The Kohli Centre on Intelligent Systems (KCIS) is recognised worldwide for its cutting-edge research and infrastructure. We take a look at the talent that makes this possible by focusing on the current Kohli fellows who are pursuing their doctoral studies here.
With the unveiling of the Kohli Centre on Intelligent Systems at the International Institute of Information Technology Hyderabad (IIITH) in 2017, technology and applied research, which has been the institute’s emphasis since its inception, got a further impetus. Established with CSR funding from Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), the idea behind an entire research block dedicated to the pursuit of “Intelligent Systems” was to create a world class ambience for related research activities. The term ‘Intelligent Systems’ itself is an umbrella one encompassing research groups in the areas of Natural Language Processing, Information Retrieval, Speech Processing, Computer Vision, Image Processing, Machine Learning, Cognitive Science, Data Science and Analytics, Robotics and more. With state-of-the-art infrastructure and support from TCS, the centre has seen impactful research through the development of innovative products and technology transfer. This has been possible due to the institute’s investment in human infrastructure too. “One of the reasons KCIS has been recognised and commended worldwide is due to the presence of a top-notch Artificial Intelligence team comprising of several of the sharpest minds in the research community,” says Prof. Madhava Krishna, Head of KCIS. A way of attracting great talent to this centre has been through the institution of PhD and Postdoc fellowships.
What is the Kohli Fellowship?
According to Prof. Krishna, to pursue a PhD requires the ability to think deeply about a research problem. “And if you are able to think quite differently or innovatively, then typically it gets acknowledged in more ways than one and simultaneously brings visibility to the centre in terms of the quality of research itself.” Demonstrative of the extreme competitiveness that the KCIS fellowship for pursuing doctoral research entails, there are limited positions available in a given academic year. Apart from a stellar prior academic record, candidates who wish to apply for the same are required to demonstrate “remarkable and extraordinary research aptitude, scholarly abilities, and capacity to think through unstructured problems”.
Blessing Of Adversity
Among the current fellows at the Kohli Research Centre is 25-year-old Aakash KT. IIITH is not a new place for him: he’s been here on campus for the last 6 years, originally as a lateral entry student for the Dual Degree programme. “I’ve always been inclined towards research and coming from a tier-3 college, the focus on research here was a welcome change,” he says. Luckily for him, the institute provides ample opportunities for interested students to dabble in various activities. In Aakash’s case, it was not just the scope to try out app development and intern with the Linux Foundation but also the chance to participate in CANSAT – a NASA-sponsored mock satellite development competition. He says that unlike most of his peers who were set on embarking upon software development careers, he realised early on that he didn’t want the typical. “I had a reasonably good publication for my MS, and after discussions with my advisor Prof. PJ Narayanan, I decided to apply for PhD studies at two groups in Europe – EPFL, (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) Switzerland and Inria (National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology) France. I was all set to join Inria last year but unfortunately my admission was cancelled due to continued lockdown and the fear of COVID-19,” he says.
While this was definitely a setback, it was Aakash’s advisor, Prof. PJN who helped him find a way out. Through umpteen discussions with the professor about the future, when it was clear that Aakash’s decision to pursue a PhD stood unaffected by the unfortunate events, it made perfect sense to apply for a PhD at IIITH itself. While conceding that international exposure to peers and research groups is important, Aakash says, ”For me, PhD is really about having fun in doing things that possibly no one has done before, and making real tangible contributions to the field. That was going to happen in Inria, or wherever else I could go, as much as it can happen right here in IIITH”.
Solving Cognitive Problems
Sachin Raja was pursuing his BTech at Manipal Institute of Technology when he got his first sneak peek into the world of ML and AI thanks to electives on AI and Artificial Neural Networks. What began as a fascination towards the idea of approximating any linear or nonlinear function through data led him first to a research assistantship at MNIT Jaipur and later to the University of Southern California for a Masters in Computer Science program. “Courses on Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Data Mining and Big Data Analytics provided me with a thorough understanding of mathematical formulations and computational practices,” he says. Alongside his Master’s thesis which was on Glioblastoma Segmentation, he worked as a Research Assistant at the Annenberg School of Communication on a fan behaviour analysis project. “Our work of creating an end-to-end solution is signed under USC Information Disclosure and beats IBM Watson’s algorithms by 6% average F1 score!,” he exclaims. After his Masters, he worked as a Data Scientist at Scry Analytics under the direct supervision of Dr. Alok Aggarwal, Founder of IBM Research Labs, India and Scry Analytics. While Sachin assisted in the development of AI tools in the financial and insurance domain at Scry, his research goals were oriented towards semantic understanding from vision and language inputs. “Many aspects of human intelligence like the ability to reason for making inferences, learn with scarce data, utilise same conceptual learnings across multiple problems, and build relationships between concepts learnt from variety of environments, are still not well understood and are active areas of research,” he says, adding that the recent advances in Cognitive Sciences which are at the intersection of vision and language especially intrigue him. Realising that a PhD specializing in AI would get him closer to his goals, his next step was to apply at IIITH for the same.
Starting Up In Robotics
Vishakh calls himself a “Geek by birth” and a “Robotics enthusiast by profession”. When he completed his BTech in Computer Science in 2007, he dived straight into the IT industry first as a Design Engineer, and leapfrogged his way into the role of a Robotics Engineer at ABB – a company he still works with. In order to get a formal degree alongside the hands-on robotics software development he was doing, he signed up for a MS by Research at IIITH. As a Master’s student, he notched up an impressive number of publications in Robotics at top international conferences and eventually returned to ABB upon completion of the programme. Thanks to his entrepreneurial inclination, Vishakh is currently again ‘back to school’ in pursuit of a doctoral degree. “I want to take my PhD towards a startup in the near future. It is a stepping stone to a new beginning,” he says.
Merits of The Fellowship
The three fellows are in agreement that the Kohli fellowship ranks among the best in the country. Researchers receive a generous stipend of 50K a month and the fellowship also covers travel expenses to top research conferences. “Typically, most PhD programmes in India are not really well funded, which in my opinion indirectly affects researchers’ ability to produce great work and adds to stress,” says Aakash. While monetary compensation may not be the only criteria for someone serious about pursuing a PhD, Aakash admits that too little financial support could also be detrimental. “For me personally, this financial safety cushion has helped me take on bigger projects, and focus much better on those,” he says.
By virtue of being an extremely competitive and selective programme, Sachin says that getting awarded the fellowship itself automatically bolsters one’s research and scholarly backgrounds. In addition to that, he says, “The unique teaching and research responsibilities associated with this program will help me develop holistic skills to be a better contributor in my domain of interest”. For Vishakh, the support that startups receive as part of the IIITH ecosystem is what drew him here in the first place. “IIITH is one of the most focused and outcome-driven institutes especially due to practical, industry-led and supported research,” he says.
Having kicked off his doctoral studies in 2020 under the supervision of Prof. C. V. Jawahar, Sachin along with a team of collaborators has made two worthy contributions – at the European Conference on Computer Vision (ECCV) 2020 and at the International Conference on Advances in Social Network Analysis (ASONAM) 2020. Aakash’s focal research area is computer graphics, “with a touch of computer vision”. He is currently working on improving photo realism for games and animated movies as well as reconstructing computer graphics through a state-of-the-art video regeneration process known as neural rendering. Vishakh who is the latest entrant is in the process of finalizing his problem statement for research in the Robotics lab. He says, “It will mostly be in the area of drones. The thesis statement which can be modified or developed further into a product will be my focus in the next 2 months”.
Into The Future
In the case of Vishakh Duggal, it’s a no-brainer that he will embark on establishing a company of his own. “The work and experience of my doctoral studies will facilitate my own start-up,” he says. Sachin Raja plans to study even further. “I aim to pursue post-doctoral studies to better equip myself for scientific research in AI,” he says, adding “I hope to make significant contributions towards solving existing cognitive problems which might give us insights into “how human intelligence works”! Aakash however is cautious about speculating about the future. “One thing I have learnt from COVID-19 is not to plan too heavily for the future. I have a general idea of what I would like to do. I do want to work with the professors in Inria and EPFL, so I will either apply for collaborative projects or a postdoc at some point. Eventually, I would like to teach as a professor but I would also like to experience the trappings of the industry as a research scientist. I guess we will have to see how things pan out.”