Malaysians abroad: A professor’s cognitive journey

Posted on April 28, 2003 
Filed Under Anita, The Star

By Anita Matthews

Prof Yeap SCIENTIST Yeap Wai Kiang’s room at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) located in Penrose is trim and tidy. The lack of clutter belies the zeal and utter passion the Malaysian-born professor has dedicated in the pursuit of artificial intelligence - a subject that has consumed his entire career.

Yeap first discovered the realm of artificial intelligence (AI) as an undergraduate at the University of Essex in England. Back in 1975, AI was just emerging as a new field of study.

“I was fascinated by AI and was lucky as there was a group of people with a strong interest in the subject which led me to do research in the area,” recalled the former Anglo-Chinese School student from Kampar, Perak.

After completing his PhD on AI at Essex in 1984, he found himself jobless in the Thatcher purse-tightening era. With no jobs coming his way, Yeap accepted the only offer from the sole overseas application he sent to the Otago University in New Zealand. “It was my naivete in economics that led me here. At that time, NZ was in deep economic turmoil, salaries were low and the people were struggling in the post-Muldoon era.”

He arrived at Otago University to assume the post of lecturer at the computer science department. The laidback Kiwi pace served to enhance Yeap’s interest in AI as he appraised postulated and tested theories. Early years were spent researching a variety of subjects ranging from inexact reasoning, medical expert systems, cognitive maps, robotics, vision, intelligent tutoring systems, natural language, mind research and concept formation. The list is hardly exciting to the uninitiated and distant from Steven Spielberg’s award-winning movie A.I or Robin Williams portrayal of a robot turned human from Isaac Asimov’s book Bicentennial Man. Yet nothing dampened the cheerful professor’s demeanour.

Obstacles inspired and delays fuelled his passion further. Even in the field of AI, Yeap chose not to focus on the robotics aspect of artificially replicating the human mind. His interest was on workings of the human mind. “People think AI is a smart way to get a computer to do things. The solution to that is to generate an algorithm and that is easily done. But it does not provide an explanation on how the mind works. The challenge is not only to get the computer program working but to figure how the mind works.”

How the mind works

Yeap is no stranger to hardship. Born in a poor family of eight siblings, he never imagined a career as a scientist nor life beyond the small town where he grew up. Flunking the Bahasa Malaysia paper in Form Five proved to be a turning point. “I could not go to Form Six and another friend who also failed the Malay paper told me about matriculation at Taylor’s College. I dare not ask my father to send me there as he could not afford it and confided in my cousin. She looked at my results and decided it was worth a try,” he said, adding that dad was a taxi driver and mom a housewife.

His entry into Taylor’s was a stroke of luck. “There was only room for one more student and my cousin barged into the principal’s office and demanded to know who was chosen - we had travelled to KL without my parents’ knowledge and had waited for hours to find out - and was informed that I got it,” he added.

Yeap’s cousin supported him through college and university. Varsity life was tough in the early years as he scrimped and cut corners to make ends meet. Bed, at times, was a sleeping bag at university offices and once, in the cleaner’s room. Meals were hardly square and his determination to make it pushed him the extra mile.

Can you read my mind?

Yeap dedicated the last eight years developing new theory of language comprehension and a theory of the mind. “All the literature is readily available from psychologists, philosophers and linguists. We just need to take that and translate it into a working model. Linguist Naom Chomsky argued that children are born with innate universal language. I want to learn how children have original intention and I believe language is the key,” he declared.

Yeap’s paper published in the American Association of Artificial Intelligence in 1997 clearly stated his desire to develop clever machines. “Powerful machines that do not have the ability to discern are not intelligent machines,” he said, adding that the goal is not to mimic humans but learn for it.

Years of research resulted in the world’s first computational model on how children acquire their first language. The groundbreaking human language theory is about interpreting grammar rules naturally. “Babies are a natural starting point in discovering language. My previous research was on how human perceived space through sight. On hindsight, I realised it was language, not vision, that was the more powerful faculty of interpretation in the human brain.”

Three years ago Yeap took a bold step forward from basic research to the commercialising technology when he joined AUT. Armed with a NZ$1.2 million grant from New Economy Research Fund (NERF) in 2002, Yeap hopes to develop a program for the semantic visualisation of text on the Internet. Last year, Yeap’s team bought a US$20,000 four-foot tall robot, nicknamed Albot, fitted with a Pentium 3 processor and Linux to test out his theory.

At the Institute for IT Research’s inaugural’s Open Day, Albot vowed the audience with its ability to move smoothly within the confines of a room filled with people. Yeap has succeeded in developing a program to allow Albot to move effortlessly around without knocking into walls or doors as how any normal person would walk from one spot to another. But this is only the starting point; Yeap’s dream is for Albot to have chat with him as any normal person would. “I’d be happiest when Albot can tell how was his day, instead of fetching me coffee in the morning.”

The move to the business side has also increased the frequency of trips back to Malaysia. Plans are in the offing to pursue a research set-up at the Multimedia Super Corridor. “I miss the environment and multitude of people, multi-cultural society and yummy durian.”

Yeap is definitely keen to return to Malaysia if an opportunity to continue to his research there does arise. “I am passionate about my work; I can’t live without it. I’d love to go back and teach young Malaysians to be leading scientists and technologists and to share my passion for research with them.”

His advice to aspiring scientists is to ask the right questions. He points out that young researchers are often fearful of fundamental questions. “What they don’t realise is that success is not about finding out, success is the journey, the process that is important to the knowledge.”

He recalled his experience as a PhD student at conference and found himself isolated from discussions until he asked the right question. “They don’t have time for small chat, but if you ask a significant question, they will talk to you because they are keen to know what you think. So in asking the right questions you learn more. I believe as humans we are all very powerful, everyone can be an Einstein. It is the environment and attitude that determines it.”

Indeed Yeap is living testimony to an Einstein.

Fact File
Name: Yeap Wai Kiang
Age: 47
Hometown: Kampar, Perak
Education: Anglo Chinese School in Kampar; Taylor’s College in Kuala Lumpur; and University of Essex, England
Occupation: Scientist, researcher, Director of the Institute for Information Technology Research, Auckland University of Technology
Current base: Auckland, New Zealand
Years abroad: 28

Published in The Star, April 28, 2003

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