Belsat.eu has interviewed Valer Tsurykau — a businessman, a scientist, and an expert in the field of artificial intelligence. Valer told us why he came back to Belarus from the USA and why his new project “True Machina” will change the world.
You had been lived in the USA for over 20 years before you decided to leave and create “True Machina” in Belarus. This decision may seem strange to an outsider. What caused it?
Historically, my first project — “The Inventing Machine” — was created by our team in Minsk. For 20 years, while this project was independent, several hundred people grew up and received their training here. When a new project is launched, you need people, a highly intelligent human resources. And, not surprisingly, Minsk is the best city in the world for this. A lot of people trained to create artificial intelligence can be found in Minsk. This is the main reason.
Probably, the human resources are also cheaper here …
No, there is no significant difference any more. Indeed, in Silicon Valley they are more expensive, but, for example, in the state of Colorado, such specialists cost about the same as in Minsk.
They say that by the time you left for Boston in 1991 your team had occupied almost 95% of the Soviet republics’ market. Why did you leave at that moment? The Soviet Union was collapsing, new opportunities were arising, and you were in fact a monopolist in the field of the AI development…
I went to where there was a consumer. And in the former USSR, the economy was disappearing, and no one needed a search for new ideas. With petrodollars readily available, it is easier to buy ready-made technologies. That is, here the market was disappearing. And there were 45 people, my students, I also felt responsible for them. Thus, we spent all the profit on the tickets and the first weeks of staying in the USA. The US was in recession at the time, and it was very difficult there. My wife and I could afford to buy coffee at a cafe once a week. But the US is special in a way — you will not get bored there. The life is very dynamic. Later, I often came to Belarus, and for the last three years I have been living here permanently.
What surprised you most on your return to Belarus?
The IT industry has grown a lot. Naturally, there is both positive and negative side to this. The positive is that high-level professionals can now be found in all areas. The negative is that they are working on the principles of outsourcing, and this is bad for the creative potential.
How did the idea of “True Machina” appear, and what is its essence?
In 2013, I created the company called “Predizo”. It is a resident of the High-Tech Park. In fact, “Predizo” has become an intellectual incubator, where the main topic is a computer that synthesizes something new in various fields. Then came the idea of “True Machina”, and this was already a new level. If we make this system, it will completely change the way that engineers and scientists invent and introduce new technology. Now, if you want to create something new and better, you study the relevant industry, examine new patents, experiment, talk with colleagues. In short, you are looking for new ideas everywhere. After the full knowledge base in the “True Machina” appears, it will look like this. You enter the system, enter a query: what is new, for example, in the expansion of the frequency band of portable voice recorders. And the system will give you completely new ideas, which it has created. You will choose what you like from what she has offered. This is how a new project will arise. The computer is becoming a creative partner of creative intelligence. A person can clarify, complicate, refine something, but the concept has already created by a computer based on the latest scientific knowledge.
What kind of investment does such a development require?
Approximately $ 600 thousand is needed for the seed capital, which will be used to create the first version of the system. The rest we will leave for crowdfunding. There are a lot of “Inventing Machine” users in the world, and they have money. They will buy shares of this company. This is how we plan to get another 20 million to create a system. We need a very large knowledge base, more research is needed. But this is a relatively inexpensive project. A startup in marketing can get an investment of $ 200 million just to sell more mattresses.
How many people are working on the project?
Six people, full time. This is enough to make the main part.
When will “True Machina” be ready?
I think at the end of the first quarter we will receive a part of the investment, and in the middle of 2020 we will announce that “True Machina” exists. But it is a process.
How can artificial intelligence affect human life?
Artificial intelligence is now a fashionable business, it is actively used in marketing. But it is used only to make you, already having four mattresses, buy yourself a fifth. But creative artificial intelligence is quite something else. It creates something new, be it in literature, in scripts, and in music. The creative system is a huge leap. What we once did will now be created by the AI. People will be present there, but less and less. What will happen next? I think that there will be a new civilization, it is born before our eyes. Have you heard about the Alan Turing test? A true AI is created when, communicating simultaneously with a machine and a person, you cannot understand which is which. But I propose an anti-Turing test: artificial intelligence must create a product that a person may not understand. This is where it is all heading.
Will AI need people at all?
I’m not talking about a new civilization for nothing. In civilization, there are various layers and groups that operate at different levels. Each group has its own world, and they almost do not overlap. They need each other, but have little communication with each other. If intellect is created above ours, they will have their own world.
How comfortable are, in your opinion, the conditions for creating and implementing start-ups in Belarus?
You know, in 2010, when start-up week-ends were first held in Belarus, it was very interesting! It was a show with an obscure ending. None of the IT startups won. But brick plants did. Investors and consultants voted for them. When I said that we needed intelligent high-tech systems — everyone reacted with a smile. And then came the IT boom. The environment was ready. Now, there is no difference between launching an IT start-up in Minsk or in Stockholm. It’s just that we have fewer investors of our own.
Have you ever felt that foreign investors are afraid to invest in a project that is being developed in Belarus? We like you, but if you didn’t work in the “last dictatorship of Europe” …
As for the image, we here think that the image of Belarus in the world is very bad. In fact, there is another problem — they do not know us. In the States they sometimes asked me: Is Belarus in South Asia?” They don’t know. There’s simply no image. But in the engineering and inventive environment, the image of Belarus is very good. Take “Motorola” — all their developers use the software created in Minsk.
The IT sector in Belarus shows excellent results, this sector of the economy grew by 40% over the year. But what will happen next? What should be done to make Belarus truly an IT superstate?
It is a strategic issue. We cannot stop. A lot of people are complaining about education. The number of computers is growing rapidly, and the number of smart people is growing slowly. The demand for talent will only increase. Therefore, we need to invest in people. In the ideal world, the BSU or BSUIR would announce: a Stanford professor is coming to read a course. We do not have this exchange of intellectuals, we really need it. When a new trend appears, the leaders of this trend should be invited to lecture us. Education should be more dynamic.
The main problem that business community has with the Belarusian authorities is the lack of independent courts and selective application or non-application of the law. How strongly is this problem felt?
Well, it does exist, of course. I wish that it didn’t. I want the business community to be better protected. For the system to be perfect, there should be separation of powers, courts, etc. But we must understand that we are still in a transitional period from an absolutely slave system, which existed in the Soviet times. Nevertheless, we can now buy a ticket to Vilnius and fly anywhere…
There is an eternal dispute about how much economic development depends on the level of democratic freedoms in the state. Some mention the experience of Western democratic countries. Others mention China or Singapore. Which model is closest to you?
There must be freedom for people of ideas and finances. I am for it. Take Finland, for example. In the times of the Russian Empire, it was an absolutely poor province. Now the Finns have the highest level of education in the world. You come there and get surprised by elegant architecture, high standard of living, the development of hi-tech industry. They achieved this by choosing the typically Western model of development. But Singapore is a different example. It turns out that an enlightened authoritarian regime can also achieve good results. However, personally, I would like to have more freedom.
By Ihar Ilyash, belsat.eu