"Even though our lab is in India, we are not focused only on the Indian market," says Sriram Rajamani, Managing Director, Microsoft Research Lab - India. Rajamani, who holds a PhD from UC Berkeley, an MS from the University of Virginia, and a BE from the College of Engineering, Guindy, was speaking to reporters in Bengaluru last week as part of a visit designed to showcase the progress Microsoft India has made in AI and other areas. "We are very inspired by the problems that we face in India but a lot of the results that we produce are applicable very globally."
Microsoft started its Research Lab in the US back in 1991, while the India version was established in 2005. Each Microsoft Research Lab location includes PhD researchers that do research on a variety of topics and give knowledge about emerging technologies to trainees and interns. "We have now about a thousand PhD researchers all over the world," says Rajamani. "We do research ranging from Physics to Quantum Physics to various aspects of Computer Science to Biology to Economics to Social Sciences. We do research all over the world in various topics."
In India, Rajamani highlighted that his team works on a total of four key focus areas. These include algorithms and data science, which is the mathematical foundation of machine learning; machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI); systems that comprise of work in security, privacy, and programming languages among others; and technologies for emerging markets, which is the role of technology in socio-economic development.
Elaborating the areas, Rajamani stated the lab has projects working on low-resource machine learning and mixed-language NLP (Natural Language Processing) that is internally called code mixing. "This lab is known as a leader in doing NLP in which more than one language is actually mixed," the scientist-turned-executive told Gadgets 360.
"We have worked on how can we build a cloud in which customers data is always encrypted so that even if the cloud gets hacked or if you don't trust the cloud provider, you don't actually give up on your privacy," explains Rajamani, adding, "We have done research and prototyping implementations which actually are now making it into products."
Apart from security and privacy, the Microsoft Research team works on technologies for emerging markets. One of the key developments on that front is 99Dots, which is a Tuberculosis (TB) medication adherence system that was launched in India in 2013 to eradicate the disease. "This project was done in this lab by Bill Thies and Andrew Cross, but its adoption is now not just in India but also in Myanmar, Africa, and so on," states Rajamani. There is also Digital Green, which is an NGO that was spun out of the Microsoft Research Lab. "We also work on transportation safety and a variety of problems that intersect technology and society," the executive highlights.
The India lab, which presently has 50 PhD researchers, 30 to 40 research fellows, and 50 to 60 interns,Rajamani says, started its journey at the time when India was producing merely about 35 Computer Science PhDs in a year. This brought the challenge of finding appropriate talent to kickstart the research work in the country.
"When we moved and the lab was being set up, a lot of us had several concerns about whether it is actually possible to build a high-quality lab here and how are the people going to come," Rajamani recalls. "But what we have been surprised by is that we have been able to recruit people from India. We have been actually able to get people like me and others who have got PhDs abroad to come back. We have also been able to get non-Indians, including American and European people with PhDs to come and live here. In that sense, it has been very surprising and fulfilling for us to be able to do that."
Microsoft Research hosts a Research Fellow Program under which it attracts people who have finished their bachelors and masters from institutes such as IITs, NITs, IIScs, or BITS Pilani to come and join the lab. The programme initially had a room for five students due to the limited number of PhD researchers available in the country. However, with the significant growth in the number of Computer Science PhDs, the lab now has positions for 40 students. "We have now expanded the programme from five to 40 and for that 40 positions, we get more than a thousand applications from all over India and abroad, and it is very competitive to do that," Rajamani underlines.
Apart from the programme for research trainees, the team at Microsoft Research Lab organise summer schools where they teach topics such as machine learning, cryptography, and security among others. "These days when I go to the US and travel, sometimes somebody comes to me and says, 'Hey Sriram, I actually got into research because of Microsoft Research. When I was a student, I attended the summer school that Microsoft Research organised and then I decided to make research as a career because of that and here I'm now finishing up my PhD.' Those are the ways in which we have influenced," Rajamani laughs.
Microsoft structured its research labs across the globe in a way that encourage collaborative work. "Each Microsoft Research Lab works on many different projects," says Rajamani. "But in case there is an overlap between a project in India and in Cambridge, we just make the researchers work with each other and collaborate."
All the lab directors meet once every quarter and then review all the ongoing projects. This helps to find similar developments and bring collaboration between different counterparts. However, each lab has its own set of focus areas. Every single lab is also corporately funded by Microsoft, which means that it doesn't require external funding to accomplish any research work.
Forecasting the future of the Microsoft Research Lab in India, Rajamani notes that there is an opportunity not just for the lab but also for Microsoft to grow bigger. "If you look at 10 years ago, we used to built computing services mostly for the West," he said. "We were not using computing ourselves in India. But now, the local market has become so huge that the opportunity for organisations like Microsoft and labs like Microsoft Research Lab is growing bigger."
Disclosure: Microsoft sponsored the correspondent's flights for the meeting in Bengaluru.