How an IBM Watson engineer is harnessing the power of AI for the greater good

By | 4 minute read | June 29, 2018

Nisarga Markandaiah grew up feeling the impact of technology all around her. Born in Bangalore, India, Nisarga witnessed firsthand how people, communities and entire cities can be inspired and changed for the better through the application of technology and science, as many global technology companies moved to India and started setting up their Indian headquarters. A member of the IBM Watson team, she shares insights on her role as a natural language processing and machine learning software engineer, and how she’s focused on building the technologies that are shaping the world for tomorrow.

How did your interest in technology and science inspire you to a career focused on AI?

I’ve always been interested in technology – how it works and what it does, but also in the application of technology. My interest was initially piqued in college, when a professor helped us understand the world of AI through his class. This inspired me to take on my own project, under the advisement of the same professor, where I applied a similar question-and-answer AI technology to help visually impaired people better navigate search engines. It was simple, looking back on it now, but I built a way for someone to verbally execute search queries, and have the machine summarize results. This was a big moment for me. I experienced, firsthand, the power of AI to do incredible things and make the world a better place for us all.

My curiosity piqued even more so while working towards my master’s degree. One of my professors discussed his experience assisting IBM on a project called Watson, which was soon to make its debut on Jeopardy!. This idea of a machine being able to understand the nuances of the English language opened my mind to the potential of AI. The ability for an algorithm to help us better understand and communicate with each other – that’s in effect, breaking down one of our most challenging barriers for our society.

What is the most exciting, and the most challenging part about creating systems with natural language processing?

The diversity among my team is hugely beneficial – being exposed to new people, ideas and behaviors is fascinating and, to build natural language systems, you need to understand different languages and cultures. But, not just in the sense of knowing what the language is. You must understand what it means – such as the nuance behind a phrase, if words have multiple meanings, if text is read right to left.

Sometimes, you can spend an entire week building an algorithm – but then learn it really isn’t as effective as it should be. It might need to be expanded or changed to accommodate the nuances of different languages or cultures so it has the right impact.

In what ways do you see AI changing the world today, and how do you think it will shape our tomorrow?

I think more than we realize, AI is completely pervasive throughout our work and social lives. Processors are becoming smaller and smaller every day so we can fit complicated algorithms in tinier places – like your smartphone – and embed AI into places you may not even notice, such as your bank chatbot or a virtual assistant on a smart display in your hotel room. AI is helping make us smarter, more efficient and bringing new levels of convenience into our lives to make us capable of bigger things.

But while these early benefits are exciting, I think the real potential is yet to come. We’re beginning to see how AI can change how we interact with each other, and the world – how it can make what we work on more productive and enjoyable. What I’m excited to see is the outcomes of applying AI to solve some of our largest, most critical global problems. AI may very well hold the key to solving hunger, finding a solution to cancer, combating the drug crisis both here and abroad. IBM, through its Science for Social Good program, is working with researchers and nonprofits across the globe to initiate progress in a number or areas. It’s exciting – and as we see AI continue to scale, become more accessible and more widely accepted – I think we’ll begin to see significant social outcomes that will make life better for so many people.

What advice would you have for someone interested in a career in the field of AI?

Start by answering this: what do you want to change most in this world? Chances are, AI is the tool you need to inspire the change you’re after. Whether you’re frustrated by not being able to find the answer to something – or want to find a way to help your favorite restaurant waste less food, AI can make a difference. Today, with these amazing technological advancements, we all have incredible power to solve great problems and change the world around us.

Find something in the world you want to change, something you want to make better and then stop at nothing until you have the answer.

Interested in hearing more about how IBM is applying AI, cloud and deep science towards new societal challenges? Visit IBM’s Science for Social Good. You can learn more about IBM Watson Discovery Service here, and follow Nisarga Markandaiah on LinkedIn.

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