Zohaib Ahmed, 27, is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Resemble AI, a software startup providing tools to clone speech and speech patterns. His Toronto-based company allows clients such as those in the movie and game development industries to create voice-overs with more flexibility than with just voice acting alone. Before founding Resemble AI, Mr. Ahmed worked at various software companies such as virtual-reality (VR) company Magic Leap, travel metasearch engine Hipmunk and BlackBerry Ltd.
When did you decide computer science was your calling?
My father ran a travel agency, how you did back in the day without venture capital. [My parents] moved from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia (where I was born) and we moved to Brampton when I was five. I spent time at his office in junior high, installing and playing games all weekends. I really liked programming and coding in high school. He said I could do any work except travel because of 18-hour days and low margins. He passed away when I was in Grade 11. That teaches you a lot. I didn’t put in hard work then. In Grade 12, I started building websites, learning how to code. I liked designing logos and building online directories, selling logos [online]. The first money I made was $120 for the worst one. Then I went to the University of Toronto.
During university you had jobs?
With classes three days a week, I got a coding job at a startup, commuting [between work and school]. But it was worth it and fun because I liked it. I worked there for eight months, thinking, “There’s not a lot stopping me from doing what you’re doing except for an idea.” I got a similar job in the summer of 2000 [and my pay was] $20 an hour. That was huge. Then I set up a company consulting on websites. My first contract was like $3,000 a month. I was over the moon because someone said “yes” to me. I hired class friends, most of whom were working in [fast food] so it was super easy to convince them. I had 13 customers and generated $130,000 but wasn’t running a startup. It was a small business.
In each job, your average stint seems to last a year – are you easily bored?
Yeah. BlackBerry was an internship. I thought I should try a large company. It taught me about bureaucracy, overhead, management – everything a large organization suffers from. Six people in a room is very different than 20,000 people across the world. I’ll probably never join a large company again. I wouldn’t have enough creative freedom.
Why create Resemble AI?
Hipmunk had Foo Fridays when you worked on what you wanted. I felt like an entrepreneur. One idea was a chatbot AI assistant, the first product I built from scratch, had three patents there. Hipmunk was sold but I didn’t want to go to a large company. The most outrageous thing I could find was augmented virtual reality, so I joined a team. Then I combined stuff I learned about products, startups and new technology. I went into it thinking that everyone focuses on eyes, but no one seems to focus on ears and a lot of experiences start with hearing.
What’s your elevator speech?
Resemble AI does voice cloning. We reproduce what you say and what you sound like with how you speak for more creative uses of speech. It allows for flexibility and creativity of a voice actor,“[so new audio is created, permitting editing], similar to how movies are visually edited. With speech, you say it once and it’s locked – that’s what we change. Music is definitely harder to replicate because of fluctuations in pitch and rhythm.
Are there safeguards against malevolent uses?
We’re focused on ethics. We provide levels of protection; we only allow you to record your own voice and work with agencies that have explicit consent with talents to clone their voices. We are obligated to fight against fakes produced without consent not using our system. We open-sourced Resemblyzer, a machine learning model that takes seconds of speech and detects whether other audio is fake by matching voice similarity and intonation. We opened it to the community to start discussion about how to fight bad actors.
Has your mother said you’re putting in long days like your father did?
She does! If I could critique my dad, it might be the immigrant mentality – feeling obligated to work hard, and for a certain number of hours related to income. That’s not true. There are a number of hours you can work your best, then you need to stop. I go to the gym. When I lift a 185-pound bar, I’m not thinking about work. I’m thinking about how I’m getting that bar off my chest.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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