Real-world experience sets AIAP apart, says pioneer apprentice

There are many technical tutorials out there, but few offer the hands-on experience needed to address real-world problems. And that, according to engineer Derek Chia, is one of the key differentiators of AISG’s AI Apprenticeship Programme (AIAP)®.

Derek graduated with a Bachelor of Computing in Information Systems and was a cyber security consultant with EY Singapore for more than two years when he decided to join the pioneering batch of AIAP apprentices in May 2018.

“Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) is a rapidly growing field with impactful real-world applications. I wanted to advance and expand my skillsets in this area,” he said.

The self-directed learning style of AIAP allowed the apprentices to take a deep dive into various technical areas such as programming, algorithms and tools, and to learn together as a group. Looking back at the experience, he said, “The area of AI/ML is ever evolving, and the ability to learn how to learn is a skill I cannot emphasise enough.”

The programme also provided Derek with the opportunity to put what he had learnt to good use. For example, as part of AISG’s 100Experiments (100E) programme, and with the support of experienced mentors, the apprentices got to work alongside AI engineers and project managers to help industries solve business problems using AI.

For his 100E project, Derek worked on the problem of wrong delivery addresses for e-commerce orders. “Addresses from the e-commerce platform may be spelt wrongly or mis-constructed, and so the goods get delivered to the wrong location based on what the mapping engine (Google Maps) tells us,” he explained.

To address this, the team carried out entity extraction and text correction on addresses captured in the transport management software. “Based on our experiments, we found that correcting the addresses using our model before querying the mapping engine improved accuracy and helped to speed up processing time,” he said.

It also reduced costs by minimising the need to query the mapping engine again, which was being charged on a per-API call basis, and by reducing the need for re-delivery.

Among the many useful skills Derek picked up whilst working on his 100E project was the ability to communicate with business users and discover the crux of a problem before searching for an appropriate solution. “AI/ML is no magic pill, and identifying the right problem to solve is one of the important things that I learnt through the 100E experience,” he said.

After AIAP, Derek started a new career as an engineer with the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) – a job which he landed even before he graduated from the programme.

As he looked back three years on, the AIAP experience prepared him well for this new role, he said.  

“AIAP empowered us with new skills and opened my mind to new possibilities.”  

His current job involves applying AI/ML techniques in multiple areas such as natural language processing (NLP) and speech recognition. As he immerses himself in this field, he is constantly being motivated by the application of cutting-edge research to real-world use-cases and seeing it solve problems in ways that were never possible before.

The discipline of self-directed learning, honed over the course of his apprenticeship, continues to stand him in good stead, allowing him to keep abreast of the latest developments in technology.

“Having a growth mindset, being disciplined and taking responsibility for your learning outcome will take you through AIAP and beyond,” he said.

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