During the pandemic, Karim Beguir’s company InstaDeep trained a large language model to detect new variants of COVID-19. The “early warning system” was able to detect 12 of the 13 variants that the World Health Organization later designated as potentially dangerous, identifying them on average two months before the WHO labeled them as such.
It was an early use of generative AI for healthcare, and a sign that the underpinnings of today’s AI boom have much farther-reaching implications than chatbots. The success was especially special for InstaDeep which—as an AI company founded in Tunisia, north Africa—struggled for years against the perception that it did not stand a chance of breaking into a world dominated by Silicon Valley.
Beguir received a TIME100 Impact Award in Dubai on Sunday, in recognition of his achievements in the field of artificial intelligence. He and his company “are helping accelerate progress towards an AI-first world that benefits us all,” said TIME editor-in-chief Sam Jacobs, who presented him with the award after a performance by AI artist & researcher Reeps100.
“InstaDeep is an AI company, but it’s also an idea driven by human values,” Beguir told the audience at the Museum of the Future in Dubai while accepting his award. “From the beginning, my co-founder Zohra Slim and I focused on empowering young talent in Africa and beyond, creating a path for them to participate in the global conversation around AI and deep tech innovation. And yes, it was hard.”
But that hard work paid off. In 2023, InstaDeep was acquired by BioNTech, the biotech company that pioneered a COVID-19 vaccine, for approximately $680 million. “Now that the path is there, we hope many innovators, in Africa and beyond, will follow,” Beguir said on stage.
Beguir dedicated the award to his parents, especially his late father, Dr. Abdallah Beguir, who settled his family in a town facing the desert in Tunisia after returning from medical school in France. He could have stayed in relative comfort in Paris, but “he focused on where, as a doctor, he could help patients most,” Beguir said. “My father taught me, through his acts, that human values must be at the core of any project.”
Those values, Beguir said, are at the core of his own work in AI today. “InstaDeep continues to solve problems that have plagued industries for decades,” Jacobs, the TIME editor-in-chief, said on Sunday. “Karim believes that the biggest obstacles are also the biggest opportunities.”
TIME100 Impact Awards / AI is sponsored by World Government Summit, Museum of the Future, Northern Data Group, and AI71.
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