Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The Young AI champions

CNBC TV 18 presents The Young AI Champions

Published: Jun 15, 2022 03:55:07 PM IST
Updated: Jun 29, 2022 06:33:25 PM IST

The Young AI championsThe origins of Artificial Intelligence can be traced back to the 1950s when Alan Turing, a young British mathematician wrote the groundwork for modern computing as we know it. He posited that if human beings use the information around them to solve problems and take necessary decisions, machines, too, can do the same thing by learning over time. Today, Artificial intelligence has come a long way with applications in almost every industry and India is poised to become the future hub of AI.

A study by NASSCOM, an industry body has placed India 8th in the world in terms of AI patent filings, a rather impressive feat in a short span of time. This is largely down to a thriving ecosystem that includes developers, policymakers and industry leaders who have forged partnerships to solve a wide array of real-world problems.

To discuss why India is taking rapid strides in the world of AI, Preeti Syal, senior specialist NITI Aayog and Kirti Seth CEO, SSC NASSCOM joined in a freewheeling conversation with AI Champions Pranav Savla and Rishit Dagli. Each of them has contributed, in their respective capacities, to further bolster the AI landscape in the country.

AI is here to stay

For starters, what are some of the key building blocks where technology and policy can converge to achieve goals and where AI is used to solve everyday solutions in our lives? While answering the question, Ms. Syal struck an optimistic tone. She opined that AI has already started impacting our lives in a big way. The pandemic has only acted as a catalyst and has spawned many AI solutions that have helped individuals and companies.

For instance, simple AI-powered dashboards helped patients and their relatives to find oxygen concentrators when Covid-19 was at its peak, thereby saving lives. AI also has helped to diagnose the extent of the disease by scanning images of patients’ lungs. “A lot of the solutions came during the pandemic and now are an integral part of our lives,” said Ms. Syal.

As AI models grow and developers learn from the large peer ecosystem, the technology will only find more applicable solutions that will shape lives. “Language”, said Ms. Syal “has been a barrier for adoption in India”. A lot of the policy work is now being focused to address this concern and to make the technology scalable.

Skilled personnel is the need of the hour

More crucially, how can India keep up with the voracious appetite for data scientists and analytics experts? Is there a skill gap and if so, what can be done to bridge it? Ms. Seth of NASSCOM puts the figure of skilled personnel required to meet the new demands at around “250,000 who can take up jobs in these emerging technologies.” It is reassuring though that both college and school curriculums are being built up more in line with what is needed in the real world.

Pranav Savla, 16-year-old programmer is one such individual who is doing his bit by building apps for the visually impaired using AI. As a thirteen year old, he started his AI journey by using PyTorch an open source machine learning framework developed by Meta. Calling himself a “wanderer”, he said that he is always on the lookout for building applications where he can make a difference to the ones in need. Vidhya Drishti, a platform to help the visually impaired express more creatively, features among his key creations. The second project was a game that helped the same community to come closer to their family through entertainment. His creations are no longer college projects and have made a huge impact to their target audience.

Another one of his personal quests is to make information easily available to everyone looking for it. In that light, he developed a “book researching” application to allow people to “discover new books easily and search for the ones they already like and given them links to multiple platforms to buy these books.” The idea was to enable people get their work done easily and more seamlessly.

Start with a clear understanding of the business problem

Defining a problem statement, too, is equally important as the technology itself. For instance, Pranav started out with a clear goal: Of “bridging communities that are considered to be relegated to a corner of society by society itself. This could range from LGBTQ community to those who have been affected by language and racism.”

Rishit Dagli, another young AI champion, too, believes in “using tech for social good and advancing the frontiers of AI”. These are the two goals around which he has built his apps. One such problem that he tackled was child safety and another app called “Smart Farm” addressed the myriad problems faced by farmers in India.

Such has been his journey this far that he has also started mentoring adolescent geeks in this domain. Growing up, math and science fascinated him and got him interested in programming. While kids his age would keep up with the classroom curriculum, Rishit would spend his free time at IIT Bombay listening to professors and scientists talk about new technologies and their applications.

At the age of ten, he started tinkering with robotics and was introduced to AI soon after. “Needless to say, this was magic to a younger me”, confessed Rishit. He hit the ground running after realizing that he could apply his skills in both math and science that were honed at school to use AI.

Today, as a teenager, the interest has grown into a self-sustained passion that has spawned many applications that make a difference. “Working on projects is a great way to learn”, he said while stressing that getting one’s hands dirty is the best way to understand the technology and get better at it over time. There is also a sense of satisfaction to see all the theory come to life through these self-motivated assignments. The idea is to make mistakes, fail fast and get on to the next project while further honing one’s skills.

 “In this journey, the Meta open source platform and PyTorch-related projects have been super-helpful to me,” said Rishit. “Pytorch was in fact one of the first frameworks I used when I stepped into the world of AI and most of my projects have been implemented using PyTorch”, he said. Today, he shares his learnings and contributes back to the community across open source forums.

For such applications to flourish, both the public and private sectors will have to play their parts. “The government is proactively trying to ensure that creativity and inquisitiveness is developed within our younger children through labs”, said Ms. Syal. This coupled with industry and academia cohesiveness along with a “large chunk of R&D money behind the initiative” is driving a lot of growth in this ecosystem.

As a parting note, both the young AI champions had sound words of advice for those wanting to venture into their passions in the world of AI. “Don’t be afraid to make a new path for yourself,” said Rishit, while Pranav said “Don’t be afraid to fail because remember that failure is more successful at times than success because it teaches you a lot. It makes you harder, sharper and more geared for battle”.

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