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BW Businessworld

India Will Be At The Forefront Of AI Revolution: Sundar Srinivasan, Microsoft India

In an interaction with BW Businessworld, Sundar Srinivasan, Vice President, Search and AI Products, Microsoft India R&D talks about various aspects of research and development under his leadership at Microsoft that will drive the AI revolution in India.

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Sundar Srinivasan, Vice President, Search and AI Products, Microsoft India R&D Pvt. Ltd.

How would you describe the last 20 months for you both professionally and personally?
The last 20 months have been unlike any other period of my life. There are a few things that have changed us fundamentally in terms of our behaviours as human beings. We have all got used to the new norms be it in our social interactions or at our workplace. One of the key learnings in the last 20 months has been that we have not only adapted to this change but we are thriving in this new normal. At Microsoft, we recognised this and we are talking about the future of work and have done a lot of research towards it. So, the last 20 months have been very interesting and have revealed to us things that we didn't know about ourselves.

What are some of the areas that have come at the forefront during the pandemic which are driven by AI?
The most notable aspect from this pandemic phase has been that technology has not just been an enabler for us to collaborate and work as groups of people who are dispersed but technology has been unlocking human potential in so many ways. For example, we used to be in situations where we used to attend meetings in a room but then suddenly it changed to a virtual environment because of the pandemic. Technology to do these virtual meetings was already there but the pandemic forced us into this situation where humans could catch up with technology. 

The other aspects where our day-to-day life is being influenced even as this pandemic has evolved are in areas like digital payments which have become a norm. Then there is education. Nobody would have imagined that over a few weeks, we would move from the classroom to learning on screens. It’s not just about the mode of learning, but there are lots of societal issues, including digital inclusion and language barriers. There is a lot more we’re going to unlock in the education sector as we look forward in terms of the capabilities which the virtual classroom has taught us. Healthcare is another area where all of a sudden, we unlocked various modes of getting medical help and consultations and this has had profound implications for a country like India where our secondary and tertiary healthcare systems can now leapfrog with the technology in play. AI is kind of like the invisible hand playing into all these disruptions happening all around us.

What are some of the innovations that your team has been working on in India and how has your talent pool contributed towards it?
Microsoft India Development Center has been at the forefront of leading innovation in various aspects of our products and technologies. The productivity tools that we use such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Teams, or even Search, are now infused with AI built into them so that you don't even know that you're using it in your day-to-day work. It could be dictating voice notes into your Word Document or reading captions on a video where someone is talking in a different language or blurring your screen background and so on.

The other aspect is of empowering start-ups and helping them to achieve their full potential by bringing AI Tech into their productions and services. This is done through what we call Azure Cognitive AI services. A lot of mobile applications have a microphone symbol or a search box, those things underneath are being enabled by some of our technologies. We are also doing things like enabling translation for somebody doing a presentation and where the audience may not completely understand the language of the presenter. That’s the ability in real-time to convert what they are speaking into text and display that in the language of the audience’s choice.

For workers who just joined an organisation and haven’t been able to go to their offices physically. We have developed this new product called Viva, which enables the new worker to get all the information about the organisation. We have also built Microsoft AI graph for the workplace which captures the relationship between workers and can power collaboration between them in our office applications. These are important kinds of innovations that we're bringing and are becoming part of our day-to-day life and empowering people to be successful in their work.

There's a lot of rising affinity for speech recognition. How is artificial intelligence being deployed to improve Indian language speech recognition, text to speech capabilities and neural machine translation models?
Microsoft believes that for India and Indians to become truly successful and empowered, we need to make technology accessible to all, irrespective of the language they may speak or read. We've come a long way in terms of supporting a lot of Indian languages in our products. It encompasses text to speech, speech to text, translation, transliteration and even conversational AI. We have a very strong machine translation group where a bunch of applied researchers, scientists and engineers are working on the cutting edge of Deep learning AI techniques to power language understanding. These Deep Learning algorithms are applied to speech, language and translation models in Indian languages which eventually gets reflected in our product suite.

We are at the cutting edge of building some of the most modern deep learning models that one can imagine. For example, we have something called a Turing Megatron, which is one of the largest known models to humankind with 530 billion parameters! We live in an era where AI is moving so fast that we are growing faster than Moore's law. Moore’s law states that every year we can double the compute power on a chip at reduced costs, but at some level, this is kind of plateauing in the last few years. 

However, AI advancements are growing even faster than how many transistors we can pack on a chip and thus challenging the computing power capabilities we need. We need computational power at the scale of cloud computer and we at Microsoft are working to make these compute hungry AI models feasible in massive computing clouds.

Your views on how AI will lead the digital transformation in India?
India is kind of unique. First of all, it is diverse. We have people speaking tens of languages, hundreds of dialects and still we find a way to communicate with each other and make progress. The other thing that's unique about India is its demography, which is very young and there’s a lot of eager capability to absorb technology & learn the latest to make their lives and livelihoods better. This unique combination will lead us to a place where AI is going to help our country ride this wave in the coming years. 

It's going to help break down language barriers and unlock the power of collaboration without having other artificial barriers. The second is, the natural modes of interaction will be enabled by AI and Indians are very quick in adapting to these like, whether it is voice or digital payments. The third area is going to be education. The Internet has kind of democratised access to information. People find information at the right time at the right place at their fingertips. In this sea of information and all of our ability to find what we need and when we need it, our lives and livelihoods are going to be revolutionised by AI and India will be one of the countries at the forefront of this revolution.