Aaloak Jaswal, head of the UN Technology Innovation Lab in Egypt, who wants to use AI to stop the spread of covid-19 and bring us all solar power (among other things): My Morning / WFH Routine looks each week at how a successful member of the community starts their day — and then throws in a couple of random business questions just for fun. Speaking to us this week is Aaloak Jaswal, head of the UN Technology Innovation Lab (UNTIL) in Egypt and all-around great guy. Edited excerpts from our chat:
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Aaloak Jaswal — I grew up in Canada, of Indian origin. Despite the fact that we’re on a convergence between the fourth industrial revolution and the sixth mass extinction in a global economy that perpetuates patterns of discrimination and exclusion, we do really cool, impactful things by bridging the gap between innovation, sustainable development and inclusivity.
Like others in the business community, covid-19 has monopolized our bandwidth. Among other things, we’re partnering with Orascom subsidiary Gemini on a covid-19 “uplift” initiative and we ran an online “Hack the Virus” challenge with TIEC, Dell, Novartis and other UN agencies calling on innovators to develop solutions to stop the spread of the virus. We’re also exploring a women’s innovation hub with the National Council for Women and UN Women.
We were working on some great stuff before covid, like cold-chain solutions, and Uber-izing farm equipment for farmers who can’t afford to buy. Closest to my heart, we’re working with the German University in Cairo, targeting an impoverished community in Minya with no water, sanitation, or hygiene systems. With no grid access, we will implement a water treatment system driven by solar energy and AI and address the issues of gender-based violence and irrigation for agriculture simultaneously.
What’s your morning routine?
Working from home, I start at 6am, checking WhatsApp, email and reading Enterprise. By 7am, I’m stretching and then running before I shower and have a smoothie while taking 30 minutes to prioritize the day’s tasks. By 8:30, I change gears and make breakfast for my seven-year-old boy, Shivshankar, and get him ready for “e-learning” before I start the day with my team.
What does the rest of your day look like?
I’m privileged to collaborate with phenomenal team members (shout out to Raghda El Milegy and Ghada Hamdy), with great Egyptian entrepreneurs, our hosts the Government of Egypt, and other UN agencies with one aim: Meaningful and sustainable impact through innovation.
Covid has added an entirely new dimension — I research and vet proven and scalable solutions that accelerate progress toward addressing the pandemic, especially for vulnerable people. I’ve introduced AI technology to the Health Ministry that minimizes human interaction in testing for the virus; it can handle 10 mn concurrent calls, thus making call centers unnecessary to schedule testing appointments or contact patients to provide results. The Government of Ireland had to contact 8k people to inform them of their negative C-19 results, paying 250 call center workers over the course of a week. My proposed solution completed the task in 10 minutes and is usable by everyone from Luddites to the tech savvy.
You talk a lot about inclusion. How does tech factor into that?
Millennials have grown up with access to more information than all previous generations combined — and that will be the difference. Mark Twain said travel is fatal to ignorance, thus big data will lead to insights that are the enemy of ignorance and false biases. It will also have an exponential impact on development, but we must remain vigilant; when big data is corrupted by big silences, the truths you get are half-truths. And often, for vulnerable populations and women, they aren’t true at all. Digital inclusion must remain at the forefront.
How is your sector changing?
It cost roughly USD 2.7 bn to sequence the human genome in 2003. Today, USD 699. Medical knowledge doubled every 3.5 years in 2010. In 2020, it will double every 73 days. Technology is changing at a mind boggling rate. Moore’s law is no longer valid, and I tell people we’re living in Star Trek times. Arthur C Clark was one of the greatest visionaries of the 20th century — what I would give to hear his thoughts on the upcoming 80 years.
What keeps you up at night?
There have been five mass extinction events in the Earth’s history, each wiping out 70-95% of the planet’s life. The last was 66 million years ago and led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. We’re now in the middle of the sixth mass extinction, and it’s entirely our fault.
We didn’t inherit the earth from our ancestors — we borrowed it from our children. Shivshankar is being handed back a hotter planet, with melting glaciers, rising oceans, biodiversity wiped out, and where extreme weather patterns leading to natural disasters will be commonplace. I lay in bed thinking how sustainable energy can restore equilibrium. Throw Donald Trump into the mix, and it’s a wonder I ever sleep.
What do you do in your free time?
I stay on top of bleeding edge sustainable energy — solar street lighting, panels, batteries, pumps. That’s my passion. The solutions I’ve seen in the ME and Africa are rudimentary and expensive. I want to impact vulnerable populations by implementing sustainable energy through the affordable advanced technologies I can bring to the market.
I’m also a car guy. I own a 1992 Pontiac Firehawk with 3k km on it. There’s only 25 in existence. I’m passionate about the arts — I was a DJ in NYC. I love playing soccer and tennis. What I enjoy most is introducing Shivshankar to new things. He loves music: David Bowie, The Tragically Hip, Tom Petty, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson.
What was the last great thing you read?
Johnny Marr — Set the Boy Free. The greatest composer and guitarist of my generation, and the list of bands he’s played with is as vast as my body long. His impact prompted Ray-Ban to create special edition Johnny Marr sunglasses and Fender made the Johnny Marr Jaguar guitar. His creativity and humility combined with his precision and passion for being the best is something I deeply admire but fail miserably to emulate. He’s a wizard; he’s so good that Johnny Marr can’t even play Johnny Marr. He always wears impeccable shoes and sports a great haircut.
Mahatma Gandhi — An Autobiography. Einstein said: “Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”
Honorable mention: Pete Townshend — Who I Am.
What was the last great thing you watched?
The Last Dance: A Netflix documentary on Michael Jordan and the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls playoff run. No one was more present in the here and now. When it came down to the final seconds, he wanted the ball. That presence, drive and confidence used to be me on the soccer field— and it’s me in everything I’m doing professionally and personally now.
What’s the best piece of advice (business or personal) you’ve ever been given and by whom?
Can I choose two? From Dad: “You can kick at nature for so long before she kicks back.” And from Mom: “Don’t listen to your head or your heart – they’ll set you on a wrong path. Listen to your conscience. ”