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Edition Talks: Professor of Visual Computing at Bradford University Hassan Ugail

Renowned scientist Professor of Visual Computing at the University of Bradford Hassan Ugail talks exclusively to The Edition about his fascination with the human face and the evolving applications of Artificial Intelligence.

Ahmed Aiham
30 December 2019, MVT 13:15
Renowned scientist and mathematician Professor Hassan Ugail says his foray into Artifical Intelligence was "only natural" as part of his childhood curiosity in mathematics and science. PHOTO: NISHAN ALI / MIHAARU
Ahmed Aiham
30 December 2019, MVT 13:15

It would not be far from the truth to claim Professor Hassan Ugail as one of the most well respected Maldivians to have been born from the archipelago with regards to science and technology.

Among his many feats, Ugail is the first Maldivian to hold a doctorate in Mathematics, and to date, the only individual known to have received a professorship in the field of science.

When asked for an insight into how he came to be, the calm and collected Professor reflected on the simpler days of ‘island life’ during his childhood. A native of Hithadhoo, Addu Atoll, Ugail said his foray into AI was “only natural” being that he “had always been interested in mathematics and science”.

"A dream come true"

“I was a curiosity-driven kid. It probably stems from my background - my father was a teacher but more importantly, he was working at R.A.F Gan when the British were here in the Maldives.”

Speaking as though he were reliving the past through his recollections, he attributed his intellectual development to the many fascinating materials his father would bring home from work.

“He used to bring lots of interesting books and other trinkets. So as a kid I started reading on English philosophy, about the Greeks, about the amazon rainforest and so on”.

“I do remember when we didn’t have a drumset - we only ever saw other people playing the drums. Eventually, a group of us got together and made our own”.

“Most importantly, we were afforded the freedom to experiment.” Carrying those interests forward, Ugail explains he had always imagined doing things differently and was always coming up with new inventions.

“That is exactly what I’m doing right now, so it’s kind of a dream come true for me”.

A distinguished individual

Shortly after achieving his doctorate in 2000 for research in geometric design, Ugail embarked on his illustrious career initially hired as a post-doctoral researcher at his alma mater, the University of Leeds.

He later joined the University of Bradford as a lecturer, which offered him a professorship in visual computing in 2009, following 7 years of service to the university. Ugail now serves as the Director of the Centre for Visual Computing in Bradford.

Given the lack of resources in Maldives, especially within the field of Mathematics, it's not surprising that you’ve predominantly taught and worked abroad across much of your academic career. Would you rather be teaching in your own country?

“Not necessarily teaching but yes, definitely”, he smiles, but there is a tinge of sadness that colors it, possibly fuelled by the lack of opportunities referred to herein

“In fact, what I’m doing right now is trying to see whether I can help the country with the knowledge I have. I’m trying to introduce science and technology into Maldives”

“Although I live and work abroad in the United Kingdom, I always think about the Maldives”, he says with pride, adding that he is a daily reader of local news; an effort to keep up to date with the progression of Maldivian society.

“Of course, eventually, I would like to come home one day and keep doing the sort of work that I’m doing right now”.

A quick youtube search on ‘Professor Ugail’ reveals informational videos such as ‘How to think clearly’ and ‘What is Pi’ in both English and Dhivehi - Why is educating people so important to you?

He cocks his head and smiles indulgently, “Well, I think spreading knowledge is of utmost importance”.

Ugail observes that collaboration and sharing information and knowledge has catalyzed development throughout the world significantly and in more ways than one..

“And you don’t actually lose anything by doing that! Sometimes people are very protective of what they know, and while to some extent you may need to be, I don’t think the knowledge I spread requires such ‘protection’”.

“This is a language very close to my heart”, said the Professor, referring to the mention of his mother tongue ‘Dhivehi’, the native language of Maldives.

“Trying to explain certain concepts in Dhivehi is not a very straightforward task, and this is particularly true when you’re trying to do it in the everyday form of the language, in a specific form of communication that the average person can easily understand”.

“In 2016, I wrote a book on health called ‘Sihhee hadhiyaa’, entirely penned in Dhivehi. The motivation to write that book was in part to improve my grasp of Dhivehi, and the other was because I wanted to give out messages to the local community.

“As I wrote the book, I kept them in mind. I asked myself how I could explain what a heart attack is in Dhivehi..and, it turns out, that’s not a very easy task.”.

Is it important to promote science?

“If you consider the last 300 years, the single biggest factor driving all the development we experience today is science and technology.”

“This acceleration can be attributed to the fact that humans are fascinated by automation. We don’t want to do mundane tasks. Back then when we no longer wanted to pursue farming, we invented machines to do the needful. That is the trajectory we are on.”

“I also believe we have a young population that would essentially thrive on technology. They are very tech-savvy, and we need to promote that, but in that regard, I honestly don’t feel like we are doing enough in this country.”

An ode to technology

As a science enthusiast, this writer finds it deeply inspiring to have a Maldivian stand at the forefront of technological advancements on a global stage, challenging the limitations most people place on what is ‘possible’ for an islander hailing from somewhere as remote and unlikely as Maldives to achieve.

In addition to his remarkable academic qualifications, Ugail, driven by his spirit of inquiry and his well-documented fascination with the intricacies of human faces, is responsible for developing what is arguably the world’s most advanced face recognition system, aptly titled ‘Mee Kaaku’ (loosely translates to ‘who is this?’)

“Because of the many commercial systems available, you may think of face recognition of a problem that has been solved already”.

“For example, if you walked into a British Airport, there is no immigration officer there. You can actually scan your passport, look at a camera and that would let you through. The same is true of Singapore, Dubai. So this technology does exist today and it works by basically reading your face, authenticating it and allowing you to attain a service”.

“But the question that then arises is...is that enough? Will face recognition solve the problem?”

“Say you have a photograph of a face; a very blurry, grainy CCTV image of somebody. Meanwhile you have about a million, maybe two million people on a database. That grainy mage, which could be a part of your nose, mouth, cheek or eyes, what you want to do is see whether that person actually exists on the database.

“That becomes a very difficult task. This is the problem we’re trying to solve at this moment.”.

Having set benchmarks in this niche area, Ugail has successfully now used his ‘MeeKaaku’ application to identify the main two suspects in the heart of the ‘Salisbury Poisoning’ case in the United Kingdom, and provided assistance in the high-profile murder of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Ugail revealed that he is currently in discussions for the development of a face recognition software for local law enforcement authorities.

“This is going to be technology stemming from our own lab. Purchasing a face recognition system created from scratch is going to cost millions of dollars to start off with. So instead, the question we asked was, why not develop our own? It would be free and it would be uniquely Maldivian, so why not?”.

Professor of Visual Computing at the University of Bradford, Hassan Ugail. GRAPHICS: THE EDITION

You recently published a new book, "Computational Techniques for Human Smile Analysis". How would you describe your relationship with the human face?

“It is a fascination!”, chuckled Ugail, eyes ablaze in that specific manner that only happens when the truly passionate are offered a chance to delve into the very subjects that ignited their fire.

“I started looking at the human face about ten years back. It was actually by accident that I secured a grant for a PhD student that had started working with me on face recognition some years earlier… We were exploring a slightly crazy concept”.

“The idea was 3D face recognition - which still doesn’t exist. You do have a form of 3D face recognition on the newer visions of iPhone but you must understand, our idea was formulated a decade ago…”

“In any case, that was how my interest kicked off. But soon after we finished that project, I received a new project funded by the British government, seeking to look into lie detection applications. At the time, this idea was almost science fiction”.

“We began thinking, if someone was looking into a camera and talking, could we use the footage to identify whether said person was lying. We got half a million pounds and a period of three years from the British government to answer that question, and we came up with some really interesting concepts.”

“At present, we have a software that can count blinking of the eyes, other eye movements and various facial expressions, which then tells us quite a lot about what is going on inside the brain”.

“To demonstrate, if you were to count the number of times someone blinks, the more blinks are indicative of how tired that person is. Similarly, if the person is nervous or lying, his or her blink rate changes along with the facial expression. There’s a lot of giveaway cues that we look for in the human face that are connected to the study of psychology”.

“In the coming years, with new technology such as AI, data analysis and 5G, we’re not very far from reading a lot of thoughts directly based on your face. There is going to be a point of time, where I think, that sort of technology will come through very quickly.”

“In the future, the concern may not be to simply try and protect your hard drive, you may actually be trying to protect your mind and what goes on in it”, he quips, delighted at our approaching horror at the suggested prospect.

To soothe concerns he offers, “That’s another reason to have an interest in studying this area with a determined thoroughness, no matter your own field of speciality, isn’t it?”

Do you have any advice for aspiring techies and potential professors of the future?

After a brief moment of thought, he stated with determination, “The message I like to give people who are aspiring or who want to do things like what I did is not to give up hope!”

“If I can do it, I think anyone else can do it. It’s not like I have a special brain, I’m just driven with my enthusiasm”, the professor asserts, enthusiastically.

“This is a field that is thriving and you want to do something useful, it is THE area to be in”.

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