There is no doubt that Human Machine Interfaces will rule our future. But real-world AI systems have to interact with humans and the only way of doing that is through language!
Ruchira Dhar, our next pathbreaker, Speech Expert at Cerence Inc, applies her linguistic skills in the development of AI applications such as voice-activated controls that are integrated in vehicles for better user experiences.
Ruchira talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being fascinated by how language could be morphed into algorithms that simulate “language understanding” in machines.
For students, language is a field that is so dynamic, fluid and ever-changing, that the opportunities and challenges in this field are infinite, and work for sure never gets boring!
Ruchira, Your background?
I was born and brought up in Kolkata, West Bengal. My father is a small business owner and my mother is a homemaker. I studied at Mahadevi Birla World Academy in Kolkata and then went on to do my graduation from Shri Shikshayatan College, affiliated to the University of Calcutta. I had always been what teachers would call a “good student” . I always loved reading novels (inherited the passion from my mother) and that tended to distract me from my studies at times, not that I would ever change anything about that! I like to read novels of different genres, from biographies and motivational books to thrillers and comedies, and I would say that is my primary hobby.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
As an avid reader and language lover, I decided to take up literature for graduation even though I had been a PCMB student till the 12th standard. I completed my B.A in English Honours from Shri Shikshayatan College.
It was during my graduation that I stumbled upon an amazing online course on Linguistics in Coursera- The Miracles of Human Language by Leiden University. And that changed my life! I fell in love with linguistics and knew that I had to study more about this amazing subject. Thus, I decided to go for an M.A in Linguistics.
Having never studied linguistics before, I was scared about cracking the university entrance exams in Linguistics. However, I worked hard and managed to crack nearly all entrance exams with top scores, but chose to go to EFL University (English and Foreign Languages University), Hyderabad for my post graduation.
Can you tell us about the influences that led you onto such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career path?
As I mentioned before, the online course that I took up (Coursera) was a turning point that brought me to Linguistics. And what kept me on the path was EFL University, Hyderabad. A little known Central University, it is solely dedicated to the study of languages and it was here that I met several amazing professors and fellow batchmates who made my M.A one of the best experiences of my life!
At EFLU, the professors taught us and trained us in formal/ mathematical approaches to language sciences and encouraged lively discussions in class, which only fuelled our interest in the subject. Late Dr Rahul Balusu was the one who taught us computational linguistics/NLP. I was fascinated by how language could be morphed into algorithms that simulated “language understanding” in machines. Understanding that this is a field that is very much in demand, I honed my skills in this, by learning statistics, programming and machine learning, which I knew would help me in the days ahead.
Dr Hariprasad’s Syntax class and Dr Utpal Lahiri’s Formal Semantics classes were also crucial in building a strong base in linguistics and I decided to write my M.A thesis in Formal Semantics, under the supervision of Dr Utpal Lahiri. For my thesis, I chose to work on a mathematical interpretation of how adjectives and adverbs function in language, and how this interpretation can also help us come up with a better classification system for these two grammatical categories.
Tell us about your career path
Though I definitely knew that I would one day like to return to research, I wanted to first work in the industry for a few years and see what linguistics looked like “in action” in the real world and how it is used in developing cutting edge technology like AI.
Coming from a primarily theoretical background, it wasn’t easy to crack into the industry opportunities related to linguistics. I used Linkedin to keep up with the latest trends in the industry, and started applying for internships before my M.A ended. This was in the month of April/May in 2020, when the pandemic was raging and the world was “locked down”. I was extremely worried about my prospects, but kept on applying to internships and finally got offered a position of an Intern at Vernacular.ai (now Skit), a firm working on building voice AI for contact centers. At Skit, I worked mostly on generating informed content on the topics of NLP (Natural Language Processing), AI (Artificial Intelligence) and importance of linguistics and language in building more robust Voice AI systems.
I loved my time there and soon after, got a research position in the Linguistics department in IIT Delhi since I had cleared NET in Linguistics and also got a JRF Scholarship. After being there till Dec 2020, I realized I wanted to explore the industry more. I got offered a job at Kore.ai ( a firm that builds chatbots) as an NLP Analyst. Despite the common misconceptions, understanding language is a crucial part of developing chatbots/applications that deal with natural language and I used my linguistic knowledge to improve language understanding capacity of the chatbots.
In May 2020, I moved to Cerence Inc, a NASDAQ listed MNC in the Automotive Industry in the AI space. I’m currently working here and it’s been an amazing experience. I’ve had to deal with the latest tools and technologies. I also get to explore working with different languages from Swedish and Danish to Hebrew and Arabic- in short it’s been amazing, not to mention the great work culture here!
How did you get your first break
My job searches took place primarily through networking on Linkedin, as well as talking to my batchmates and seniors who were working in the industry as well as looking for jobs on online portals.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Having a non-technical background in a technical industry like AI was a big challenge. I didn’t think of myself as lesser than others and worked hard on building my skills by doing online courses and learning industry-relevant skills.
Challenge 2: Linguistics is a field where jobs are fewer. So, I made sure that I knew of the best openings by keeping myself updated by networking on Linkedin.
Challenge 3: I completed my graduation during the pandemic and started my career in June 2020 – a time that was dark and uncertain. However, instead of focusing on the obstacles, I kept calm and applied to jobs and did my best everyday.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve as a Linguist?
Currently, I work at Cerence Inc. As many of us are aware, a lot of cars and vehicles now have voice-activated controls. Cerence is a company that builds software and AI applications that are integrated in such vehicles for better user experiences. As with any kind of application that deals with language, Cerence’s applications also needs the expertise of linguists to improve their performance.
As a Speech Expert at Cerence Inc, I need a variety of skills everyday. I gained my linguistic knowledge during my M.A and for technical skills (Python Programming, working with regular expressions, command line scripting etc), I took online courses and read from online resources.
There is really nothing like a typical day- everyday brings new challenges and I love that. But usually, I start my day with meetings and then get to working on different projects. Everyone is amazingly cooperative here, so we can schedule meetings in between in case we need help or want to communicate things. Since work timings are flexible, everyday ends at a different time, but I tend to usually log out after 7 pm IST, unless there are meetings scheduled with teams in other countries (US, Germany etc).
How does your work benefit society?
Studying linguistics/language sciences is really an amazing privilege due to opportunities in academia and industry, or both. It not only enables you to analyse languages but also gives you a different perspective on life and communication. You learn to value your own mother tongue, realize how special each language is and work towards preserving and safeguarding your language for the future generations.
From an industry perspective, it’s also a great field to get into. The future is AI, and there is no doubt in that. But what many fail to understand is that whenever we talk of real-world AI, it means that the system has to interact with humans and the only way of doing that is through language. As a result, it is very important that we as humans understand language better and develop ways to transfer the same understanding in such AI systems. Since language is so dynamic and fluid and ever-changing, the challenges in this field are infinite and work is sure to never get boring!
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
As part of a research paper I presented at SALA 2020, an academic conference in Paris, I chose to document different dialects of Bangla and their alteration across the landscape stretching from West Bengal in India, to the country of Bangladesh and then to the state of Assam in India.
I got to work on Sylheti (my mother tongue, which I had never really known a lot about since I was brought up in Kolkata, where this variety of Bangla is not spoken). It was amazing and allowed me to converse with different people of my community and made me come closer to my culture and heritage as a Sylheti speaker.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Becoming a linguist is not easy and requires an eye for detail that is not everyone’s cup of tea. My advice would be to get your theoretical background strong before delving into the more applied aspects like NLP, so that later on, the actual premise of language is not a blackbox to you!
Right now, I’m happy working in industry and am enjoying knowing more about the amazing applications of language in industry! I’ll go with the flow and see where my future takes me 🙂