As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes a dominant social force, we’re learning how to use it in various ways. But at its core, it can make “the most complex problems become easily solvable.”

That’s according to California State University, Fullerton student José “Pepe” Tapia, who is a recipient of Amazon Web Services’ Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (ML) Scholarship.

The tech giant’s program is for underrepresented and underserved students from high school and college. Upon completion, they will learn foundational machine learning concepts for future AI and ML careers.

A silver lining with a chance to start over

Tapia heard about the program from his girlfriend, Risa, who he says was at the start of his journey. After graduating from high school, Tapia felt he had lost his sense of direction. He got into trouble with the law and fell into a deep depression.

Then, Risa encouraged him to re-enroll in a four-year college after Tapia got certified in web development.

Used with permission from Amazon Web Services

Today, the 28-year-old juggles three different projects using AI while finishing up his last school semester. In conversation with mitú, he spoke about how he uses AI to solve everyday problems, what kick-started his interest in tech and what he hopes to see in the future of AI and machine learning.

Changing the trajectory of his life

Tapia was born in the United States to Mexican parents who had migrated in the 1980s. His mother and father worked full-time, and although he was the middle child, he enjoyed caring for his two older sisters and two younger brothers in Escondido, California. 

His role in his family, and how it mirrors other relationships in his life, is something that he’s thinking about more frequently now. Especially since he’s on the verge of becoming a first-generation college graduate.

“I definitely am known to go out of my way — maybe a bit too much — where I give people the benefit of the doubt a bit too often,” Tapia says. “Being the eldest [son] of my family, in that context, really shaped my worldview of being open-minded, honest, and sincere.”

After graduating high school, he was at a crossroads. Tapia suffered from depression and weighed about 290 pounds, describing it as “the worst” he could possibly be mentally and physically. He was a year into his relationship with his girlfriend, Risa, who affirmed him to help pull him out of those feelings.

When Risa graduated from UCLA, it gave Tapia the confidence to consider returning to school. Witnessing how she studied, how rigorous her curriculum was and how she persevered through school was enough for him to consider returning for a certificate. Risa suggested committing to four full years.

“She was patient enough to not pressure me into finding stability at the time,” Tapia explains. “She empowered me to go back to school.”

In a 180-degree turn, Tapia applied himself and realized he had something good going. He took a biology class that helped him lose 60 pounds and learned about topics he was interested in from passionate professors. It’s a decision he says is all thanks to Risa.

“When I was growing up, I wished I had that type of person all the time,” he says. “I’m glad I found her at the right time.”

Tapia is exploring tech as a potential career

A longtime lover of taking things apart and putting them back together, Tapia knew he was destined for computer science. He completed his web development certificate and started his computer science degree in 2019.

Subsequently, he met a professor who taught AI and machine learning. He took his course, finding that the professor’s enthusiasm and love for the topic made the class easy to get into and understand.

Then, last spring, Tapia sought something to do over the summer that piqued his interest. Risa sent him a link to the Amazon Web Services DeepRacer Student, a program where those interested in machine learning can compete in a virtual racing simulator and opt-in to the AWS AI & ML Scholarship program.

As a result, things ended up working out for Tapia. He became one of the 2,500 students awarded a scholarship. He decided to take what he learned from the opportunity and challenge himself to build something that would help families and communities.

Tapia’s AI and ML innovation for his community

He got the idea to build a live-streaming device to help him watch his younger brother’s basketball games in Escondido from Fullerton. 

“I started getting really heavily into basketball, coaching my brothers at the league that they played, and I thought, ‘I’m leaving soon, I’m about to transfer over to a university, and it’s gonna feel really bad to not see them,’” he says.

Using a camera module, a tiny computer known as a Raspberry Pi and an online service to livestream, Tapia was able to create an affordable and accessible solution to his problem. The machine learning and AI components can track and focus on a ball or player. Additionally, it can record the game and create highlight clips.

It was his first hands-on experience developing a product, and while it’s still a work in progress, there’s potential there. As a matter of fact, the director of Escondido’s community basketball program is interested in Tapia’s innovation.

“I want him to be the first one to be able to use it,” Tapia says. “I’ve talked to them about setting it all up, so he has a really good idea about it.”

Used with permission from Amazon Web Services

He hopes to finish up the project over the summer so it’s ready for his younger brother’s first high school basketball season this fall. 

AI and ML will one day become the norm

Tapia has learned much through the AWS scholarship and meeting with mentors over the past year. He’s concurrently working on two other projects: a tool for sports teams and an AI video game coach. Risa, who he calls his “best mentor,” gives him advice on staying organized and using his time wisely as he multitasks.

All things considered, AI programs have been introduced to the world with some hesitation. Many people are skeptical of AI causing unemployment, privacy concerns, and more.

However, Tapia’s experience studying and working with it through the AWS scholarship program has been positive. He recommends utilizing it where you can now, so it can benefit you long term. 

According to a study conducted by Gallup and AWS, almost 40% of companies expect that AI and ML will become a standard part of their operations in the future. Employees surveyed ranked AI as the third most crucial skillset for advancing their careers.

“I think most people should appreciate and understand that AI is going to be a tool to benefit what you’re already good at, or, a tool to benefit something you want to be good at,” said Tapia.

How Latino communities can benefit from AI

In addition, according to a study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Hispanic people make up 3.1 to 5.3 percent of the country’s tech sector. Something Tapia wants to see in the future of AI and machine learning is accessibility and diversity. 

“There’s also different demographics that might be able to use AI and ML, and it [would] benefit them to study it,” he says. “I hope we see a lot more inclusivity and diversity with all ethnic backgrounds and abilities as well.”

Looking back at how his life changed, Tapia is thankful for his support system for all the encouragement and direction. He also has advice for those going through similar adversity: 

“It’s better to do something now, than to not do anything at all,” he says. “Doing one small step will take you places.”

How to sign up for the AWS AI and ML Scholarship program

Amazon Web Services’ AI and ML scholarship program is currently accepting applications for their 2023 summer session. Students have until May 31 to complete the prerequisites and application for a chance to be one of 2,500 recipients. They will receive preparatory materials and personalized mentorship from an AWS staff member. A winter session will also occur with applications due Sept. 30.