Rohit Prasad: The Indian engineer who is the brain behind Alexa

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Alexa, who is your creator? “I was invented by Amazon.” That’s Alexa’s regular response to the query. What she doesn’t reveal is that the individual who breathed life into Alexa, and led the expertise aspect of the mission nearly from its inception 5 years in the past, is Rohit Prasad, an engineer from Ranchi, Jharkhand.

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Prasad, collectively together with his colleague Toni Reid who focuses on the shopper expertise aspect, was No. 15 on Recode’s listing of 100 folks in tech, enterprise and media who mattered in 2017.

Jeff Bezos, Susan Fowler, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai, Elon Musk and Satya Nadella have been amongst the 14 folks forward of him. Recode stated Prasad and Reid had made Alexa a family title.

Star Trek impressed Indian techie to create Alexa


India-born Rohit Prasad was ranked No. 9 (and Reid No. 10) in Fast Company’s 100 most artistic folks in enterprise in 2017. Fast Company stated Prasad and Reid had turned Alexa right into a “category-defining consumer experience.”

Amazon, Bennett University set up Alexa Voice Tech Lab

As a part of its MainIndia.AI initiative, Bennett University is making a hub and spoke mannequin with a imaginative and prescient to associate with 1,000 educational establishments in India to do analysis and talent growth in the discipline of AI.

Prasad nonetheless has household in Ranchi and visits the metropolis as soon as each year-and-a-half. Last week was a kind of visits. On Thursday, he spent almost an hour speaking to TOI on telephone from the Jharkhand capital. “My dad used to work for Mecon, my grandad for HEC (Heavy Engineering Corp), so I have had three generations here,” he says. He’s the variety who makes you are feeling comfy. “I still follow The Times of India. It’s my No. 1 news source for understanding what’s going on in India,” was the second line of the dialog. Prasad studied at DAV High School. For engineering, he had a number of presents, together with from IIT-Roorkee. He selected Birla Institute of Technology (BIT), Mesra, in Ranchi. “I decided to stay closer home,” he says.

He accomplished his electronics & communication engineering in 1997, after which went to the Illinois Institute of Technology, US, for an MS in electrical engineering, the place he did novel analysis in low bit-rate speech coding for wi-fi functions. That’s most likely the place his curiosity in speech recognition started.

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For the subsequent 14 years, he was at BBN Technologies, an R&D arm of defence firm Raytheon. BBN was one in all the founding websites of ARPANET, a predecessor of the web.

It was additionally one in all the main R&D websites for speech recognition, pure language understanding and machine studying usually, and Prasad was deputy supervisor for that enterprise unit, main a multidisciplinary staff of researchers, builders, and program managers on large-scale government-and commercially-sponsored tasks.

In 2013, he moved to Amazon to make use of the similar abilities to try to revolutionise how clients work together with Amazon’s services and products.

Two years in the past, he was redesignated head scientist of Alexa artificial intelligence. “The journey has been thrilling. If you have a look at 5 years again, speaking to a tool from a distance, in the midst of numerous noise, was simply science fiction. We grew up in the Star Trek period, that was the inspiration for us,” he says.

Captain Kirk and the crew giving voice instructions, like “Give me warp speed,” as a substitute of urgent buttons or navigating a menu.

Touch is inefficient, says Prasad. In residence automation, it means if you must activate the storage mild, you must discover your telephone, discover the app, click on on it, discover the proper mild, after which get the end result. “That’s too many steps. Instead, you can just tell Alexa, turn on the garage light.”

Prasad says the mission concerned 4 huge challenges. One, the system should recognise speech. Two, as soon as it recognises speech, it should make sense of the phrases, or what is referred to as pure language understanding. Three, it will need to have sufficient assets to implement the person’s command. And 4, the capabilities need to get higher every day, perceive the context of the person to provide the greatest end result.

Prasad says the inflection level for Alexa got here in 2015 when Amazon allowed third-party builders to construct abilities for Alexa and combine the voice service into their apps or gadgets.

Suddenly, Alexa might carry out innumerable duties and be current wherever. Amazon’s marketshare for good residence audio system – the place Google Home is probably formidable – is estimated by some at 76%.

What do most use Alexa for? Music is the hottest – asking Alexa to play such-and-such tune. In households which have good gadgets, Alexa is used rather a lot to modify on lights, to modify reveals on TV. “My personal favourite, since I have family in India and I’m in the States, is to communicate through the Alexa app – video call, drop in to my mother’s kitchen, or when I’m travelling, drop into my kids at home,” says Prasad. This final is a characteristic that works like an intercom amongst these who have Alexa gadgets.

Alexa’s India launch was its fourth, after the US, UK and Germany. And Prasad admits India has been the most daunting. Vast variety of accents, languages, blended languages. “People are asking Alexa, `weather kya hai’ (what’s the weather). There’s plenty of this mixed language coming in. People pronounce names like Amitabh Bachchan very differently.”

Prasad says Alexa tackles a lot of this fairly successfully immediately, however says it would get higher because it learns from extra interactions. He is notably pleased with the approach Alexa speaks. “It’s very Indian, the accent is very neutral, it has to sound pleasant to a Tamil speaker, to a Bengali speaker, a Kannada speaker. It should not sound funny, and we have accomplished that,” he says.

His present focus is to enhance Alexa’s core intelligence, allow her to take care of ambiguous instructions and to perform advanced duties – like planning a trip. “Then it will be a lot more human like,” he says.

And sure, in India, he has to take care of the frequent use of the Hindi phrase `Achcha’. It typically sounds so like `Alexa’, that it tends to get up Alexa when somebody makes use of the phrase. “We have taken steps to make Alexa sensitive to the difference,” says Prasad.

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