For IBM It’s BAU: Gargi Dasgupta, Director at IBM Research India

A world that has now successfully moved to digital resources and capabilities such as artificial intelligence and cloud technologies, it proves the pandemic had a very small but significant bright side to it. While these technologies have been around for a while, they have advanced considerably well in the last few years which makes them so easy to use now. 

To dwell on these technologies further, Express Computer got in conversation with Gargi Dasgupta, Director at IBM Research India and CTO at IBM India and South Asia. She throws light on some interesting developments in their research labs, the use of AI and cloud during a pandemic, data security and more. 

IBM Research has been the driving force behind the tech innovation at IBM with technologies such as agritech, AI, cloud, retail, etc. The company has now identified the relevance of Hybrid Cloud in today’s infrastructure and has been an integral part of developing the cloud. 

How do the IBM research labs in India contribute to the bigger picture at IBM?

IBM Research is the innovation engine of IBM, aligned to its overall business strategy, pioneering disrupting technologies that will transform industries and society in the years to come. With more than 3,000 researchers in 12 labs located across six continents, IBM Research is one of the world’s largest and most influential corporate research labs. And in these times of unprecedented crisis, it is playing the role of a catalyst to accelerate research for the doctors, scientists and organizations working to decode and defeat the COVID-19 virus through these initiatives:

  • In partnership with the US Dept of Energy, IBM is leading the Covid19 High Performance Computing consortium to make a vast amount of supercomputing power (more than 400 petaflops of computing power, from  ‘Peta’ means quadrillion and ‘flops’ – floating point operations per second) available ( like IBM Summit) to help researchers everywhere better understand COVID-19, its treatments and potential cures. The consortium recently selected to run an experiment from NIT Warangal on its supercomputers
  • IBM has pledged it’s entire global patent portfolio, which is comprised of more than 80,000 patents and patent applications, specifically, patent assets we feel are most relevant in the fight against COVID-19.
  • IBM also released Novel AI-Powered Technologies to Help Health and Research Community Accelerate the Discovery of Medical Insights and Treatments for COVID-19

IBM Research India is a fairly mature lab that is 22 years old ( one of the first Industrial Lab in India , set-up in IIT, Delhi campus in 1998), focused on a wide array of projects in exploratory and applied research – specializing in AI, Blockchain and Hybrid Cloud. Our AI agenda is anchored on advancing AI capabilities – making it more trusted, scalable and operationalizing it to meet business needs and we have significantly contributed to various IBM tools, solutions and platforms that is enabling organizations in their cognitive journeys. This pillar of work starts with Data and building Trusted AI models – which are fair, robust and explainable;  Interactive AI – AI that helps understand conversations through, text, voice and images ( commonly known as chatbots); Learning and Reasoning AI – this pillar of AI is the most complex as it helps us push the boundaries of what we can achieve – and AI’s ability to reason and act; get better over time and interact with the natural interface. 

A great example of  IBM leveraging IBM Research to put advanced AI technologies, born in the lab, into the hands of modern business – is the announcement we made early this year on Watson’s ability to understand the language of business which includes idioms, phrases etc. we see that more and more businesses are turning to IBM Watson to take advantage of its NLP capabilities to better understand everything from their customers to the running of their own operations. Whether for more accurate and faster call center solutions with Watson Assistant, or deeper, richer search results with Watson Discovery, they are leveraging Watson and NLP to improve business performance. 

Some of the most recent contributions from the IBM Research India include – AI for IT which is to help CIOs automate their IT infrastructures,  AI Explainability 360 – an open-source toolkit that supports interpretability and explainability of machine learning models, AI Fairness Toolkit – to check for unwanted bias in datasets, AI for Fashion – a suite of Apps for the fashion APIs for the fashion industry for better decisions, Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture – use AI to help farmers and Agri ecosystem take informed decisions and industry platforms – Tradelens, IBM Food Trust – which are based on Blockchain technology pioneered in India labs.

What are some of the interesting developments when it comes to Cloud and AI that is being driven out of these labs?

Our mandate is to advance AI and Cloud capabilities to help our clients accelerate their Cloud and Cognitive journeys through our innovative work. We are using AI to transform industries, pushing the scientific boundaries to ensure that the technology we develop has a positive impact on society and sustainability. We have applied AI to solve some of the challenges facing Agriculture and Retail sectors among others.  

Food security is a growing concern for our society, with limited arable land, a growing population and climate change crisis – we have to ensure that we leverage our resources judiciously and provide food for all. So in the agritech space, we have built the Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture that combines the information from multiple global satellites and the weather data from The Weather Company with the power of AI, Analytics, and predictive insights with unique agricultural Internet of Things (IoT) data, to compute actionable agronomic insights for farmers at the sub-acre level -ie when to sow, when to irrigate, crop health, pest/disease forecast/ expected yield etc. Making this information available to farmers is helping them make informed decisions, improve crop yield and save resources. An estimation of the farm yield is also helping finance companies to determine a more accurate and just estimation of the farmer’s credit-worthiness. 

Similarly in the Retail sector, we have developed a set of AI-based offerings that leverages the wealth of data available with within a retail enterprise, on social media, public for a and from data vendors – unlock value from them and improve customer experience, enhance product design and development, aid in merchandising and buyer activities, augment merchandise performance, optimize supply chain and more. The AI platform that we have built, brings data together from multiple sources of relevance to the client’s business, applies domain-trained AI algorithms to extract demand signals and model demand behavior.  It covers a variety of use cases that are relevant to different decision points or personas. Say for fashion – the platform is organized around the following four pillars – trends and sentiment; Demand and Sales; Assortment and Inventory and Interventions and Product Design. Thus, ensuring that the right product is available at the right place at the right time and right price.

We are also leveraging AI to transform IT and help our clients accelerate, automate and modernize their IT landscape. As enterprise embark on a journey of digital transformation, their IT delivery platform needs to transform to a hybrid cloud IT architecture – which is scalable and adaptable to business and operational needs. We have built and launched tools that reduce the time and effort involved in helping clients modernize their Applications, manage their applications, make sure their applications are always secure and compliant

How do you see companies in India adopting emerging tech like cloud and AI? Particularly in these times of COVID -19?

For now, our main priority has been to help our clients and businesses of all size quickly recover and maintain their path to growth and success. Thanks to Cloud, many companies have been able to move to – WFH without much interruption. So the value of cloud computing has never been greater – it provides the scalability and elasticity to adapt to client demands and spikes in application usage. And IBM Cloud offers clients the much-needed resiliency and security that comes from its breadth of deployment options across 60 globally dispersed data centers and time-tested data protection capabilities – including state of the art encryption and data privacy mechanisms that guarantee nobody can access your data, including IBM. So whenever the world emerges from this difficult period, we anticipate our clients will continue to demand cloud solutions to power their operations and drive their businesses forward. 

People are also increasingly relying on digital technologies to stay connected, seek information, order groceries and other vital supplies online. They’re using social media to conduct safe social distancing without losing touch with friends and family. As a global, interconnected society, we’re being reminded daily of the countless ways these modern technologies can be put to very human uses. At the same time, health care facilities and government agencies are under stress- caring for the sick and keep everyone else safe, people are looking for quick, reliable answers, without busy signals or long delays—and without tying up the time of local health and safety agencies who need to focus on their life-saving work. Artificial Intelligence is one way businesses, governments, healthcare institutions are now digitally engaging with their employees, citizens and customers during this difficult time.  As organizations look to offer omni channel experience or make their customer care centers more resilient,  AI – powered solutions like chatbots, cognitive routing will make businesses more productive and effective.

That’s why we developed the Watson Assistant for Citizens – a virtual agent that uses AI and NLP to quickly answer common questions at a very large scale without overwhelming contact centers where human agents are needed to help those who truly need them. We also trained Watson Assistant to answer queries in English and Hindi and few other regional languages, for wider usage. While we are in discussion with various government agencies and departments, to deploy Watson Assistant, ICMR ( Indian Council of Medical Research) is first to deploy Watson Assistant on its portal to respond to specific queries of front-line staff and data entry operators from various testing and diagnostic facilities across the country on COVID-19. 

Leveraging these digital technologies we have enabled leading banks in India to continue servicing clients and their needs, enabled a client to pivot their business from alcoholic beverages to hand sanitizers, ensured seamless execution of supply chain operations for our FMCG clients delivering essential products across the country. 

What kind of queries are you getting from your  clients during this time? Does the current architecture of your services ensure maximum data and cyber security? How? 

Our clients are facing unprecedented challenges in how to manage their business continuity in light of the burdens this can place on capacity, productivity and security. They’ve have had to shift their operations overnight to immediately accommodate a remote workforce and dozens of business-oriented applications are now connecting homebound workers to collaborative tools that enable business continuity. With the bulk of employees using applications and accessing programs from all over, cybercriminals have more doors to open, making an organization’s threat vector broader than ever. Network availability and latency can also suffer under high usage, impeding workers’ progress at a time when productivity is already under pressure. Hence,  we are ensuring that companies maintain the same levels of security and reliability as they transition to widescale WFH through their public, private and hybrid cloud environments.

IBM sustains the digital operations of the world’s most critical organizations: our banks, telcos, retailers, airlines, healthcare providers and government agencies. Fundamental to this capability is our public cloud – designed to manage enterprise IT and mission critical workloads– in fact, 47 of the Fortune 50, all 10 of the world’s largest banks, and 9 of the 10 leading retailers already rely on the IBM public cloud to keep their organizations moving. Also, IBM Cloud leverages time-tested protection capabilities to secure data in all stages – at rest, in motion and in use – as well as built-in isolation, access management and integrated security measures to provide continuous security for cloud-based applications and workloads. 

Some of the questions crossing the minds of CXOs are –  How do I quickly enhance the resiliency of my IT and ensure continuity of my business? How do I protect my business and workforce from new cybersecurity and privacy threats? How do I move to fully digital customer interactions and keep them engaged? and so on. The answer to these pertinent questions lies in these 7 themes, where IBM is offering solutions to clients across the globe. 

  1. Accelerate agility and efficiency with the cloud to make a seamless transition to remote business with a secure, flexible cloud and digital services for mobility, virtualization, collaboration and support
    2. Enhance IT resiliency and business continuity to protect enterprise and customer data and reduce pandemic-related downtime
    3. New models of engagement with customers to provide an omni-channel experience
    4. Address new cybersecurity risks for remote business to protect their employees, clients, business
    5. Reduce operational cost and ensure supply chain resiliency with new tools and insights that address the current volatile supply chain in real-time
    6. Empower remote workforce to stay engaged and productive as they learn new ways of working

Do you think how organizations work is set for a total overhaul? How is IBM and its employees dealing with this?

Every crisis brings with it an element of the unknown. We can’t possibly plan for every contingency. For businesses, revenue streams may disappear overnight. Top customers may come under extreme strain, partners might suddenly be unreliable, and regulators may be missing in action. Key executives and other stakeholders might be unavailable. Business-as-usual decision making processes may become broken. And time to recovery may be anyone’s guess.

It has been estimated that as of March 19, 2020, as many as 88 percent of global organizations have encouraged or required employees to work from home. Enterprise IT is the mechanism that can keep a business operational and effective even under the current extreme and unprecedented conditions—such as the ones we are all experiencing today.

Working remotely is not new to IBM or IBMers – every IBMer has opted for this flexibility in times of need. As IBMers, we have always embraced the values of trust and personal responsibility, so the concept of having our employees work from home as the need arises has been at the very core of how we operate as a company. 

Today, IBM India has enabled work-from-home (WFH) for 99 per cent of its workforce.  This has been possible only with technology – expanding our infrastructure, reliable, secure network connectivity, secure video conferencing, virtual collaboration tools, productivity management tools, etc.  Our forward investments in establishing an infrastructure for enabling remote work has served us well for both accelerating this shift for our employees as well as assisting our clients make this shift quickly.  And it not just enabling work from home – but delivering essential services remotely and in collaboration with clients as they work from home as well. An active collaboration with government authorities also helped to sort out issues like taking office equipment home, getting requisite permissions to move equipment from special economic zones and so on. So, it’s business as usual at IBM. 

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