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Interview: How two Malaysian students achieved podium finishes at the AWS DeepRacer Women’s League ASEAN

As part of Amazon Web Services (AWS)’ Build On, ASEAN 2020 hackathon, the first ever AWS DeepRacer Women’s League in Southeast Asia concluded at the end of September. In a fierce competition between female students from various educational institutions across the region, two Malaysians stood on the podium at the conclusion of the inaugural league: Lysandra Koon Sue Ann and Shobana Athiappan.

According to Tan Lee Chew, Managing Director for ASEAN, Worldwide Public Sector at AWS, Lysandra and Shobana beat off competition from over 200 participants, including over 30 students from Malaysia. So, how did two Malaysian students place in the top 3 across the entire ASEAN region?

The AWS DeepRacer Women’s League ASEAN

The AWS DeepRacer Women’s League—as suggested by its name—was a race between autonomous vehicles on simulated tracks. The AWS DeepRacer vehicles that were used are cloud-based, 1/18th fully autonomous race cars built using Amazon Sagemaker, a managed service that allows for building, modelling, and implementation of models. RL (reinforced learning) techniques are used to program the cars, with participants competing in virtual races taking place in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore.

The league was open to women aged 17 and above, with access to the AWS Educate programme providing training to participants from the ground up. In fact, Lee Chew explained that the idea behind the league was to provide a learning platform for RL and cloud computing—in a “non-intimidating” way.

“As we look at how organisations are increasingly keen to derive insights from the analysis of data, we know that in the not-too-distant future, every application will be infused with some element of machine learning or artificial intelligence. As we look at that skill set, we are deeply aware that there is a shortage of that talent in cloud computing and machine learning across the region.”

She also pointed at a 2020 report from the World Economic Forum that predicts a 16 percent increase in Data and AI jobs from 2020–2022. On the local side of things, it was reported that over 87 percent of organisations in Malaysia lack the “ready talent” for the digital economy. All of that led to the DeepRacer Women’s League, with Lee Chew explaining:

“It is important for us to equip the younger generation with these highly sought-after skills. We need to build a future-ready workforce. When we thought about DeepRacer, we wanted students—who may or may not have backgrounds [with] machine learning—to have fun with it and explore.”

Why a women’s league?

This is the first time that AWS has organised a women-only DeepRacer league, which is part of their commitment to prepare a future-ready, diverse workforce. During the league, a number of winners highlighted their hopes for more women to be involved in tech, with Lee Chew encouraged by the young women who were excited to get out of their comfort zones:

“I think this is really what this whole DeepRacer Women’s league is all about. It is reaching out to help women build critical skills for a more diverse and a much needed future-ready workforce.”

The competition was open to women above the age of 17 who were enrolled in a diploma/degree programme in the region—even those who didn’t have a relevant background or programming skills. Instead, participants were given access to the AWS Educate programme—a three-pronged educational approach on cloud computing concepts and relevant skills.

“AWS Educate, the programmes that they have and the videos, it makes it a lot easier to learn something new. It’s a lot less scary, it’s not like fancy terms and lots of codes and stuff—a lot of stuff is laid out for you to try new things. Anyone could have tried it.”

– Lysandra Koon Sue Ann

Lee Chew also expressed her excitement at the sight of two Malaysian students standing on the (virtual) podium: Lysandra Koon Sue Ann and Shobana Athiappan.

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What the winners have to say

Lysandra, a final year student majoring in Bachelor of Robotics and Mechatronics Engineering (Honours) at Monash University, explained that she almost missed the competition due to academic commitments. Additionally, RL was not something that she had experience in, prior to the league, resulting in some hesitancy. However, videos and tutorials that were made available via AWS Educate made the experience “more enjoyable and less scary”, she revealed—culminating in her success as the top-placed Malaysian in the region.

Shobana, on the other hand, did her Bachelors in Artificial Intelligence, and is currently studying for her Masters in Data Science at the University of Malaya. Despite her familiarity with the subject, she said that she had been missing hands-on experience with RL:

“You need to have hands-on exposure in order to apply your knowledge. What I had was book knowledge—I studied it, I know what it is, but I didn’t know exactly how to apply this in real life.”

With her newfound experience and knowledge, she discussed future career opportunities in autonomous, self-driving cars—while also discussing the possibility of spreading her knowledge through a thesis.

“By teaching, obviously. By teaching, spreading the knowledge, that will be my contribution.”

For now, the DeepRacer Women’s League ASEAN is a one-off event, although AWS will continue to run DeepRacer leagues and other inclusive programmes depending on feedback from the pioneering group of participants. For their part, both Lysandra and Shobana have called for more events and competitions that offer opportunities to learn:

“It can be for every stage of life for people. It’s an extra skill.

“I think that this competition must happen again, but on a bigger scale in Malaysia. Not just university students, we want all-in from everyone. Multiple levels—then you’ll feel the heat, the spirit will be there. The more events they have, the more people who will be interested in ML, or AWS services.”

– Shobana Athiappan

At the heart of it, the aim is for the future of tech to be diverse, to be inclusive. According to Lee Chew, programmes like the DeepRacer Women’s League aim to make the future of tech accessible—it has to be accessible.