Smart devices (including wearables) are shifting the focus to human sensing by extracting different signals (physiological responses, usage pattern) and developing AI-based models for human emotion (mental state) inference.

Surjya Ghosh, our next pathbreaker, Assistant Professor at BITS Pilani Goa, carries out research at the intersection of Human-Computer Interaction, Applied AI, Affective Computing, and Computer Systems in order to develop intelligent computing systems that improve the quality of life.

Surjya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about quitting his IT job to do a PhD, followed by a postdoctoral stint at Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI Amsterdam), the birthplace of the Python language, where he worked on the development of intelligent cars, which can infer driver emotion and respond accordingly.

For students, the idea of pursuing your interests despite all odds might look foolish in the short-term, but is sure to payoff in the long-term.

Surjya, can you tell us about your background?

I come from a middle-class family in West Bengal. I spent my childhood at Kolaghat (a small town in West Bengal, around 65 Kms from Kolkata). I did my schooling from Kola Union High School. 

Like every other Indian, I loved playing Cricket, although I could not make it to my college team. I like reading books and listening to music. I can also sing a bit. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my B.Tech in Computer Science and Engineering from Haldia Institute of Technology in West Bengal. I did my Masters and PhD from IIT Kharagpur.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I think I had always decided that I wanted to be an engineer. I have always loved building toys and small equipment since my childhood. Additionally, one of my uncles was an aeronautical engineer, which was also an influencing factor. But after my 10th, I developed an interest in computers. In those days (early 2000), computers were a new thing and there was a lot of discussion around computers. I think those experiences influenced me to pursue a career in Computer Science. My parents were always very supportive and allowed me to pursue whatever I wanted to do. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I joined one of the largest IT companies after my B.Tech, as a software consultant and worked on some of the real-world challenges in different domains like healthcare, banking, utilities. This gave me the exposure of working in fast-paced environments across the globe (I spent significant time in different countries including USA, Australia). I also learnt new technologies in these roles. 

Even though these roles were rewarding, after some time, I felt that I was not utilizing my full potential and not doing something that I really wanted to do. This is when I decided to go for a higher degree course and take up CS (Computer Science) research as a career option.

So, first, I joined the master’s program at IIT Kharagpur in Information and Communication Technology. This program was targeted for working professional who were pursuing a full-time job. During masters, I learnt many advanced concepts in HCI (human-computer interaction), AI and my beliefs turned into a conviction that I should pursue PhD in CS. After my masters, I joined PhD in the CS department of IIT Kharagpur. 

My PhD thesis was centered around human sensing and affective computing using smart devices (including wearables). The focus was on extracting different signals (physiological responses, usage pattern) and developing AI-based models for human emotion (mental state) inference. It was a completely new journey for me and full of challenges (especially after spending 10+ years in the industry and coming out of my comfort zone). But at the same time, I got to learn many things, sharpen my skills, attain significant international academic exposure, and build new contacts. Moreover, I was lucky to work in one of the most renowned research groups in India. This was such a rewarding experience that I shall cherish forever.

I always wanted to join academia after PhD. So, it was a natural choice for me to gain some postdoctoral experience before taking up an academic career. The National Research Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science in the Netherlands (aka CWI Amsterdam) is one of the well-known institutes across the globe for significant contributions in the CS place. It is an early user of internet across Europe and it is the place where Python (programming language) was developed. I came across an advertisement in Twitter about a postdoctoral opening in the CWI in the field of affective computing, which matched my profile and research agenda perfectly. So, I joined this position and spent two wonderful years at Amsterdam. My research at CWI was centered around developing intelligent cars, which can infer driver emotion and respond accordingly. We developed AI-based solutions, which have been patented by a leading automotive organizations in Europe.

How did you get your first break?

I think the first year of my PhD was very demanding. I had course work, comprehensive exams, along with research activities. All my research papers in this timeframe got rejected. It was very difficult for me to accept these failures. But I got excellent support from my mentors, peers, friends, and family. After almost two years, one of my research articles was accepted at a premiere conference in the HCI (Human Computer Interaction) area. I think this was the moment when I realized that there is no looking back. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

I think there were many challenges. The first major challenge was to adjust to the lifestyle of an academic setting after 10+ years of being in a corporate culture. There were financial implications as well. Next important thing was to match with the pace of the very dynamic research environment. As I had left academia quite a long time ago, the research was very far ahead. As a result, I needed to spend significant time and effort to learn new concepts. Thirdly, it is very demanding to perform quality research and compete at an international level. One needs to be completely aware of the related progress, learn new technologies (or concepts), and execute new ideas in a timely manner. 

Although there were many challenges, I think I was lucky enough to have a very strong support system. My parents, sister, family members, friends gave me the cushion that helped me to deal with the failures, frustrations that (I believe) almost every PhD student goes through. One more thing that helped me to survive at this stage is that I was not afraid of failure. I knew there would be failures, and that it is important to learn from those and make progress again.  

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I currently work as an Assistant Professor at BITS Pilani Goa. I carry out research in order to develop intelligent computing systems. My research is at the intersection of HCI, Applied AI and System Development. One of the key focuses of my research is to develop systems (or methodologies) to improve the quality of life. I work on different domains such as health, education, and transport. One of the areas that I am currently working on is to develop systems which can track mental health based on smartphone and wearable signals. To be specific, I aim to collect different physiological signals from these devices to develop an AI-based model to keep track of mental health. This is very timely given the surging cases of mental health related problems.

How does your work benefit society?

I think the research that I am doing has a lot of applications in different domains such as healthcare, education etc. For example, we often see the issue of accessing medical facilities at remote locations. Similarly, we also observe a poor medical practitioner to patient ratio. These problems have become more prevalent during this pandemic. One of my key research focuses is to come up with health based technologies that can aid patients (especially for small screening, tracking, monitoring) in such a way that patients have access to such things even without visiting a doctor. Similarly, developing technologies for certain types of screenings (which can be easily avoided by machine involvement) so that medical practitioners can use their time more productively. In terms of education, I am trying to develop technologies which can assess the student’s engagement in a classroom or online platform, and give real-time feedback to the instructor so that the instructor can adjust the pace and content of the teaching. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I think there are some, but let me tell a couple of those. One work that I did during my postdoctoral research is to make cars emotionally intelligent (i.e., the car can identify the driver’s mental state and respond accordingly). This was very challenging in terms of designing, implementing, and prototyping the concept. It took us a significant time and effort to build this technology, however the effort was worth it when the technology was adopted by a leading automotive organization in Europe and patented. Apart from this, my first research work is also very close to me. In this work, I have developed an AI-based smartphone keyboard (suitable for Android platform) that can infer the user’s emotional state based on the keyboard interaction pattern (such as typing speed, error rate). This is very close to me as it is one of the first research problems I worked on and also helped me to get several awards and travel grants from leading organizations.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I think the key idea would be to pursue your interest (or passion) despite all odds. In the short-term, this may look foolish, but in the longer-term this will pay off. I feel very few people are lucky enough to do exactly what they wanted to do. So, we should put our best effort to pursue our passion. Finally, one important  lesson that I would like to convey (something I got from my mentors) is that always strive for quality and never take shortcuts. 

Future Plans?

I aim to continue my research activities in these areas (HCI, Applied AI) to develop systems that can be useful to society. I would like to contribute in the key areas like health, education with my research output.