Qirong Ho is a co-founder and co-head of the original Petuum distributed cluster operating system research team based out of CMU. He holds a Ph.D. from CMU and has provided key AI and ML infrastructure solutions to technology, banking, and telecommunication companies including Facebook, Huawei, and SingTel. Qirong was a Principal Investigator at the Institute for Infocomm Research, A*STAR, Singapore from 2014 to 2016, and is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Singapore Management University School of Information Systems.
Catch up with Qirong on Twitter @qirong_ho.
Why did you co-found Petuum?
Eric and I founded Petuum because we noticed the high barrier to entry in AI. People can’t build the AI applications they need for their businesses because they don’t have the resources. We also saw a high growth potential — AI is reshaping many industries, and when you are starting at ground zero like we are, you can build something that addresses an industry’s specific needs. There’s no standard way in healthcare, for instance, to do what our PetuumMed product does, and it’s hard to assemble a skilled team to create something similar in-house. We are giving companies customizable AI building blocks to create what they need with the resources they already have.
In a broader sense, what we are really trying to do is transition the AI industry away from artisanal, in-house products. AI today isn’t repeatable or transferrable from team to team; it’s not democratic, or something the everyday person can use. By providing a standardized set of building blocks that can be structured into simple or complex AI products, we hope to allow the industry to move forward more quickly. You won’t need to hire programmers or scientists to run AI for your business; you’ll be able to take advantage of practical AI applications with just a click.
How do you and Eric work together as co-founders?
Eric and I go back a long way to our early work together at CMU, which turned out to be the launchpad of our company. We’ve been working together for many years on AI/ML infrastructure. We both want to bring the infrastructure we began working on at CMU to the world, and transform the way these technologies are built and deployed.
What do you do at Petuum?
As COO and a co-founder, I oversee all aspects of the company. I pretty much keep on top of everything that’s going on.
What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on at Petuum?
I’ve been working with the team on a lot of exciting things, for our healthcare product and for other products that aren’t public yet. Our transformative software platform is really going to be the beginning of a new generation of software operating systems for AI. It will be totally unlike anything that currently exists and will be easy to use for technical experts and non-coders alike.
What’s been most challenging in your work so far?
What’s been most challenging from a technology perspective has been putting together a software system that can land on top of what people already use. Since companies have already made capital investments in hardware, we have to meet them where they are. Our OS needs to be able to operate on all types of hardware — land on top of a given set of resources, and just work. We need to be hardware agnostic, and this is a huge technical challenge that really sets us apart from other companies. Whether you have CPU centers, IoT products, or a mobile phone, we want you to be able to run our OS easily.
Do you have any advice for people interested in pursuing similar work?
I believe it’s important to build up a foundation of knowledge and skills before diving into the life of a startup founder, especially for folks that are like me and have spent time in academia doing research. That training is a very valuable way to accumulate the knowledge, skills, and critical thinking that you’ll need to be an entrepreneur.
Another piece of advice: don’t subscribe to the conventional AI wisdom. Think critically about what needs to change in the world — what isn’t working and needs a reinvention. That’s something else I learned from my time in grad school. Sometimes, the general consensus in an industry needs to be reexamined and replaced with something new.
What do you love to do outside of work?
My biggest love is reading and reflecting on history — what has come before us, and what will come after us? History’s lessons are a source of inspiration for the design of our products and the creation of our team. I try to take a lesson and filter it through my experiences to bring about new ideas and perspectives. If we take what has happened before, we can repackage it and make it relevant to our current situation. This practice helps me to think outside of the box.
I’m currently reading “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond, a fascinating and provocative look at human civilization.
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