Meet the Mind: Let’s Talk AI Technology, IoT and More

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12 min read

IS THERE A recognizable name in artificial intelligence today? That’s elementary—Watson. IBM’s now ubiquitous AI platform rose to prominence in the last decade across a vast array of industries. It shows up to crunch fantasy sports numbers at ESPN. AI technology helps hospitals like Advanced Healthcare Management Corporation Healthcare in Southern California reduce the number of sepsis cases, instances where the body’s infection response is in overdrive and potentially damages tissues or organs. And Watson’s general knowledge capabilities have been most publicly displayed on Jeopardy! as the AI platform crushed trivia legends like Ken Jennings. IBM has created an industry leader, through and through.

So why would Sridhar Sudarsan—the former chief technology officer who led development and partnership strategy for IBM Watson—want to work anywhere else?

“To me, SparkCognition was about bringing and driving value to a client at speed and doing that across multiple areas,” Sudarsan, now CTO at SparkCognition, tells Cognitive Times. “I really gelled from a vision standpoint with Amir [Husain, CEO and founder]. The company’s vision was right in line with the kind of things I thought I could make a big difference on as well: bringing together AI, IoT [Internet of Things], and the industrial side of things.”

At IBM, Sudarsan focused heavily on increasing collaboration both internally and externally. “With Watson, we had sort of an aha moment early,” he says. “The way to best build these technologies is to invite other people to build on the core products or platform.” For Sudarsan, a startup like SparkCognition presented a new opportunity to do just that across an equally wide array of industries, but in a more nimble manner. And since joining SparkCognition in the summer of 2018, he’s hit the ground running to engage clients and potential collaborators in the name of expanding the company’s core AI offerings and their potential impact.

For instance: In September 2019, Sudarsan visited the White House as one of 175 AI leaders for an official symposium on AI in government organized by Michael Kratsios, current CTO of the United States. Experts from industry, government, and academia shared ideas and worked through real world case studies (like how the National Institutes of Health could leverage AI to improve its operations) in the name of improving the federal government through AI. And with Kratsios forecasting that government spending on AI research and development will reach new heights—nearly double 2016 levels—in 2020, real world impacts born out of those discussions could come quickly.

But Sudarsan isn’t only interested in collaborating with the leading minds in this emerging industry. Also within his first year, he worked to put SparkCognition’s Darwin AI technology platform (a tool that specializes in automated extraction of insights from data) into the hands of roughly 600 students. Working with SparkCognition’s chief science officer, Dr. Bruce Porter, Sudarsan helped foster partnerships with the University of Texas at Austin and Southampton University in the United Kingdom. Students at each institution received access to Darwin for 10 days in order to identify a problem of their choosing and build a solution that leveraged AI. The results impressed the new SparkCognition CTO—suddenly AI was being used to address impurities within water, to analyze the likelihood of arrests at certain crime scenes, or to detect degrees of gene mutation and speed up delivery of test results.

“The students came up with very interesting problems,” Sudarsan says. “They’re passionate about these issues, and they were able to take giant leaps toward a solution without knowing anything about AI/ML before those 10 days. So clearly there are more problems that we need to go solve, and the day that AI becomes a central part of that without us having to think, ‘Is AI a technology I need to use?’—that’s when we know we’ve really scaled.”

All of these initiatives are part of a larger mission for Sudarsan, a veteran engineer who’s been focused on AI for the better part of the last decade. He says he originally became an engineer because of a lifelong interest in “why.” And as a young professional, he saw engineering and computer science as simply the best ways to get to the bottom of things. But once he became immersed in the field, AI became Sudarsan’s preferred tool for that exercise. These days, he wants to see that mindset spread far and wide.

“We—the industry, the country, the company—still think of AI and ML [machine learning] as a core technology, a piece of software that can make an impact,” he says. “The way I think about AI and the variety of techniques underneath it is really more as a way of thinking, a way of building, a way of understanding how to solve problems. So when it becomes a manner of normal course—when we’re not thinking about whether I should use AI or not and just doing it and instead thinking about problems—that’s when I believe we’ll have gotten to a new normal way of thinking and doing business.”

How do you go about encouraging that kind of perception change? For Sudarsan, it all comes back to how he succeeded with Watson and what brought him to SparkCognition in the first place: collaboration. If you ask him how to stay at the bleeding edge in such a fast-paced industry, it starts by interacting with others.

“I like to listen, a lot. I listen to people, I listen to their perspectives and insights, and I listen to clients,” he says. “There’s a lot you can learn from others, and there’s no substitute for firsthand knowledge and experience. I like to read a lot, too, constantly staying on top of innovations and technologies and updates. And then I like to connect. I find myself connecting the dots of various things I’ve heard, that I read, that I’m doing, or that someone wants. It’s a beautiful thing. The person who has the problem is not always the person who has the money, the tech, the skills, or has the ability to deliver that. Often the solution is right in front of us, and that’s what I try to provide.”

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