Updated: May 21, 2020
Desmond Hoo is the co-founder and Chief Operating Officer at Siloam Technologies. Prior to co-founding Siloam Technologies, Desmond also founded a learning centre specialising in primary and secondary education, as well as a publications company that creates print magazines to help secondary school students learn English in a more engaging way.
1. I’ve read on your portfolio that prior to co-founding Siloam Technologies, you used to teach neuro-typical and special needs youths. In your opinion, are they able to pick up language subjects quicker than subjects such as physics or maths? And if so, why do you think that is the case?
Contrary to that, most special needs (I taught mainly autistic students at that time) students struggle more with language subjects (subjects that are more contextual and abstract) than concrete subjects (subjects with absolute answers). There are a few (biological) reasons to this, and what I was trained to know was that, autistic people have fewer connectors in their brains, hence, they can derive logic and facts more efficiently than neuro-typical people like the majority of us, who are more capable of deriving abstract and contextual cues. That’s why, people who are more linguistically inclined are people who tend to be more creative and abstract in their perceptions of the world, and more logical people tend to be less creative, simply because the connectors in their brain do not “wander” as much. It is after all, a spectrum. So all of us are on the spectrum, some are higher on the Asperger spectrum (more rigid and oblivious to contextual cues) than others (more creative and abstract). 2. I know a few people who also work with special needs youths - they all find it tough at times, but genuinely rewarding. If you had a message for these people, what would it be?
“Help then to see the world as it is, not as we are. This will alleviate the pressure and burden we sometimes inadvertently carry on our shoulders as educators.” 3. What are some of the most heartwarming moments you’ve had when working with special needs youths?
Their level of self-awareness that they have grown to acknowledge through my years with them. One particular kid, whom I still keep in contact occasionally over social media, told me that he knows he’s different, but he’s not wrong. He went on to be the first student who made it to a top JC after O Levels. That one tugged at my heartstrings quite a bit. He’s now in army and still confides in me that he still faces bullies, but is taking it in his strides as they come. He’s consistent with his coping strategies and is looking forward to major in computer science after he ORD. 4. What are some challenges that you have faced when starting Siloam?
Coming out fresh from three failed startups (scholarship matching service, tuition centre, publishing house), starting Siloam was inevitably a difficult decision to make. One of the questions I pondered a lot about was, “am I really cut out for this?” The challenge, I’d say, came mostly intrinsically. Question on self-worth, personal strengths, and inexplicable hunger for success were some of the key challenges and struggles I faced within before agreeing to co-founding Siloam. 5. What are some of your plans for Siloam in the future?
I’ve learnt not to make big (sometimes lofty) plans for startups, or even my own career. Life has a very interesting way of surprising you especially when you seem to have it all planned out. Now, I’m just taking one day, one problem, one uncertainty at a time. 6. A big advantage of private tuition is that the tutor can tailor questions that are suited to the tutee’s weaknesses, and get them to finish these questions. With self-learning, students may feel that they are prepared even if they aren’t. What are the ways that Siloam helps to resolve these issues?
Interestingly, Overwrite (flagship product of Siloam) provides for an objective and factual assessment of the students’ competence (or readiness as you put it) in the subject. Ironically, human teachers can sometimes misread a student’s competency because there are a myriad of factors (time taken, topical incompetence, to name a few) that go through a teacher’s mind when assessing a student’s competency. While Siloam is not in the business of replacing human teachers, we try to provide an objective assessment of the students’ understanding of the theoretical aspect of the subject so that teachers can spend more time educating on the weaknesses highlighted by Overwrite. We try to be the mirror for the student, where they see their own standing for themselves. Thereafter, it is their prerogative to find help for the specific areas highlighted. 7. There have been many concerns raised over machines taking over the world. What do you think of the people who decry AI, and do their worries have any basis?
People bemoan change for various reasons, but mostly due to self-interest. Some would decry AI for taking over their jobs, because they’re resistant to training and upskilling. Jobs, as with the four other industrial revolutions, will always evolve. And humans will always evolve and adapt to the latest needs. While AI threatens to replace many jobs - and it will - people will adapt and do higher-level work. While I empathise with their reluctance to retool themselves, I’m confident that the resourcefulness in humanity will help them adapt yet again. Some others decry AI for its relentless and seemingly dogged approach to tracking users’ habits, privacy is now becoming a luxury rather than a right. This concern is fair and I too am worried about our increasing reliance on such tracking. I can’t speak for others, but I sometimes find myself in a pickle because while I am concern about being monitored, I’m reliant on their “suggestions” as well. How this conundrum will pan out remains to be seen, but I’m guessing as per my assertion above, we will adapt. Already some studies have shown that young people today won’t think twice about trading privacy for convenience. How we mindlessly allow apps to access our Camera Roll or Contacts for easy upload of documents or syncing of contacts in our networks. It’s scary how even though we know the implications, we consciously chose over it.
8. Some people are reluctant to do private tuition because they dislike social interaction with a stranger. In this regard, do you think that AI learning will be able to help special needs youths better than professional adults?
As a former teacher, my views on this will likely be biased but I’ll just say anyway. Technology will never replace a trade that requires the human touch. While technology can assess objectively, the art of imparting knowledge, experience, wisdom, and the like will never be fully replaced by a machine. It’s too clinical for it to be meaningful at all. Machines, at least at this stage, are still best at diagnosing, not curing.
9. What are your concerns about AI learning, and what limitations do you think you might face?
That one day, we are too dependent on this symbiotic relationship, that we can no longer function as our own without the help of artificial extensions of our mind and body. As it is, Google has replaced our need to memorise formulae, road navigation, and many more. Like AI replacing jobs, these functions are now taken by technology and our minds are freed up for other higher-order thinking. A more profound worry, for me, is how education as an industry itself, is still not evolving. With information readily at our fingertips today, students are still “tested” primarily via the test of recall. The more you can memorise, the higher you’ll score, and therefore the more competent you are. This is fundamentally erroneous, and more starkly, nobody’s doing anything about it because it is a “systemic” problem that cannot be solved by one company, or sector, or stakeholder. The limitation in this, is no matter how pervasive AI can be in our lives, we will still be learning and testing via a pedagogy meant for the industrial revolution.