Setu's (micro)blog

Next Phase of Life

The last few months have been some of the most gruelling ones I have ever encountered, personally and professionally. I was supposed to graduate next month with my Masters, but I pushed that to December because a marvellous opportunity presented in the nick of time. In about 24 hours, I will leave Indianapolis, which has been my home since I arrived in USA in August, 2016, to pursue a research internship at one of the biggest technology companies in the world. Two years ago, had someone told me I'd be pursuing a research internship today, I'd have laughed really hard at that proposition. Now, I am only incredibly happy.

But the story of how I got here is very dear to me. I planned to pursue a MS, while focusing my work on embedded systems. After all, it was the 'safe' thing to do. It was one subject that I took in the first semester of my Master's that made me realize that my real interest lies in artificial intelligence and the cutting edge of computer science, not embedded systems. It was way out of my comfort zone and a terrible risk. But soon thereafter, I started working on my thesis which aims at providing better preventive healthcare to patients by using natural language processing. Concurrently, I continued working on another project with another professor that involved applying artificial intelligence to the task of a utility prediction system. Both these projects that started around January, 2018, and the work I have done since then has been the most gratifying and satisfying part of my academic life. I have learnt more than I ever knew, and yearn to learn a lot more. It led me to present my work at avenues I never knew achievable. If it hadn't been for that one choice, one leap of faith, I wouldn't be here today, and I wanted to take a minute to absorb it and relish it, before the next phase kicks in tomorrow.

I start interning on Monday, and I can't wait for the work phase of my life to begin. It is a big step forward for someone who has spent the last 22 (!) years of his life studying and preparing for this very moment. As of right now, I feel humbled, excited and nervous, all at the same time...

India & Politics

Indian politics is one of the most complicated and divided in the world, and it is amplified by the diversity of the country. I came across this forum discussion about why self-driving cars remain and will probably remain a dream in India for the foreseeable future, while the developed world inches towards policies and laws governing such vehicles. Much of the blame with a lot of India's problems starts with the polity, but fairly trickle down to the people who put them in power.

"We get the politicians we deserve," they say and I concur. Indian politicians have been obsessed with power and ruling, not working. And despite that, Indians have elected the same politicians. The fault does lie in our electoral thought process and the choices we make. Despite being a democracy, more often than not, Indians choose their local representatives based on their affiliations with a national outfit. This choice that does not account for representative's local performance or policies is detrimental as it voids the importance of local issues. The PM will not fix the potholes in your lane; your local corporator, MLA, MP will. A politician who wants to work towards the progress of the constituency will also want to work with superiors at the city, state, country level and lead to progress of the country. But a representative who only wants to accumulate power will try to stay in power for the next 5 years by hook or crook.

A democratic entity functions successfully only when it works as a ground-up, and not top-down. There are some fundamental problems with the country and the only way to fix it is accountability. Our politicians need to be held accountable for every promise they make, every word they say and every policy they advocate for.

Ground realities change governments, not extravagant unfulfilled promises. Or so I hope.

P.S.: I wrote a similar, longer post when the 2014 Lok Sabha elections were approaching: The Dance Of Democracy.

AAAI 2018

Over the last few days, I attended AAAI 2018, which is among the premier conferences on AI conducted in the whole year. I feel honored that I got a chance to present my research project under the 'Innovative Applications of Artificial Intelligence' (IAAI-18) track, and attend the whole conference. Having attended two much smaller and more specialized IEEE conferences in the last 6 months, the sheer scale and expert knowledge of AAAI has been an overwhelming experience.

Here are some quick observations:

  • AI research is just beginning to scrape the surface. There is so much more that is possible, so much more to do and so many more things to accomplish.
  • It seems pretty evident that AI is distinguishing itself as its own science field, away from computer science. Most of presentations I saw did not talk about the computational aspect, because the large time, data, capacity and computational abilities required are assumed. But so is research for most other sciences like physics, biology, chemistry, etc. AI has its fundamentals in computer science, but it is carving its own place.
  • Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, Reinforcement Learning, Computer Vision, etc. have started to branch out as distinct fields. Working in one of them does not mean you are good enough to work in any or all of them. Domain specific knowledge is valuable.
  • The importance of research is extremely well understood by American and Chinese companies. I did see representation from a few other Asian and European companies as well, but what was noteworthy for me was the lack of any Indian company presenting significant research work in AI.
  • Indian companies may be absent, but a lot of AI research at various institutions and universities is conducted (and presented) by Indians. I think this also exemplifies the limitations with our academic structure and the desperate need for its overhaul. Except a few professors from IITs, most of the Indians at the conference did not reside / conduct research in India.
  • Research is a significant division of every Chinese technology company like Didi, Tencent, Alibaba, JD, Baidu, etc. Even after spending a couple of days in China last October, I was really surprised at the scale of the work these companies do. (Didi powers more than 20 million rides everyday!)
  • Most companies are just beginning to explore and deploy the first sets of AI applications, and are already impressed. Others that have been in the area for quite a while are marching ahead at great speeds. But AI is more than just a buzzword, and it needs to be deployed with care.

I am glad I switched my research area within the first semester of starting my Master's program. It is an exciting time to be living in, and especially so if you work in AI!

P.S.: In case you are wondering, I presented a water demand prediction model that I developed as a class project in Spring 2017, and improved during Summer 2017 at IAAI-18. While this project was in applied AI, my primary research area is applied natural language processing in the healthcare domain. Feel free to write to me if you want to know more!

Short Films

For the last few months, I have been watching a bunch of short films on YouTube, with most of them being from Indian directors, actors and storytellers. And everytime I watch a good one I am amazed at the amount of talent in India. Not just actors or directors, but also photographers, videographers, editors, sound engineers, etc. It has been a pleasant experience, and one that I am sure to continue for quite a long time (my YouTube Watch Later playlist is full of short films that seem interesting).

But it also makes me wonder how much this talent could be nurtured if we had more in the form of education and vocational training for people who want to pursue such careers. Bollywood is the world's largest film industry in terms of movies produced and tickets sold. How many more stories, telling stories, relevant stories could be told if movie making (and related) was made available as an educational choice? I only wonder...

I have spent a couple hours in the last few days moving my website to a new host. I knew that when I did this, I wanted to add a new CMS to start writing more often. I did that. And then, I spent some time updating the content on my home page to reflect my recent work, projects, etc.

A lot has happened in the last ~18 months. I graduated with a degree in Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering from Pune University, and started pursuing a Master's degree in Computer Engineering at Purdue School of Engineering and Technology, Indianapolis, USA. I have spent more time doing research than anything else in the last year, and I am happier for it. I wanted to communicate that to people visiting my website, and thus the update. If you haven't already, take a look.

Sticky post

New Beginnings

I have been toying with the idea of starting a micro-blog for quite a while now. I often stumble upon things that I want to write about, but not to the extent of a full-fledged blog post. I want to use this space for all such thoughts and things.

So, here goes!

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