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Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad. (Courtesy of Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad)

As a senior data scientist at Groupon and an affiliate associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Washington in Tacoma, one might expect that Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad has enough on his plate to keep him busy.

Add in a particularly technical artistic talent, the creation of a large historical social network spanning the medieval era, and a project involving making simulations of deceased people, and it’s easy to see why Ahmad’s extra-geeky pursuits make him GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week.

At Groupon, Ahmad works on behavioral modeling, optimization and applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning to retail data. Over the years, he’s been able to apply his skill set to a variety of industries: e-commerce and UX (Groupon); health informatics (KenSci); game analytics (Ninja Metrics); data mining and informatics for pilgrimage data (GIS Technology Innovation Center at Umm Al-Qura University); biomedical engineering and neuroprosthetics (Boston Scientific); population studies (Minnesota Population Center); and energy sector (Consolidated Edison).

Ahmad’s current research interests are personality emulation; extraction and analysis of massive social networks from historical sources; and large scale cultural analytics of the Islamic world.

Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad art
Muhammad Ahmad said mandalas are usually associated with Buddhist art and especially Tibetan Buddhism. Decorative geometric patterns are an essential part of Islamic art especially given the prohibition of representation of people in Islamic art. This particular piece combines the two approaches and traditions. (Courtesy of Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad)

“From an outsider’s perspective it may seem that my interests are eclectic but in reality I am a quite focused person,” Ahmad said. “The different things that I work on do inform one another. Working on such seemingly different things is actually a great way to generate new ideas. The domains may be different but the passion is constant. What many people find surprising is that I do not do multi-tasking but rather work serially in a focused manner.”

His idea for creating simulations of people who have died, perhaps eventually in virtual or augmented reality, started around the death of his father.

“My daughter had not been born at that time so it just hit me that my children will not get any opportunity to interact with their grandfather while growing up,” Ahmad said. “Then I realized that it is possible to partially circumnavigate this problem by creating simulations of deceased people. I published a paper on this last year at the CHI conference and have been working on this project on and off ever since.”

Ahmad, who was profiled in a Daily Mail story last fall, said it is a daunting task given the complexity involved such as knowing natural language processing for text and speech, and machine learning and deep learning for creating a personality emulation system.

“I am building the system incrementally,” Ahmad said. “Anyone who has lost a close loved one can empathize with why one would want to create such a system. It is also an exercise in what could have been. That said, I do recognize that it is fraught with ethical and moral dilemmas. To be honest I do not have all the answers to such dilemmas so this is an open-ended endeavor for me also.”

And yes, he does get plenty of people asking him if he’s seen the “Be Right Back” episode of Netflix’s “Black Mirror.”

On top of that work, Ahmad said his work as an artist comes at the intersection of mathematics and multiple cultural traditions.

Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad art
This is part of the Ahmad’s Silicon Arabic series that covers a somewhat non-religious subject. It consists of three different pieces. The first piece is called Alif which is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. (Courtesy of Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad)

“I know Arabic, Chinese and Hebrew calligraphy,” he said. “I invented the Kordu script, a polysemic script that can be simultaneously read in two languages in opposite directions. I am also the founder and editor the of Islam and Science Fiction Project housed at the Texas A&M University which is the most comprehensive resource on the subject.”

View more of Ahmad’s artwork and read more about his efforts to reconstruct social networks from ancient texts.

And keep reading to learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Muhammad Ahmad.

What do you do, and why do you do it? “Data science and machine learning is like a way of thinking and approaching the world for me. I have worked in more than half a dozen industries but one common thing has always been the mindset that goes into problem solving. I think analytical problem solving and data science in general are incredibly powerful tools that can be used to address real world problems and that is what I enjoy doing. At Groupon, my work is more application oriented. It is fascinating to see how machine learning models can help us understand human behavior. On a more personal academic level I was inspired to work on a project on making interactive simulations of deceased people. My motivation for this was the death of my father and the realization that my daughter will not have opportunities to interact with her grandfather unless one thinks outside the box.”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “Many people seem to think that simpler models in machine learning are better. Many a times the more complicated model is far more accurate as compared to the simpler model. One has to go with the model that works and not necessarily the one that is the most elegant.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “The world in itself is a fascinating place. There is joy in figuring out new things and also creating new things. Inspiration for many projects that I work on come from seeing connection or making connection in things which are not readily available. A case in point is my artwork Kordu. I am fascinated by the Chinese Islamic culture. This led me to take classes in Chinese Calligraphy and explore Chinese style of Arabic calligraphy. Taking this as an inspiration and how binary encodes all information in computers, I created a new script that can be read simultaneously in two languages — from left to right read it in Korean Hangul script and from right to left in the Arabic script for the Urdu language.”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “Computers in general is one thing that it would be difficult to live without. They have greatly reduced the amount of effort that one has to put in in order to complete tasks. They allow one to do more with the limited amount of time that one has.”

Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad. (Courtesy of Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “It depends on what I am working on. At my office I like open spaces with easy access to other folks for quick feedback. For my research work which is more of a late hours and weekend thing I prefer roaming around with my laptop. Lastly my artwork is a solitary endeavor.”

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “Have an agenda for the things that you plan to do and leave some cushion room for things not always going as planned. It may take many months or even years to perfect it but once you have it down, you will be able to do wonders. Having a plan and sticking to it is important.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “I believe in Ecumenicalism. Mac for work, Windows for home and Linux for research.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Picard. Kirk is the classic Star Trek hero but I would prefer to be on a ship commanded by Picard who is more level headed.”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Transporter. With the space-time continuum can become messy quickly.”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Launch something that would bring Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to the masses. Also ask for more money.”

I once waited in line for … “The cost benefit analysis of waiting in line versus the rewards rarely align so I try not to be in this situation.”

Your role models: “Leonardo Davinci is the quintessential Renaissance man. He is known for not just his scientific and technological achievements but was one of the greatest artists in history. The depth of his mastery of several fields is impressive.”

Greatest game in history: “The Civilization series by Sid Mier.”

Best gadget ever: “Books. Easy to assemble, duplicate, transport and does not run out of battery.”

First computer: “Intel’s 486.”

Current phone: “Samsung Galaxy S7.”

Favorite app: “Checklist. Simple and to the point.”

Favorite cause: “Refugee crisis.”

Most important technology of 2016: “Drones.”

Most important technology of 2018: “Virtual Reality.”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Always be curious. Engage with people outside your bubble, you may occasionally be surprised to find previously unknown but interesting things.”

Website: Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad

Twitter: @vonaurum

LinkedIn: Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad

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