Overseas-based Guyanese tech mogul invests in University of Guyana and local ICT sector
Impressed by the talents that exist within the local Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector, one overseas based Guyanese, who has demonstrated prowess on the world stage, has committed his efforts toward the development of the sector locally.
Dr Jason Mars, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Clinc, a company that is said to have created the world’s most sophisticated and comprehensive conversational Artificial Intelligence (A.I) platform for enterprises, has embarked on the establishment of a scholarship programme that would afford Computer Science Majors at the University of Guyana (UG) an opportunity to pursue PhD studies at the University of Michigan.
Added to that, he has also began networking with local tech companies, an interaction that has led to individuals being invited to train and work on a project for the Ford Motor Company.
In a recent interview with Sunday Stabroek, Dr. Mars, born to Guyanese parents Joan and Perry Mars, explained that though he was born in Jamaica, he spent several years in Guyana before migrating to the US at the age of eight.
It was during his schooling in the US that his interest in computer science was sparked and later manifested into what it is right now.
With a PhD in Computer Science from University of Virginia, the 35-year-old was recognized as one of the ten most innovative CEOs in banking by Bank Innovation. He is also a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, where he directs Clarity Lab, one of the best places in the world to be trained in A.I. and system design. Prior to the University of Michigan, Dr. Mars was a professor at the University of California San Diego. He also worked at Google, Intel and IBM. Dr Mars’ work building the world’s first open-source platform for constructing large-scale A.I. and deep learning-based Intelligent Personal Assistants (IPAs) has been recognised globally and continues to have a significant impact on industry and academia.
Clinc began as a research group at the University of Michigan under the name Clarity Labs Inc; a name which was later shortened to Clinc. The company was launched in July, 2015, with a mission to redefine experiences through Conversational A.I and presently has 100 plus employees, having doubled its staff only three months ago.
For those who may not be entirely familiar with the term ‘Conversational AI’, it is simply software that allows interaction through conversation, such as is the case with the popular Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant. However, the technology developed by Clinc is said to be much more sophisticated.
According to the CEO, the Clinc team has spent a lot of time building and growing the company and has offices in Michigan, San Francisco and London. Clinc also has customers on four continents, mostly with large enterprises in America, Canada, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Singapore. Its success as a company thus far is mirrored in the works it has done for enterprises such as Barclays Bank in the UK, Wells Fargo, Ford and other large companies.
According to Dr. Mars, while they would have placed a lot of focus on development of Conversational AI for financial institutions, they have since branched off. This decision has led to plans to re-launch the company later this year as they are able to support a number of different fields through the development of conversational A.I. for all experiences.
But even with all of this going on, Dr Mars says he is still very much interested in deepening ties with the local tech sector. The CEO explained that though he left Guyana at a young age, he still sees Guyana as home and as such, he visits often and is willing to assist in whatever ways he can to help with the economic development of the tech sector here. He explained that during his last visit to Guyana in May, he met with the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Guyana and was able to select two Computer Science Majors for the Scholarship programme.
“The beautiful thing about Guyana is that it has intellectual and energetic young people with fires in their belly to do good work,” Dr. Mars said, while expressing the belief that there needs to be more work in educational development in order for persons to be able to compete globally.
“I saw an opportunity to bring them to do studies at a top university in America”, the CEO said. He also expressed the hope of being able to make the initiative an annual occurrence.
Meanwhile, Sunday Stabroek was told that while the initial plan was to select only one person, because he was truly impressed by the talent he came across, a decision was made by Dr Mars to select two persons. They are: Christopher Clarke and Roland Daynauth.
Dr Mars explained that while Daynauth is expected to start later this year, Clarke will be applying at the end of summer and is expected to start early next year. Regarding the networking with local tech companies, Dr. Mars spoke highly of Version 75 Solutions (V75), a social impact focused software company in Guyana.
According to Dr. Mars, he connected with Eldon Marks, CEO and Founder of Version 75 Solutions, after asking around to meet leaders in the local tech sector.
Dr. Mars said he found particular interest in a V75 social impact project, for which Clinc has since offered funding.
It was further explained that because Dr. Mars was so impressed with the talent he saw, he invited Marks and two of V75’s team members to Ann Arbor, Michigan to undergo competency engineer training on his company’s AI platform. According to Dr. Mars, the duo has since been assigned tasks on a project undertaken by Clinc for the Ford motor company.
For his part, Marks told Sunday Stabroek that Dr Mars and his company bring “something different” to the table. He explained that while his company would have been contacted in the past by foreign companies, he found that they were more or less looking for cheap labour.
This, however, is not the case with Clinc, as they have shown that they not only value the work of the local tech community, but are also genuinely interested in giving back through exposure and opportunities.
Marks also confirmed that V75 team members Asa Brouet and Shemar Lindie have been assigned tasks in the completion of a project for Ford undertaken by Clinc, and he added that the men are thrilled to be working on the project, while adding that he continues to receive excellent feedback from Dr. Mars and his team.
“There is so much that can be done and it’s really sad to see that the talent does not have the ability to create value for the entire world. I saw an opportunity to create an avenue for those doing computer science so those resources can be funneled into Guyana,” Dr. Mars said.
“I will contribute to sparking and building the tech sector in Guyana. We are just getting started…We are excited about what we are doing and I am committed to investing in Guyana and helping to contribute to the economic development of the tech sector, so stay tuned,” he added.
Coding course launched to encourage more girls in ICT field
Over 40 young girls will over the next 12 weekends undergo training in coding as part of an initiative to encourage and nurture their participation in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) field.
The opening session of the Guyanese Girls Code programme, which is an initiative of the Ministry of Public Telecommunications in collaboration with the National Centre for Educational Resource Development (NCERD) and the University of Guyana (UG), was held yesterday at the Education Lecture Theatre at the Turkeyen Campus.
The programme is designed to teach Beginners Coding/Programming to Guyanese girls between the ages of 11 and 14. The goal of the initiative is to address the gender disparity in the Guyana’s ICT sector, where women and girls remain underrepresented.
“You are the chosen generation. You guys are going to transform Guyana with how you use and promote ICT”, Minister of Public Telecommunications Catherine Hughes told the participants during the welcome remarks.
Hughes said at last opportunities can be given to girls to ensure that they can fully participate in the important field. “So, today is really the start of a whole new journey that you girls will undertake, hopefully starting today, the experience will go with you through the rest of your lives,” Hughes said.
Hughes noted that this is important since usually when situations arise involving the use of computers and ICT, there is little or no involvement of girls, and “…we want to make sure that the girls are equally there.”
“Normally, we are faced with the question: where are the girls?” Hughes observed, while relating that sometimes in a room fill with about sixty people who are all computer graphic specialists or programmers or website developers or animation developers, there are only two girls.
She stated that in developed countries across the world, women can be seen operating at the “higher levels” and this should also be visible in Guyana.
“The great thing is more girls are doing well at high school, more girls are going into university, so we girls have got the capacity to do it,” Hughes continued.
She said that her ministry always believed that they had to make a change and “…that we had to train more of our Guyanese women to get into Information Technology. ICT is not only meant for boys and girls. Women are exceeding, exceling and they are leading in many ways.”
“There are so many facets of being a part of this ICT thing, not just the laptops, tablet, phones, all of that is part of the ICT agenda, so you have nothing to be bored about,” Hughes related while telling the young girls, “you have a wonderful opportunity, take advantage of it”.
Meanwhile, Penelope DeFreitas, Head of UG’s Computer Science Department and Lead Instructor of the Guyanese Girls Code Programme, said that the number of participants is overwhelming since only about 20 girls were catered for during a discussion of the plans for the project.
The curriculum will cover both theoretical and practical aspects, DeFreitas said. The theory, she noted, will be about 40 percent of the course and covers a range of topics, including the pioneers in computer science, practical applications of software and hardware in the real world, security and the responsibility when it comes to using technology, while the practical aspect will encompass a number of activities.
UG in major initiative to reform teaching-learning of computer science in schools
The University of Guyana’s Department of Computer Science is laying the groundwork to shift away from teaching Information Technology to the teaching of computing from the primary school level with the aim of fostering innovation and creativity, a co-promoter of a week of activities said.
“Beyond Word and Excel, let’s make something, let’s learn some coding, let’s build something,” UG Lecturer in Computer Science, Lenandlar Singh said of the week of activities Under the theme “Advancing Computing Education in Guyana”.
Eventually, he hopes that Guyana would be able to influence the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) to revise its syllabus. “If we make noise at the right level, we can influence CXC,” he said.
Dr. Sue Sentance of King’s College in Britain is expected in Guyana to facilitate a number of sessions with teachers, students and members of the public during March 18- 24 in Georgetown and Berbice. The teacher-educator and Doctor in Computer Science would be holding interactive sessions with teachers in Berbice at the John’s Campus of the University of Guyana on Tuesday, March 20 and on Wednesday 21 at UG’s Turkeyen Campus for teachers around Georgetown, East Coast Demerara, Cyril Potter College of Education and possibly a few from Lethem.
On Thursday, there would be a half-day session at Bishops High School and another on Friday for students at Queen’s College.
A public lecture is scheduled for next Thursday from 6 PM to 8PM at the Theatre Guild, Parade Street, Kingston and a public forum on “Gender in Computing” on Friday at 3 PM to 5 PM at UG’s Education Lecture Theatre. “There is a major gender issue,” the UG lecturer said, adding that there are issues related to security, harassment and lack of opportunities.
Singh emphasised the importance of training teachers modern techniques in computer education delivery from the primary level to help foster innovation among young people for a growth industry. “If you train your teachers well, we can build the Information society that we want. We need to change our curriculum to make it more relevant to be the creators of things rather than just being the users of things,” he added.
Singh said the Ministry of Public Telecommunications/ National Frequency Management Unit, Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company and the United Kingdom-based Farnell company would be teaming up to make the initiative a success.
The UG Lecturer said Farnell has donated to the Guyana initiative 20 BBC Microbits– a pocket sized computing device that offers its young users a level of programming accessibility- and plans are on stream to acquire more. The devices would be used to demonstrate programming skills to teachers and students.
The long-term goals include revamping the school’s curriculum and the teaching of computer science firstly in the primary school instead of in secondary school.
Singh assured that Guyana is increasingly having the required Internet access and hardware such as easier access to computers at home, school laboratories and Information Communication Technology (ICT) hubs to help revolutionise the teaching-learning of computer education.
- The University of Guyana