Date added: 2021-04-16
‘We want to give Poles one million additional years of healthy life.’ Interview with Łukasz Osowski [#LudziePG, part 5]
Maciej Dzwonnik, Gdańsk Tech spokesman: – The world heard about you shortly after you graduated from Gdańsk Tech, around 2006, when you and your team created Ivona - the best speech synthesizer at that time. It turned out then that a small team of engineers from Gdańsk managed to build a better product than the giants from IBM.
Łukasz Osowski, CEO of Lab4Life: – It's true, the breakthrough moment was the presentation of our synthesizer in the Blizzard Challenge competition in the United States. It was attended by top universities from around the world, for example from Beijing and Toronto, as well as engineering teams from IBM and Microsoft. The competition, however, had an open formula, so we decided to apply and at least prove ourselves against those who we thought were better than us. We qualified, and then the competition organizers called us to say that we absolutely must come to the announcement of the results, because ‘we are in the lead’. Together with Michał Kaszczuk, the main co-creator of the synthesizer and a colleague from the Gdańsk Tech Faculty of ETI, we packed up and went there.
It turned out that you are not only in the forefront, but that you won the entire competition.
– It was a great shock. The winner was selected by over 100 experts from around the world in the so-called ‘Blind test’ of speech synthesizers. Our product, Ivona, won. And we have to add that it had a great advantage over others.
What happened next?
– Quite a lot of publicity, both in Poland and abroad. The media wrote about the case, and large international companies interested in buying our product started to contact us.
You chose Amazon.
–Yes, Amazon bought Ivona in 2012, laying the foundations for a new product with the name that is well known all over the world today: Alexa.
Weren't you sorry to sell Ivona?
– Of course we were, yet we were also aware that a speech synthesizer alone is not enough to create a product like Alexa. Amazon wanted to create a voice assistant combining Ivona's capabilities, i.e. speech synthesis, with language processing and speech recognition, and we would not be able to develop such a technology ourselves. The further development of Ivona itself would also require huge investments and resources that we simply did not have.
So we can look at it in a positive way.
– Yes. We knew that our technology would not be lost, and what's more, as part of the agreement with Amazon in Gdańsk, the Amazon Development Center was created on the basis of our Ivona company, where new Alexa functionalities are still being developed. For the first three years, Michał and I built this center, and it was then that the first version of Alexa had its premiere in the United States and in the UK. It was and still is a big hit, people got a voice assistant built into their car, refrigerator or microwave. Today it is used by hundreds of millions of people around the world.
A few weeks ago both you and the scientists from Gdańsk Tech were again widely talked about. This time, thanks to the VIKA application, which supports healthy lifestyle. Where did the idea for such a product come from?
– First of all, in recent years I have experienced some health problems myself, which practically immobilized me for many months. While at home and waiting for recovery, I thought a lot about the fact that sudden, unexpected loss of health and the inability to regain full fitness is a terrible vision for every human being. In my case, it was a serious knee injury, so I was aware that sooner or later I would recover, but what would people who suffered a stroke or those who fell ill with incurable diseases say? At the age of 30 or 40, you can suddenly lose everything, all your everyday life, which is both a physical and psychological trauma for every person. It turns out, however, that many diseases can be avoided, or at least postponed and we can enjoyed health for much longer.
– Leading a healthier lifestyle. I started talking about it with experts, for example from the Medical University of Gdańsk. We analyzed studies that showed that even a dozen or so additional years of healthy life depends on lifestyle. So I decided to create a tool that, firstly: will analyze the user's current lifestyle and calculate how many ‘healthy’ years they have left, and secondly: will help them gain additional, ‘healthy’ years.
How does it work?
– The VIKA application is based on algorithms developed by scientists and on medical data obtained from scientific databases, including these from BioBank in Great Britain or CDC in the USA. These were huge amounts of patient data to be processed, but we also needed the largest possible sample of people tested comprehensively and in a wide time perspective. As a result, we analyzed the health of over 500,000. people, and we had up to 8,000 pieces of medical information for each of them. On the basis of these data, we have developed a model that predicts with a high degree of probability the life expectancy and health of each of these people. We built it into the VIKA application, which can make the same calculations and forecasts, but for new users.
So I'm installing the application ...
– ... and at the very beginning, it will carefully analyze your physical condition and your current lifestyle through an extensive and honest questionnaire, and shall then make special calculations based on the above-mentioned model. The result of these calculations will be tailored to you: on the one hand, the application will evaluate your current lifestyle, and then start showing what you should change to improve it. Just after completing the questionnaire, you will know where you stand and how many ‘healthy years’ you have left, but the next steps will be up to you.
Without making any changes to your everyday life, you will see how your remaining time in health decreases, but you can also try to implement the tips contained in the application or start completing the missions suggested by it. Going through each one will add more months and years of full health to your life expectancy, and can also help you form healthy habits, be it eating, exercising, or sleeping. You will be able to gain 3-4 years of health, and in some cases even 7 years.
What if the user already leads an exemplary lifestyle?
– We can only be happy about it, but unfortunately it is an extremely rare situation. As a rule, some fixes and improvements could be useful in at least some elements of our everyday life, and VIKA will help in this. What's more, the application will calculate what exactly you can gain by carrying out individual activities or changing your habits.
How long do you have to wait for the results?
– Sometimes briefly, sometimes a little longer. But thanks to the VIKA application, we can see our goal, progress and real benefits. And this is extremely important, because as people we have a problem with the so-called ‘postponing the reward’. The more distant the reward in time, unspecified, foggy, the less we care about it. Here we are talking about a situation in which in a few years’ time you will be healthier than your peers, but thanks to the application you have specific information: you know how much longer your life will be, what your everyday life will look like, how you will feel in your body. Currently, there is no other such application in the world that combines medical prognosis based on hard data with motivating the user to change their individual habits in order to optimally extend healthy life.
How did the work on creating the application proceed? Who was involved in it?
– A research team was formed, including specialists in their fields. They are: PhD Piotr Wiśniewski from the MUG, who is the medical director of the entire project, PhD Piotr Bandosz, MD, a lifestyle specialist, Beata Jackowska professor at UG, who is responsible for mathematical and statistical modeling, PhD Robert Różański, biotechnologist and philosopher, responsible for modeling with machine learning and artificial intelligence methods, and prof. Jacek Rumiński from Gdańsk University of Technology. Of course, there was also a team of programmers led by Tomasz Noiński, who has extensive experience: he co-created, among others the rise of Gmail at Google, or Alexa at Amazon. We also have a dietitian, psychologist, anthropologist and graphic designers in our team. As you can see nowadays such a project - it would seem to be strictly based in the IT field - combines the knowledge of people coming from many different fields.
In what direction are you going to develop the application? Are you thinking about international reach and possible sale of the product to a larger company, as was the case with Ivona and Amazon?
– VIKA is a social and business venture. Our goal is one million years of health in Poland more, we want to help hundreds of thousands of Poles. Of course, we are thinking about international promotion, but we want people to be as satisfied as possible with VIKI's functionality, so for now we are refining our product.
Our business model also assumes that an average user can use most of these functionalities for free, although of course you can enter the premium package, which currently costs PLN 120 a year, and in which you can assess the potential risk of developing specific diseases, such as diabetes or cancer. It also allows you to unlock higher levels of individual health missions.
Do you have ideas for new, innovative projects, or are you going to focus on developing the VIKA application for now?
– Definitely the latter option. As the popularity grows, VIKA will gain new functionalities, we will gain new markets and constantly improve our product.
Now let's go back in time. What are your recollections from your studies at Gdańsk University of Technology?
– I associate them primarily with freedom as well as interesting acquaintances, which have often survived to this day. I appreciate the fact that already during my studies I had the opportunity to do interesting and innovative things, and the teaching staff helped me spread my wings.
What's more, it was thanks to my studies at Gdańsk Tech that I got to know my professional predispositions. Once, prof. Andrzej Dyka made us take the so-called Thomas PPA test, based on the DISC methodology and examining personality. It turned out then that approximately 10 percent of us, students, had predispositions to run a business. I found myself in this group, which confirmed my conviction to fight for my own. So I quit the job I had at that time and started creating Ivona.
Many current Gdańsk Tech students would be happy to follow the same career path after graduation as yours.
– So I can tell them that they are in the right place to develop their passions and they should use this opportunity. Our university is a great place for development, as well as an experimental field where you can meet like-minded people. And I am talking about both my colleagues from the year, as well as the scientists and academic teachers themselves.
And one more thing. During the studies, the most important decisions in life are made, and I can only recommend that you shouldn't rush them too much. Sometimes it's better to stand still for a moment and see yourself and your future from a broader perspective. Do not ‘jump’ right onto the job market after graduating from engineering studies, but extend the time of study and make this move after acquiring new skills and competences. I can assure you that it will do you good in the long run.