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From Being Dyslexic To Heading AI Product Suite At TCS: A Personal Account

From Being Dyslexic To Heading AI Product Suite At TCS: A Personal Account

  • It is not uncommon for a Dyslexic to write complex code and yet not be able to tie their shoelace or read the time.

“As a child, I couldn’t tell left to right, and I still can’t, and I still have got nail paint only on my left hand so that I know it is left. While growing up, it was even tougher, and I slowly started creating my system to figure things out,” narrated Shilpa. She trembled during her language classes as she couldn’t recollect the word or the para where a student ends. So, her daily routine includes waking up at 5 am in grade 1 to memorise the entire lesson.

Despite these complications, Shilpa Rao stood firm against the odds and sailed through with her courage and strong determination. 

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Shilpa is currently working as an intrapreneur and Product Head of AI-powered products and platforms at TCS. Analytics India Magazine caught up with Shilpa Rao to trace her journey from being “dyslexic” to making a name in the field of artificial intelligence. She is on the executive council of Women in Leadership, drives the Women in Data Chennai Chapter, member of WICCI, Women in AI, and other forums.

AIM: Coming out of a condition called ‘Dyslexia’ to making a name in the field of AI, How would you explain the ups and downs in your journey?

Shilpa: When I was growing up, I did not know I was dyslexic. Dyslexic and other different learning conditions, including spectrums of Autism, impacts 1 in 5 children today. People term these children lazy or dumb as it is difficult for them to cope with the traditional educational curriculum. This impacts their self-confidence and self-esteem greatly. 

People with different learning abilities or neuro-diverse people have different skillsets and think differently. It is not uncommon for a Dyslexic to write complex code and yet not be able to tie their shoelace or read the time. Some of the famous dyslexics include Steve jobs, Alber Einstein, Steven Speilberg, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Branson. I’m sharing my story to create hope for all the dyslexics struggling silently.

When I was growing up, awareness about dyslexia was very limited, close to nil, and people would say, you need to work hard; you cannot be lazy. So I knew I had to do things differently. However, I didn’t know about my condition, but I thought that was the way it was for me.

I misspelt a lot; I still do. I ate up words in the sentence, not because I didn’t know them, it was just that my mind ran faster than my fingers and speech. Now, after growing up, I realise that spell check is such a boon. It was just practice, practice and practice, and then I slowly started watching for patterns, which helped me see how the word looked, so I could tell something was wrong and then try a few things to get it to look right. That’s where my love for identifying patterns stemmed from.

AIM: How did you step towards the field of AI?

Shilpa: Growing up, I always wanted to be an inventor because I felt I was always inventing things. I was not the traditional, lego or opening up all electronic devices kind of inventor, but I was inventing small things for myself, and I thought I could invent something, which others could also benefit from. This is where my love for science stemmed from, which got me to engineering and then later doing a major in AI.

The only reason I chose my engineering college, later my B-school and the company, was that it was within about a 2 Km radius of my home. I had this system established for myself with the prep work I had to do, just to be on this level playing field. I did not want to spend too much time commuting, which would make me tired. However, destiny had something else in store for me. I was posted to Chennai with my company and later to the UK.

When I was in the UK, I spent considerable time in a grocery store, waiting for a bus in the cold winter. I noticed one store associate throwing boxes and boxes of ready meals in the trash. Coming from a family who believes it is criminal to waste food, I asked the store associate about it, and the reason that he told, then morphed into the concept, which is now a platform and a profitable strategic business line with over 35+ patents. The platform has won several awards, including AIconics, Stevie American business awards, AI excellence, Data breakthrough, Express IT, Cipher, etc. It is helping global fortune 500 companies de-risk their business, drive better customer experience, drive sales and profitability, drive sustainable outcomes and focus on their purpose.

AIM: What are the daily AI/ML related works you have to perform?

Shilpa: As a Head of AI Products and Platforms, my role is intrapreneurial. It involves everything from understanding the market, innovation, conceptualisation and design of AI-powered solutions to solve business problems, go to market, manage partnerships and enable research and engineering. I am blessed to work with various teams to formulate the best AI approach for solving cross-industry customers challenges, be it with reinforcement learning, deep learning, agent-based simulation, behaviour-based models, digital twin and several others combined with deep domain understanding and contextual knowledge.

AIM: Do you think machine learning will transform the way businesses are done in India? Or is it just hype?

Shilpa: In India today, AI/ML is the way of doing business for several companies such as e-commerce retailers, insurance companies and financial institutions. However, there are yet many who are still struggling to get their basic IT in place. For AI to be successful in business, relevant data at the right granularity is important. 

Today, we see several companies building that data foundation and are becoming more data-driven. For companies to remain competitive, efficient and relevant to their customers, adopting AI is not a matter of choice but a prudent business strategy.

AIM: Can you share with us the two/three most important areas where AI can play an important role in the current times?

Shilpa: Today, AI can enable us to address several important challenges which humanity is facing and can make our lives better, such as:

See Also

  • Drug Discovery & Healthcare – AI can significantly help to bring down the time and cost of drug discovery. With advances in neuroscience, biomedical combined with AI can help people lead healthier lives, be it with granular diagnostics with genome & biome markers, or precision medicine, precision nutrition, newer therapies, preventive interventions and others.
  • Food Security – AI can help drive food security with data-driven farming, including intelligent soil interventions, plant nutrient management, precision granular geo-zone-based weather forecasting, intelligent plant health diagnostics, remediation and help to design newer plant-based food products.
  • Personalisation: We are all unique, and so are our needs. AI can enable driving N=1 (personalised for you) in all aspects, not just shopping, be it precision nutrition, or precision medicine, precision fitness, precision investments, or precision products made for you. AI combined with other advancements in the respective domains can help truly personalise at scale.

AIM: You are vocal about mental wellbeing; how do you think AI can really create a good impact in this domain?

Shilpa: AI can aid mental wellbeing in several ways, right from diagnostics to preventive interventions, support to remedies and cure. For example, AI can identify subtle digital-physical behaviour changes and nudge or drive preventive intervention. In addition, intelligent AI chatbots can offer 24/7 empathic support and digital mental health services. AI could also act as a coach, empathically asking questions, listening, summarising responses, and holding space for the human coach. 

Similarly, AI could act as a trainer to suicide and other emergency assistance providers. It could model digital conversations with various caller segments/demographics and enable aspiring counsellors to practice sessions before they take live calls. AI in psychiatry helps to analyse patient behaviours, medical, social, and family histories, prior treatments, data from a wearable to fine-tune decisions on personalised treatment for the patient.

Recent advancements in neuroscience and biosciences have helped researchers emulate parts of the human brain responsible for specific reactions linked to various mental states. Leveraging Digital twin & AI, various therapies could be simulated to study their impact on those specific brain tissues. This could speed up discovery for new therapies and precision preventive interventions. Possibilities are immense, and the research in this field is very promising.

AIM: Is India placed well to become the next AI powerhouse? What can all be done to accomplish the same?

Shilpa: Absolutely, India is set to become the next AI powerhouse, and as Abhishek Singh, CEO of the Indian government’s National E-Governance Division and MyGov.in says, India is soon becoming “the garage of AI tech in the world”. We already have a large pool of AI talent, and we have had our AI strategy in place for three years now, with the goal of “making India the global leader in AI, ensuring responsible and transformational AI for all. This has enabled us to attract record amounts of government funding and policies, making doing AI business easier. 

India has also had a concentrated focus on research and development in AI, and the joint research with academia is backed by global tech giants with an all-time high number of patents filed in this space. This year, Stanford University’s AI Vibrancy Tool, which ranks each country according to research output, economy and inclusion, listed India as sixth in the world, ahead of Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan.

We have some way to go; we could still make our privacy and ethical AI policies stronger and processes around patents and data collection more efficient. However, given the progress that we have made as a country in such a short time, the future is bright.

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