By SGN | 11 Sep 2023
“When ChatGPT was released, the number of users shot up, hitting 100 million faster than even TikTok,” notes Wee Hyong, a data and AI leader at Microsoft who has witnessed the evolution of AI over the last decade.
“In the early days, AI was a niche technology that required specialised skill sets. Then businesses found value in deploying machine learning tools like computer vision,” he explains.
As the power of AI steadily grew, it began to achieve human parity in areas such as object and speech recognition. More recently, the rise of larger and larger language models like ChatGPT has democratised access and thrown open the gates to new applications of AI.
“Every week, every month, the amount of innovation that’s happening in the space is just breathtaking,” he says. “It’s amazing how industry, academia and laymen are all participating in this conversation. We are living in the most exciting time for AI.”
Rising up as a leader in AI
Wee Hyong joined Microsoft in 2008, right after completing his PhD in Computer Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Right off the bat, he became a tech expat, spending six years in Shanghai as a product manager before transferring to corporate headquarters in Redmond, Washington.
“We were at the beginning of the cloud computing journey,” he recalls. “I joined an incubation programme to build Azure Data Factory, bringing our enterprise data products into the cloud.”
He then switched to a data science manager role, leading an AI engineering team and working with Microsoft’s key customers around the world to prototype solutions such as churn models that analyse customer attrition or computer vision tools that detect manufacturing faults.
“Getting to travel the world for work was a dream come true. And anytime there was an assignment in Singapore, I would volunteer for the opportunity to be home,” he says.
In 2018, Wee Hyong was asked to launch AI Labs, a global network of co-innovation centres. “Instead of us flying to customers, customers now bring their data engineers and scientists to us for a week or two to develop AI solutions for their organisations,” he explains.
Wanting to run a business, he was next put in charge of Azure Data Factory. Through strategic manoeuvres, the product moved into a leadership position on the Gartner Magic Quadrant after just one year.
Due to the impact he delivered, Wee Hyong was promoted to his current Partner Director position, overseeing product managers globally. At Microsoft Build 2023, he was one of the representatives who introduced Microsoft Fabric, a unified data analytics platform. “Now I don’t just own one product. I own the data integration portfolio of products,” he says.
Discovering the power of AI for good
In 2017, while running a global data science team, Wee Hyong was approached by Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s first Chief Environmental Officer, to join a bold new effort called AI for Earth.
“Lucas came up to me at lunch and said, ‘Why don’t you help me build up the AI for Earth data science team?’” Wee Hyong recalls. “I already had a prototyping team of data scientists that were well trained, so it was a win-win for him to embed his team in mine.”
The vision of AI for Earth was to solve some of the world’s toughest sustainability challenges using AI: measuring carbon absorption of forests in Brazil, tracking the volume of plastic bottle waste, identifying bird calls to protect rare species, accelerating land cover mapping to understand the impacts of climate change, and so on.
It also laid the foundation for a ‘planetary computer’ that makes petabytes of environmental data accessible to conservation programmes around the world.
Each year, Microsoft would call for proposals from NGOs globally, offer grants and in-house expertise, then invite participants to present their work at the AI for Earth Summit in Redmond.
“My interactions with these NGOs were very humbling,” Wee Hyong shares. “They helped me appreciate how AI can be harnessed, not just for commercial purposes, but also be applied to benefit the broader good.”
AI for Earth led to the sprouting of more Microsoft AI for Good initiatives, including AI for Health, AI for Accessibility, AI for Cultural Heritage and AI for Humanitarian Action.
“AI for public good is something I’m still very passionate about,” Wee Hyong says. “It can be used to tackle big social and environmental issues. It can also automate tedious tasks and paperwork so nonprofits can spend more time on value-added work and getting the right help to the right people.”
In the field of education, he considers AI a mighty accelerator of learning. “I’ve seen firsthand how ChatGPT tutored my son to excel in chemistry and taught him to write a web app within a couple of days,” he says.
“Today, there’s a low-code revolution where people can create apps without writing a single line of code. These open-source models create a flywheel that makes AI readily available for commercial use as well as applications for public good. And the possibilities are just limitless.”
Giving back to the tech community
Whether through Microsoft conferences or external organisations, Wee Hyong actively seeks to pass on his knowledge to the tech community, particularly in Singapore.
“Every time I come back, I try to spend time with either the local universities or tech communities. I feel like it’s my way of giving back,” he says. In addition to delivering keynotes for GovTech and AI Singapore, he mentors government officials and university students, engaging them in conversations on tech and AI strategy or doling out career advice.
“It warms my heart that I get to meet and speak with AI talent in Singapore everytime I am home,” Wee Hyong shares. “It is exciting to see Singapore’s National AI Strategy taking shape and how AI is being implemented and used for the public good.”
“In APAC, Singapore is definitely leading the pack in AI,” he observes. “Whether in terms of literacy, the ecosystem or the willingness of local businesses to adopt the technology, Singapore has all the catalysts needed to harness AI for private and public applications.”
How the years overseas have shaped him
Reflecting on his career abroad, Wee Hyong says the years in the States have been greatly rewarding. Relocating with his wife and two boys was fuss-free, and he is grateful to Microsoft for making the process a smooth one. What took him by surprise was the difference in work culture.
“In the US, you have to do a lot of self-advocacy,” he shares. “You have to be more vocal, whether in meetings or in terms of what you want for your career. Getting used to that culture for the first couple of years was tough.”
Connecting with Singaporeans in Seattle also took some time. “It was only in our second year that we joined our first National Day celebration here, which was supported by Singapore Global Network,” he says.
The community has been a source of both homely comfort and practical advice. “There are folks here that cook pandan cake or chicken rice and sell them on WhatsApp. These are food you take for granted in Singapore, but here they are rare delicacies,” he says. “We’re even in a WhatsApp group for parents with kids going to National Service, which has offered very useful tips, as my son plans to head home to enlist in the next few years.”
To whoever finds the opportunity, Wee Hyong wholeheartedly recommends gaining the experience of working abroad. Even a six-month exchange programme or internship abroad can be life-changing. “After moving overseas, I’m more appreciative of everything back home – how efficient and well-run Singapore is,” he notes.
“These past 15 years outside Singapore have changed me tremendously. I now have a more global perspective of how businesses operate. I work with a very international team, operating across Europe, Asia and the US.
“I still get constantly challenged every day. Learning from some of the world’s experts has broadened my thinking and helped me see how Singapore fits into this exciting global tech scene, and how we can contribute to unlocking the transformative power of AI.”
About Wee Hyong
Wee Hyong is Partner Director of Cloud and AI Products at Microsoft. Through his 15-year career at the company, he has managed global, multidisciplinary teams and grown multimillion-dollar businesses to sustained industry leadership positions. He is the author of more than 10 books on data and AI.
Connect with him here.