From Maths Olympiad To Global Artificial Intelligence Player: The Rise And Rise Of Malta’s Little-Known Tech Wizard
'I don't play to participate... I play to win'
Angelo Dalli is the most successful Maltese person you’ve never heard about. He has invested in lottery companies in South America, has worked in Silicon Valley and is now planning to break ground worldwide by combining data mining with Artificial Intelligence.
From an early age, it was clear there was something a bit special about Dalli. Back in 1994, when most Maltese people didn’t even own their own computer, a 14-year-old Angelo had already plunged himself headfirst into the tech world - selling software on floppy discs to established businesses.
“I caught my bug for entrepreneurship in my early teenage years, when I realised that you can actually earn money by selling software – money which I promptly spent on teenage stuff at the time,” he told Sigma in an interview. “Later on I became wiser, started saving some of that money and gained more life and work experience than most of my peers had done, which helped kick start my entrepreneurial career.”
His interest in software and computers developed into a keen passion for maths and programming, and in 1996 he brought home Malta’s first ever medal - a bronze - in the International Mathematical Informatics, one of the most prestigious programming competitions in the world. His achievement was more impressive when you consider the context - Malta was still lagging behind in the tech scene and Angelo had to rely on Eastern European sources to train him for the competition.
Angelo Dalli interviewed by a gaming website
“I clearly remember our briefing before flying out where we listened to the usual approach of “the thing that matters is to participate” – which was statistically true, as Malta had never won in any such contest,” Dalli said. “I like to play to win – so I had replied “the thing that matters is to win”, which was met by rather sceptical looks. I managed to score a perfect score on one of the problems which secured my position in the overall rankings, and much to the surprise of our team leads, I managed to win a bronze medal, the first ever that Malta has ever won in an Olympics level event.”
Dalli stuck with that mantra throughout his life. He moved to the UK, where he read for a PhD in Artificial Intelligence and Data Mining at the University of Sheffield. A man ahead of his time, his research focused on the effect of time in language, which can be used to determine potential damaging effects of social media and fake news in shaping people’s political and purchasing patterns.
It was around this time that Dalli travelled to Silicon Valley to work on various projects, where he got to experience early prototypes of touchscreen mobile phones developed at MIT and helping create parts of the Unicode standard.
“These experiences provided a background in determining where the industry is going and trying to give people products that they may not know right now that they actually need, but that they will need in the future,” Dalli said in an interview.
Dalli stayed in the UK for a while, where he worked on traffic management software that scans vehicle license plates in real time and eventually moved back to Malta, where he used this same software to design the CVA parking system in Valletta.
Angelo Dalli helped design the CVA parking system in Valletta
He found a job lecturing in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Malta and in 2010 joined forces with his former student Keith Galea and a third partner Brian Fenech to set up Bit8 - which creates platforms for gaming and betting operators. Dalli’s idea certainly paid off - some of the world’s top casinos are now operating on the Bit8 platform and it is now even tapping into the markets of Africa and South America. Indeed, the company was valued at several millions of euro when Dalli sold it last November.
Away from the gaming world, Dalli is a keen runner and climber who in the past year alone has scaled Mount Everest Base Camp, ran the Malta half-marathon and ran the Bhutan full marathon a mere six days later. He will soon run for the Berlin and Valencia Marathons and is training to be the first Maltese person to complete the Vasaloppet cross country ski race in Sweden. He has also invested in MidnightRunners - a global community for runners sponsored by Reebok which organises communal runs in New York, Boston, London, Barcelona and Berlin. While this all makes for a remarkable CV, Dalli believes his claim to fame will ultimately reside in his latest AI venture - starting off with technology he recently bought out from a Maltese data analytics company called Minely.
Angelo Dalli finishes the Malta half-marathon this year
In brief, the idea makes use of AI to vastly facilitate big data processing for businesses, reducing actions that once required high levels of programming knowledge to a few clicks and drags.
"My new AI company will undoubtedly be my greatest challenge but I have no doubt that it will eventually be my greatest achievement,” Dalli said. “The interest I have already received from organisations and private investors alike is confirmation of this.”
Such organisations include the Maltese VJ Salomone business group and Valyou Supermarkets, as well as leading Spanish fashion company Style Lovely.
In Dalli’s mind, there is no doubt AI is in the future of humanity, going as far as to predict it will prove as revolutionary for us as the Industrial Revolution proved for the Victorians.
"Today I watch Star Trek episodes made in the 90's or even Kubrick's Space Odyssey and realise that what was produced as a science fiction has actually become a potential reality,” he said. “The fact that the shift has happened within such a short time frame of 25 years is testament to how far we’ve come.”
However, as a sci-fi fan, he is also all too aware of the potential dangers AI can pose to society and has set up a global AI advisory board.
"Imagine a future where AI can create living content which is so flexible that each individual user reads differing versions of the same article based on their social media patterns and receptiveness to the subject matter. This, like most things AI related, is incredible but also incredibly scary. This is why a code of ethics and strong legal guidelines are fundamental.”
Dalli has kept himself out of the limelight over the years, opting to slowly build his profile behind the scenes. Now, with Malta confirming its plans to turn into a global centre for emerging technologies, the man who has always kept himself a few steps ahead of the crowds has found himself well-placed to take on a leading role in what is ambitiously being described as a second Silicon Valley.
Expect more of Angelo Dalli in the years and months to come.