Nothing artificial about his intelligenceResearcher devises affordable scientific applications for Nepalis
During his postdoctoral research in London, Bishesh Khanal was trying to build a robot to perform automated ultrasound scans. He remembers thinking Nepal could not afford such expensive robots, how about a simple device for non-experts in remote areas to do ultrasounds?
This was not a new idea for Khanal. While pursuing his PhD in a research lab in France, he had tried to find appropriate healthcare solutions for low and middle-income countries.
“We saw powerful countries racing to make Covid jabs after the virus threatened them, but other lethal diseases like dengue and malaria that affect poorer countries are neglected,” Khanal says.
As an engineering student in Kathmandu, Khanal already knew Nepal was ill-equipped in research and development. Even the Institute of Engineering lacked opportunities for students to foster innovation.
Khanal returned to Nepal, and established NAAMII (Nepal Applied Mathematics and Informatics Institute for Research) together with a team of co-founders to explore areas where technology, specifically Artificial Intelligence, could help make a difference.
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In Europe, Khanal had friends and colleagues who shared his belief in using technologies like AI models to help solve some of Nepal's most basic problems from access to healthcare to governance and cyber-security.
“We all agreed that harnessing that potential in research could change things,” Khanal recalls.
Nepal’s universities lack opportunities to institutionalise STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) research. Khanal and his team knew that trying to bring change at the university level would lead nowhere. So they settled on a second option: starting a small and focussed centre to catalyse change.
NAAMII is a private, not-for-profit research organisation with the mission to build a foundation of scientific research in Nepal in informatics, applied math, and AI.
NAAMII’s research integrates AI, computing and robotics to tackle some of the most pressing challenges in healthcare, agriculture and governance.
One ongoing project helps the public get reliable sexual, reproductive and maternal health information through ChatGPT.
Another project is developing an AI system that can take x-ray images from different angles to accurately reconstruct 3D bone structures, enabling proper diagnosis and treatment planning. Unlike a CT-scan, this technology can be a more accessible and affordable option in Nepal.
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“We dissect every problem to see exactly where technology and AI can fit in, and we put accessibility and affordability front and centre,” explains Khanal.
As Nepal jumps on the AI bandwagon, the NAAMII team is also engaged in outreach and educational programs to help young Nepalis build foundational knowledge in AI, mathematics and machine learning.
Its Annual Nepal AI School is a dynamic forum that brings together global experts, researchers, and enthusiasts to review AI advancements.
Over the past four years, NAAMII has seen more than 500 participants from more than 25 countries come to Nepal to learn from experts. Says Khanal: “Nepal is already a hub for AI learning.”