to do so by my activities in secondary and high school, where I participated in a lot of different activities in relation to information technologies, computer science, event organisation and my first start-up which I co-founded when I was 16.

* The word “general” in general AI” refers to the fact that the machine can perform any task, that it is not nailed to a particular topic.

By looking retrospectively, there were a lot of activities I participated in while being a schoolboy, and probably all of those activities contributed to my AI dreams in some way. I had been creating websites and writing software for free and for money. I participated in many sessions of summer schools where we, the pupils of 12-16 years old, were taught software engineering and management by making us “playing software development companies” for 5-10 days with our tutors “ordering” software and purchasing them with imaginary currency. When I was about 15, I was also given a great opportunity to manage a group of about 15 high school children for 2 years: we successfully developed educational software and websites and sold it to real customers. In addition to that, I co-organised beauty contests and short-story writing contests, as well helped to organise a big event of all-Russian school paper workshop by developing a web publishing system for it and supporting it all way through. Finally, in the last year of high school, I co-founded a startup as a “Chief Technical Officer” and that was the determination point for me choosing to study the Economics and Management.

I think it is also fair to say that I always studied hard when I could. I finished high school with all final A-s, and then got all A-s for my long undergrad degree which took 6 years. Both in school and uni, I also tried to participate in research as much as I can, starting with simple research topics like “What is the golden ratio? Let’s measure it on faces of my classmates” when I was around 14 years old (that was a real topic, actually), and doing more sophisticated research on economic topics when I was in the first two years of my bachelor’s degree in Economics and Management.

In the middle of my second year of studying the Economics and Management, I got “slightly stuck”. The startup which I was involved in, while being relatively successful, was not expected to grow and pivoted in a more conservative direction. I also understood that it is not possible to just learn how to be a “good manager”. I was really grateful for the great foundation in Economics and Management I got during my first two years of that bachelor’s degree, but I also understood that it is time to move. Around exactly that time the understanding that I dream about the artificial intelligence started to form in my mind. I successfully transferred to the Department of Mathematics, and started my bachelor’s in Mathematics as a second-year student again.

During one of those times, I did a very strong (as it came to my understanding much later) visualisation technique. I had the first version of the iPad during that time (which I purchased with the money I earned from all my ventures), and I drew and visualised something in line that “I see myself as one of the top grad students in the most strong universities where people work on the AI: Stanford, Oxford, MSU (Moscow State University), Cambridge, MIT, CMU, etc.”. I wrote the names of the universities very large, and used that visualisation for a long time, most probably even subconsciously for the most of it.

I studied hard. I focused on the math and computer science. I visited 5 summer schools (two of which were organised by Microsoft Research) on different sub-areas of the artificial intelligence during one summer. I almost won the 1st place for one competition, but then due to the mistake on my part got only the 4th place. Then, I won 1st place at another competition at the next summer school.

During the next year of studying Mathematics, I started dreaming of going as a visiting research student to one of those universities. I looked through all possible pages of those uni websites, which describe all info about visiting student programs. I explored all opportunities in terms of getting scholarships for that. I emailed different research groups that were of interest to me. I got an offer from the CMU subject to me getting a Russian scholarship for being a visiting student there, but I had to decline that offer because I was anxious that if I go there, I would, quite probably, have to serve in the Russian army on my return in one year (there is a mandatory conscription in Russia, and I would lose the “conscription deferment”, to which all uni students are entitled, because I already moved from the Department of Economics to the one of Mathematics).

Around that time it happened that I travelled to Boston (and hence first time to the US) to represent my first startup as (almost ex-)cofounder. During that time, I had a chance to meet with researchers from MIT. That meeting happened thanks to my previous attempts of trying to find a place for me as a visiting student. The topic was very interesting, the people were keen to consider working with me as a student, and probably I was very (genuinely) convincing that I can be a “valuable” student, and after my trip in January 2012, the successful online collaboration had been happening for several months, with me already doing some minor research remotely.

During that winter-spring 2012, I also got accepted into the summer school in one of the leading Swiss universities, École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). I applied there a year before but was rejected, but this time I got accepted even for two programs there, and it was a hard choice to make between them. The end of winter, spring and early summer of 2012 was very intense, because I had to study hard, work on my research remotely at MIT, and also prepare the documents for the scholarship which was supposed to pay for my year as a visiting student at MIT if I go. Around that time I also decided to take the possibility of going to the army under the mandatory conscription once returned back to Russia. When I say the possibility, I think it is fair to say that I also mean the risk, because I was afraid of going to the army. That is because the idea of killing somebody when somebody else commands did not exactly align with my mentality.

In June 2012, 3 weeks earlier than the summer program was supposed to start at EPFL, I arrived to Lausanne and started doing my research there as it was pre-agreed with the hosting lab beforehand by email (I paid for my 3-week accommodation myself from my earned money, because I was so keen to start doing AI research).

The 3 months at EPFL and then 12 months at MIT (I got the scholarship and went to MIT) were truly “magical” months. Almost all I did, was just the research. It was just the exciting research done in collaboration with other people who are also so excited about the science, artificial intelligence, machine learning and everything else related. It was a fantastic time in fantastic places, with almost every minute spent thinking about the research and AI, as well as actually doing and hacking all it. Last night before the project presentations in Switzerland, I slept on the wooden pallet (designed for testing robot gaits and smooth their falls) in my EPFL lab, because I had to finish my experiments and prepare the poster for the next day. As for MIT, I think I spent about 30 nights in the lab during that 1 year period, doing some research. Looking back, I could not say that was particularly healthy, but it was extremely exciting and helpful in my research.

Somewhere around December 2012, when I was at MIT already for 4-5 months, I started thinking where I should go next. The obvious path was to go back and finish my degree in Russia, but I was thinking if there might be any other alternatives to continue doing the AI research. I was looking on the internet, searching for other places where I can do some research, but for somebody who did not finish a bachelor’s degree, it was pretty hard. I looked into other visiting student programs in other universities, including Oxford University, but all of that was very expensive and I did not have money to do it and did not know where to find it. I remember I felt really desperate and lost because of that.

We often hear about the power of visualisation and dreams. There are so many methods and techniques, but the main idea of them all is that if you want something, then you should desire that as much as you can, many times; you should visualise it; you should have very strong feelings about it. By that point, it already worked for MIT, and it was going to work for Oxford even though I did not know about that yet…

In a few months later, I met at MIT with a professor who was going to start working in Oxford. Maybe it is slightly selfish to say, but I think it might be fair that because of my quite hard work at MIT, I was an interesting student candidate, and after some collaboration at MIT, there came an opportunity to work in Oxford in the lab of that professor.

When people talk about the visualisation technique, it is not often the case that they mention another important thing. It is not enough to just being visualising your dream many times and with a lot of effort. It is also important to work hard, to actively look for opportunities, and to try, try and try. And, the last, third, important component is the luck. If you are on the path to your dream, it is important to understand that the luck plays an important role. A chance might bring you closer or set you farther from your dreams. If the latter happens, it does not mean that you should give up. It just means that you should continue working hard, enjoying it, relaxing from time to time to recharge (and this is very important, even crucial I would say), and trying again. The good thing about the luck though is that even she is shy, she can always get attracted to you if you are trying to catch it.

Thanks to the visualisation, my hard work, luck, and probably most importantly to the people who supported me (most importantly the professor who invited me to work to the lab), I spent 3 wonderful years in Oxford. It was magical, but slightly different sort of magic than at EPFL in Switzerland or at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The different sort of magic in Oxford started straight away, even before my arrival there. I had probably worked too hard at MIT, and also got in “hard” love by the end of my presence there, such that I got really sick during my last day in the US. That last day was full of “adventures”, because I was trying to get my passport with my visa to study in Oxford in New York for 5 hours navigating between different embassies, but that is a different story altogether. In any case, I got terribly sick on my last day in the States, and in that shape I travelled to India, where I was supposed to tutor Russian and Indian school children about computer science and mathematics in Pune, and then meet with the AI researchers at Microsoft Research in Bangalore. While I was able to do both activities at the end, first 3 days in India I was really sick. Partially recovered, I came to the UK, to Oxford, but then I was occasionally sick for about next 2-3 months.

Obviously, my time in Oxford was not all about being sick. It was still time full of magic, including AI research and feeling like a Harry Potter. The city, the university and the colleges are truly magical, and the AI research is the state-of-the-art. However, for a lot of time in Oxford, my focus has unintentionally switched to the love which ultimately resolved itself, as well as my searches for the God and findings of what it might mean, and understanding that money and family are very important. The time spent in Oxford was not just effective in terms of learning AI, but maybe it was even more important in starting understanding how the world works, becoming mentally stronger (and my first counselling sessions provided by the university helped in that) and becoming more mindful.

I still was that person who was so excited about the general artificial intelligence, about the possibility of creating a software (and maybe a hardware) that can think and do things like a human, I still was excited of fathering an AI (and maybe even procreating in that way), but my focus partially shifted to other things.

I understood that while contributing to the creation of the general artificial intelligence is a unique and be-first-to-invent grand challenge, this goal is not necessarily the only one.

There are already more than 7.5 billion people on the Earth, more than 7.5 non-artificial intelligent beings. My dream has been to create a general AI, but it is just one more intelligence added to that big number of billions. However, most probably that AI will also suffer, it will need energy, it will have its own needs and desires.

I also understood that there is so much that can be done already to help other people. For example, simple technological applications, like washing machines or irons in the past (although, regretfully, still not all people have access to them yet). Generally, I understood that there are enough technological advances and enough resources to provide any living being on this planet with comfortable shelter, healthy food, safe environments, reliable transportation and opportunities for education and labour in the areas of their interests. And, very importantly, all of this requires also applications of “culture” and “arts”. The technology is not enough, we need humanities.

It struck me at some point that while I was trying to invent a general artificial intelligence, there is so much can be done to help us to rewrite our own programs of our lives. Good fiction and non-fiction books and stories help us to reprogram ourselves, to become culturally richer and feed our souls, as well as help to become more efficient in our professions.

The great books, like the Bible (both the old and new testaments), Quran, the books of Buddhism, the works of Mao Tse Tung, Harry Potter, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and many others, all of them shape our lives every day. They define our programs as (hopefully) general (but non-artificial) intelligent beings.

I understood that there are a lot of opportunities to help others, both by applying the technology, as well as helping the cultural developments.

Am I still dreaming about the artificial intelligence? Definitely. One reason I found a possibility for myself to slow down in terms of working on the general AI days and night all along, is that I know there are be bright students, scientists, inventors and many big corporations who work almost purely on the general AI every day (and sometimes every night).

I also try to contribute to it as much as I can, of course, although it is fair to say that my focus has shifted more to the specific applications of machine learning and artificial intelligence, in particular to data analysis and predictions (e.g. as in part in my startup which I had co-founded after finishing my Master’s in Oxford) and for medicine and human well being, as in my current job at Babylon Health. I have been truly calling it my dream job, because I am able to apply the state-of-the-art methods, together with my colleagues, with a great mission to provide affordable and accessible healthcare to everybody on the planet.

This has been an exciting journey towards the general AI. I think it is fair to say it has been possible because of my loving family, the great people who have been helping me all my way, who supported me and taught me, the great colleagues who have been working with me.

One of the most important lessons I learnt is that everything is possible. If you focus on it, if you look for the solutions and opportunities, you can get there. It allowed me to get all this experience I can apply today to advance the AI and its medical applications. It allowed me to study and practise the Economics, Mathematics, Computer Science and other fields in Siberian Federal University, MIT, Oxford, and got a fully funded PhD position in Stanford (although the last opportunity I had not been able to use; but that is another story why).

That is, it is worth repeating many times, that everything is possible. You just find a way to get it. It takes time, it takes energy, but anything is possible.

Of course, the way should be an honourable one. It is why culture and humanities, meditation and the God are so important. You get everything, but you must be sure you are getting a right thing in a right way.

It is also important to remember that no matter how high you have got, it is also possible to fall down. This actually means two things. First, due to a chance, you might lose anything, but there are the integrity and honour which you still can keep. If you have integrity, then it is alright. There are no guarantees in this world, but as far as you have integrity and optimism, there is a high chance for you to rise again.

However, if you lose the integrity, even if you are at the very top, then it is a real problem. Once the integrity is lost, then it the fall is, most probably, imminent. It is very hard to get back, and the path of full of sincere repentance, in soul and in deals.

In addition to falling down, there might be times of depression or temporary fallbacks and hardness, although the duration might be of different length. The dark times come, but if you are strong mentally and if you know how to live (i.e. following good psychological hygiene, the principles of economy, looking for opportunities and using them), they also go away.

To get to your dreams, you must invent. You invent for your own sake, because you get money and other resources, as well as for the sake of others. If you invent something useful, people will benefit. The benefits for you and for others are related, of course, since as far as the people benefit from your invention, you usually benefit as well.

To get to your dreams, you must keep going. Keep inventing. Keep working. Keep relaxing. Keep growing, spiritually and professionally. Only if it is the real end, like a bullet just literally went through your heart and you have only 5 seconds left, accept the finality and the death. Otherwise, if it is not that final like a bullet or anything else definitely final, keep going and keep growing. Smile and accept the world as it is, and try to improve it. If there is no brain power for you today to invent, just work. If no power to work, just relax and prepare for tomorrow.

In short, these are things I would like to keep reminding myself and maybe it might be useful for somebody else:

  1. Improve your skills. Learn, study and practise.
  2. Feel that everything is possible.
  3. Have your honour, be with the God, and be responsible.
  4. Work on good things with great people with a good mission.
  5. Imagine and dream about what we can achieve (i.e. anything). We can be in control of our lives. We can live in harmony with our environment and the planet. We can make the lives of ourselves and people around us better. We can invent new technologies and make the world a better place.
  6. Work hard, but don’t overwork. Work smart. Look for and use opportunities, of which there are myriads.
  7. Work in teams, together with other people. Unless you are the top boss (or self-employed), respect your boss and hierarchy, or if not possible, find another one.
  8. Remember that the life is very short. There are like 30-50 years of “default” active life on average (that is, before you need a boost in terms of resources, etc.).
  9. Love and be loved.
  10. Practise meditation and mindfulness. Practise the acceptance but don’t confuse it with ignorance or disability to act. Aim for nirvana. The real way to practise and be mindful should not be hard. There are basic principles available if you seek. Seek.
  11. Be in a good shape of your body and spirit. Have a clean environment.
  12. Accept that the resources (willpower, time, money, influence, brain power, power, etc.) are limited. Acquire and create more resources in a fair way.

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Thank you very much.