“We’re scared of the inevitable,” 17-year-old Mississauga tech protege, Alishba Imran, says at the beginning of her TEDx Talk.
Seventeen-year-olds aren’t usually equipped, yet, to sense what Imran senses.
The inevitability of change and the forces that conspire to fend off the vagaries of transformation, aren’t social concepts most teens contemplate.
Many are perfectly positioned to see these tensions, standing in the middle of profound technological innovation reshaping our world by the second. But few can actually step outside the vacuum to put it into context.
For a lot of young people, social dynamics leave them devoid of agency over their own life and the technology shaping it.
And then there’s Imran.
The Mississauga high school student knows she, better than most beyond her years, understands what her generation needs, and how to create the future it wants.
For some of her peers, in their last year before graduation, the fear of the inevitable might mean many things – the end of a romance, saying goodbye to friends or moving away from home.
For Imran, the inevitable is machine intelligence. She occupies a space in constant contemplation of what’s hurtling toward her, not away from her.
Computation is her world and she’s far from scared.
“My passions are kind of more outside of school and that’s where I have spent a lot of my time, exploring different things,” she told The Pointer during a phone interview in December. “From a young age, I was always really fascinated in just building things and problem solving and that led me into technology. That’s where I have been doing a lot of my work recently: looking at different emerging technologies and ways in which we can apply those to solving important problems in the world.”
She is part of a trend that began with innovators like Steve Jobs. The famous late founder of Apple dropped out of college after just one semester, explaining later that he could not justify spending his parents’ money on an education that offered nothing he couldn’t learn on his own.
Silicon Valley tech leaders like Peter Thiel have crystalized, even commercialized the sentiment. The billionaire venture capitalist was the first external investor in Facebook and has amassed a giant portfolio of technology companies operating with his help.
The Thiel Fellowship rocked the academic world when he launched it in 2010. Its tagline: “The Thiel Fellowship gives $100,000 to young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom.”
Fellows “skip or stop out of college” and use $100,000 to build the technology that will create our future.
A quick scan of Imran’s LinkedIn page suggests she too might forgo higher education upon her high school graduation (she never said this).
It lists, near the top: Builder/Co-founder Voltx – machine learning software to accelerate energy storage, piloting with manufacturers of batteries/supercapacitors to test product; Winner of YIC Grant from InvestECO & Renewable Funds, SheLovesTech Top 10 North America Finalist & supported by Masason Foundation (SoftBank); Member Masason Foundation, founded by the Chairman and CEO of SoftBank Group Corp; Machine Learning Developer, Hanson Robotics Limited, working with lead engineer to develop a generative grasping convolutional neural network to improve hand function of robots; Machine Learning Developer, Pngme, a San Francisco-based financial services lending startup aimed at financing under-served communities and groups, Imran used SMS to help improve lending in Africa and COVID-19 tracking there.
There’s much more. She is 17. It makes your head spin.
At 14, Imran taught herself blockchain. Also known as Distributed Ledger Technology, it makes the history of a digital asset transparent and impossible to alter. Rather than copying and forwarding something, it tracks the changes that are made, creating an accessible history. Imran, who has used her self-taught skills in an internship with TD Bank, protected by a non-disclosure agreement, applied blockchain to the growing problem of counterfeit medicine in rural India.
In 2017, she went on a trip that took her to rural Pakistan and India. It sparked something, prompting her to harness some of her apparently limitless energy to solve the problem she was introduced to.
“After visiting a lot of different villages and communicating with some locals, I realized that these areas had very poor infrastructure for the distribution and tracking of essential healthcare medication,” she said. “For this reason, most residents would be consuming counterfeit medication from second wholesalers on stalls in the streets. Digging deeper into the issue, I realized that nearly 40 to 50 percent of medication people were consuming in these areas was counterfeit.”
A World Health Organization fact sheet on the topic paints a disturbing picture. It reels off a variety of examples illustrating the fatal consequences of fake medicines, avoidable outcomes that pushed Imran toward solutions.
In 1995, a meningitis epidemic in Niger meant the West African country had to accept a donation of vaccines. After they arrived, 2,500 people died. It turned out the vaccines were fake. Three years later, in India, 30 infants died after they were given counterfeit cough syrup made with diethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze. The poorest are usually the victims. They often scrape and save to access desperately needed medicine, without any protection from those simply looking to make an easy profit. The loss of human life is of little concern. It’s up to government and the rest of society to ensure their safety.
The next year, Imran threw herself at the dangerous situation. She co-founded Honestblocks, a blockchain platform to track and help curb the use of counterfeit medication, particularly in rural India. The platform was eventually integrated into IBM Blockchain and is now being used in various supply chain applications.
It’s not uncommon for teenagers to be consumed by the world’s biggest problems. High on empathy and flushed with passion, young people have often led the push for civil rights and gender equality, to stop a war or save our planet from ourselves.
Most do so through organizing protest in many forms, few actually centre themselves next to the solutions, or steel themselves to create them.
“I realized that there was a clear application of Blockchain to track medication in supply chain to help catch counterfeit medication from entering the supply chain in these rural areas due to it's embedded tracking capabilities,” Imran explained. “I self-taught myself all the programming and through getting mentorship from leaders at IBM Blockchain and Hyperledger, I was able to build a prototype of a solution that used Blockchain to track and catch counterfeit medication in supply chain systems for over two million people in rural India.”
She’s not afraid to highlight and trumpet her accomplishments, an innate confidence. So many young people, and adults, who lack this brazen approach end up getting stepped on, ripped off or forgotten. Imran seems like a natural self-promoter, a necessity for tech entrepreneurs today.
But mentorship has also been a theme for Imran. Never afraid to ask, she has worked with a series of universities, professors and tech giants to advance her knowledge. She is currently working on a project to deliver cheaper prosthetics equipped with artificial intelligence in conjunction with experts at San Jose State University.
Meanwhile, her blockchain research in the area of medicine, could potentially be applied to the ongoing global pandemic and the long-term need for safe vaccine supplies.
Looking into the future, as countries become more desperate for access to COVID-19 vaccines, similar counterfeit problems could arise. “I think one of the interesting applications is kind of the work I have done with blockchain around counterfeit medication,” Imran said. The Government of Canada is already warning people not to buy vaccines online to avoid the danger of counterfeit products.
“There’s so much stuff happening with the vaccine, there are people creating counterfeit vaccines, I think an interesting application there is being able to track the vaccine and understand where they are coming from,” she says. Numerous layers of protection have already been put in place by manufacturers, regulatory bodies and governments to ensure approved vaccines are being tracked and authenticated, to prevent the use of fake products. But Imran’s ability to identify issues, even those that already have solutions, illustrates her priorities. “Just so there is more public awareness around authentic vaccines versus the counterfeit ones,” she added, emphasizing a crucial aspect of the ongoing pandemic response.
For her work on the medical supply chain, Imran was named one of five Young Innovators to Watch at the Consumer Electronics Show (CAS) in 2020.
For someone able to acquire an undergraduate degree’s volume of knowledge from the confines of her bedroom with nothing more than a laptop, Imran’s school experience has been unusual.
She attends Stephen Lewis Secondary School, located in the northwest area of the city, but has spent time away from the classroom presenting at conferences and working on projects many of her peers might find mystifying.
“A lot of what I had learned was through doing courses online, reading research papers, getting mentored by professionals in the AI industry and building my own projects,” she said. “It definitely helps to set a structure for yourself to learn and then eventually test your knowledge by building something tangible. Although I'm lucky enough to have a computer science class at my school as well which exposed us to Blockchain and AI technology, briefly.”
Considering her background and ability to metabolize complicated theory solo, a year of university potentially pushed online by the pandemic could be a waste. After all, how useful are virtual courses to someone who gave themselves an advanced understanding of artificial intelligence on her own?
“Especially first year of university, [people] are not getting the experience they should be getting, like Frosh week,'' she said. “There’s a whole aspect of it being physical and getting to meet people. A lot of people aren’t necessarily getting the value out of university like course content and, this is my opinion, but a lot of it you can actually just learn online by yourself if that is something you want to do.”
Despite her advanced abilities, Imran doesn’t seem too constrained by the classroom. “Most of my teachers have been very supportive which I'm extremely grateful for,” she said. “Balancing school with doing my side projects and other ambitions was definitely a huge learning curve at first but I learned a lot of valuable skills from this experience regarding communication, taking self-initiative to learn my school content to stay up to date, and as a result, I became extremely independent in my learning and thinking.”
With virtual post-secondary education unappealing, Imran has pitched headfirst into another technological venture. She’s the CEO and co-founder of Voltx, a company that uses artificial intelligence to simulate battery-life tests.
“I’m working on my own startup just now called Voltx. We basically develop the software that lets the manufacturers of batteries and supercapacitors basically do their testing … So currently they do manual testing that can take three months, even a year, for one battery. We’ve basically reduced that time down to just three days of testing using this model or algorithm.”
Voltx’s website already boasts praise from a vice president at Tesla and an engineer at Nanoramic, a company that has worked with NASA and develops energy storage solutions.
“Right now, we are just delivering on those pilots. We have our product, we’re just delivering it to them.”
Speaking to the 17-year-old is like watching the future unfold before you.
At the beginning of lockdown in March of last year, many people vowed to take up running, learn a musical instrument or to delve into baking.
Imran approaches her time differently. Learning artificial intelligence and other technology platforms that will shape our future, will hopefully help create the world her generation wants.
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