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Always choose to get out of your comfort zone – Interview with the first CAIO at FPT Software, Dr. Phong Nguyen

Always choose to get out of your comfort zone – Interview with the first CAIO at FPT Software, Dr. Phong Nguyen

HANOI, Vietnam, March 30, 2022 /PRNewswire/ — Six years ago, Dr. Andrew Ng (Founder, Landing AI) recommended companies to hire a chief AI officer. In 2020, IDC’s report called AI “Inescapable — by 2025, at least 90% of new enterprise apps will embed AI”. As AI is increasingly adopted in companies’ business and operation, the demand for professional AI leaders has soared, with new positions opened in the top companies hoping to gain a competitive advantage.

“Hiring the right AI leader can dramatically increase your odds of success,” said Dr. Ng. Such is the expectation of FPT Software and Dr. Xuan Phong NGUYEN – its newly appointed Chief AI Officer. After 23 years in the IT field, the top IT company in South East Asia is looking to usher in new changes as it hires the business-major-turned-data-scientist and applied AI researcher to create new achievements in the AI field.

Tech journalist Dzung Duong had the chance to conduct an interview with Dr. Xuan Phong on his journey to become the first CAIO in a global IT company.

FPT Software first Chief AI Officer - Xuan Phong Nguyen
FPT Software first Chief AI Officer – Xuan Phong Nguyen

Learn from the best

Started coding at the age of nine under his father’s guidance, Xuan Phong switched to business major for his bachelor’s degree only to turn around and get his master in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University (US).

“Once aiming to be an entrepreneur, I then realized that technology and engineering would open doors for me into various industries.”

He firmly believes in getting out of the comfort zone, a path that led him away from the US – the capital of global tech – to across the globe in Japan for PhD at Tokyo University. He was accepted into Hitachi research laboratory to witness AI development at the cutting edge, where he gained both knowledge as visiting researcher at Mila AI Institute and honed his skills in applied science as part of Hitachi staff.

“The top tech labs in the world are the brains of all billion-dollar companies, where they create most of the world’s innovations and solutions. They have an extremely effective and methodological framework from theoretical research to applicational products,” said Dr. Phong.

“For example, they can divide up departments to solve problems with different long-term and short-term visions. This ranges from what will affect human life 20 to 100 years in the future, to the next ‘big’ products you will hold in your hands next year.”

Dr. Phong worked at the department with a vision for the next 3 to 5 years, in the context of AI and data booming and what humans will be able to do with it. He did research in factory automation entirely operated by AI without any human support; and smart traffic with AI delivering forecast and observation. In more realistic approaches, he created algorithms for manufacturing automation in the robotics field, and in the smartphone business – predicting human motions. At one point, he joined projects on tech solutions for banking & finance, supply chains and smart factories.

He could not help but feel extremely fortunate to have joined the AI field in its early stages when people had many new ideas for various issues in different industries. Working and studying at Hitachi’s lab, one of the world’s leading labs, for eight years gave Phong the opportunity to work with Professor Yoshua Bengio, the father of modern AI, at the Mila AI Institute.

An ethical approach

With more than 20 scientific reports and 8 patents acquired while at Hitachi across multiple countries, Dr. Phong gained knowledge on how to set up the most professional tech centers. But not until he became the bridge between theoretical and applied research – as a representative of Hitachi at Mila AI Institute – did he get the cutting-edge knowledge and a strong belief in AI’s benefits to humans.

“It was a very interesting experience,” said Phong, addressing the going back and forth between academia and applied science. As a person from the industry, it was his duty to put knowledge into practice and improve the current solutions through AI application. He focused on two major problems: AI learning concerning cause-and-effect, and reinforcement learning – enhancing their capabilities to understand and recreate world representation.

“The current AI is only able to solve a very particular and narrow range of tasks, but with the research ongoing at Mila, AI can become better through reasoning, reducing the amount of data required and making connections between matters. AI’s abilities will come closer to resembling  human awareness and can help change human society for the better,” Phong added.

But knowledge is not everything. “More than at any other place on earth, the researchers here possess a greater understanding of AI’s capabilities and the power that comes with it. To be able to tap into such an enormous power means you are also responsible for applying it in the right ways. Researchers are thoroughly trained in the risks, as well as the purpose, of creating AI to serve people,” Phong explained.

Out of the comfort zone, into a new challenge

After eight years, once again Dr. Phong was at a turning point. Among all other opportunities at the top positions, he chose to come back to Vietnam. “My desire is to contribute to Vietnam. I wanted to find a place that needed me, where I could still contribute to Vietnam, and I wanted to create a broader impact on business, with real products,” Chief AI officer FPT Software confessed.

“At that time, I also had many options in Vietnam, but to me, FPT Software was an ideal environment. They are a global company with various offices worldwide, and multinational staff. They have a good foundation with a history spanning 20 years. At the same time, the company’s culture has a history of supporting new ideas and products from employees, making it a great place to incubate new talents and projects.”

From research to managing and implementing core AI technology into business, it is a vast difference from his previous work. And yet he welcomed the challenge.

“If I had stayed at my previous job, my life would have been quite uneventful, working mainly in research. FPT Software once again led me out of my comfort zone and opened a door to new opportunities for me,” he said.

“Imagine if a person’s development is like the letter T. It is necessary to have technical depth and breadth of capabilities, such as management and soft skills. As the head of the AI department, not only do I have a chance to deepen my technical depth, but I can also explore new skills in operation, administration, and business. Never ending new challenges is also a way to push me to be better,” Phong pointed out.

He gave praise to young people in Vietnam, who “are incredibly smart, capable and hardworking.” He wanted to give them the support needed to develop new ideas together.

“This is why I’m so excited to be back.”

For the future of AI: incubator for the next generation

Drawing from his accumulated experience at leading institutes, Dr. Phong has designed the AI Lab and AI Residency research program at FPT Software for young people. He added, the program is a highly advanced research environment, which is rather rare in Vietnam, and not many places can achieve this level. Within two years at AI Residency, young researchers can unleash their creativity, propose new ideas, and be assisted by global AI experts.

The incubator demands the utmost effort from young researchers, while presenting no less attractive rewards. Young researchers are trained in research skills to find weaknesses in current technology, come up with new solutions to improve and implement, and then make a comprehensive evaluation. They produce intangible outcomes such as new patents, science reports, prototypes and proof of concept, which make up a complete methodological research.

Dr. Phong believes their success will lay the very foundation for the future of AI, contributing to enhancing our effectiveness and improving our lives.

Two-year might seem like a short time to achieve these results, but the CAIO is confident in the next generation as he provides them with a great advantage: access to the world’s top mentors.

“You will be challenged to find weaknesses, you will have to do a great deal of research and will have to work with top professors at Mila and AI Lab in order to find a better way of improving a particular issue or changing it completely. Thanks to the world-class mentors who are instructors at the AI Residency, you will be able to access and absorb the world’s best knowledge, while being right here in Vietnam.”

He also explained that two years is also the average time for professional employees training at a world-class IT corporation. It is ample time to dig deeper and produce scientific reports of the highest level. It provides young researchers with room to grow and be ready to venture on or come back to FPT Software to build AI solutions stemming from their own ideas.

About the writer:

Dzung Duong is an editor with 10-year experience in journalism, technology and lifestyle. She worked at VnExpress – Vietnam’s most-read news website and is currently an editor and writer in tech and lifestyle, collaborating with various news outlets to tell the story of tech in Vietnam.