Research is primarily about exploring knowledge elements that describe the interplay between nature and systems !
Amar Banerjee, our next pathbreaker, Research Technologist at Siemens Research, works on AI/ML and semantic technologies applied to a number of complex technical and business domains.
Amar talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his fascination for mathematics, and his work at TRDDC (Tata Research Development and Design Center ), the first software R&D center in India and a dedicated research facility for TCS and allied organizations with a focus on cutting edge technology research areas like radio astrophysics, system sciences, robotics, IoT and so on.
For students, If we trace the evolution of technologies, we can see that it grows based on a vision for our society. You should work on problems that will define the course of technology in the future
Amar, can you tell us about your early years?
I was born and raised in Nagpur, the orange city, Central India, and Maharashtra’s second capital. Growing up, I was good at studies, besides having a huge interest in swimming. I represented my school and college in swimming tournaments. During my school days, I was actively involved with NCC, a significant reason for shaping my personality and thoughts. As an outcome, I was very determined to join the forces. The uniform always fascinated me, so I thought of making it a career. Unfortunately, I could not enter the forces, unable to make it through the SSB interviews. However, my career backup was always mathematics! As a school/college joke, I kept telling my friends, “If I don’t make it in the forces, I’ll be a scientist someday”. As the days progressed, I saw a career path pointing me towards a research career! As of now, I can’t call myself a scientist, but indeed, I’m working towards it.
What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?
Since middle school, I have been quite clear with my educational interests. Until junior college, I knew I was good at mathematics and physics, and I struggled in chemistry and biology. So, the choice was clear during graduation – a degree in applied mathematics! Eventually, I ended up with a bachelors in mathematics and a post graduation in applied math and computational sciences. Well, to be honest, I did well there. It was during graduation that I developed an interest in computational sciences and applied mathematics. This also motivated me to get started with computer science as a discipline during my early career days with TCS Ignite Labs.
What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
I was highly influenced by my grandfather, who did his MSc from Calcutta University during the pre-British era. My parents also supported me a lot by constantly motivating me and criticizing me wherever necessary. Talking about a mentor, I was fortunate to find mentors at different stages of life. During my fresher days, Dr Raman Srinivasan was a kind of mentor to me. Although we didn’t get much time to interact, I was amazed by his vision. I learnt from him the “history of technology” and how that helps trace the evolution of innovations. When I joined Tata Research Development and Design Center in Pune as a Researcher, I got the opportunity to find my mentors in the form of my supervisors. Mr Subhrojyoti Roy Chaudhuri (Sr. Scientist, TCS Research) and Dr Swaminathan Natarajan(Chief Scientist, TCS Research) were my mentors and teachers throughout my tenure at TRDDC. They had a massive role in shaping my thought process and personality as a researcher.
A significant event that brought me further toward a research career was when I met my teacher, Prof. Venkatesh Choppella (IIIT-Hyderabad). He inspired and guided me toward enrolling for a PhD. Observing his work style, thought process, and philosophy significantly impacted my upskilling. I will always be thankful to these wonderful people who have inspired me constantly.
In 2022, I joined Siemens Research Group. Again, I am fortunate to have met new mentors and colleagues, especially Mr Rohit Karanth, our Research Group Head. We are working on some tremendous cutting-edge research problems and technologies. Overall, It’s been a great experience at Siemens.
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
My career began at Tata Consultancy Services, Ignite Labs, where we were allowed to explore, learn and innovate. As young graduates, most of the time we spend on implementing solutions. However, I always needed to work on the basic principles. During my free hours, I read about various topics, solved some math, and read some papers. Now that I realize it, this kind of ignited a reading habit in me. Every now and then, I do read something, primarily technical.
In 2015, almost 1½ years after joining iGnite, I was quite sure that I needed to find something more challenging at a theoretical level. I was recommended to explore possibilities with TRDDC. I applied and was selected at TRDDC Pune. That was a significant achievement for me, and after that, everything kind of fell into the right place. TRDDC is the first software R&D center in India (pioneered by late Shri. F.C. Kohli) and was a dedicated research facility for TCS and allied organizations. TRDDC is a place full of great researchers, debates, innovations, sports (yes, researchers do play hard too!). Guided by some of the best scientists in the world, we worked on some cutting edge technology research areas like radio astrophysics, system sciences, robotics, IoT and so on. Also, we published a lot of papers and patents there.
I see this experience as central learning that it is crucial at the right place for yourself. I met some great friends, mentors, teachers and, of course, superb researchers there. This was the same time I was inspired by my mentors and teachers to pursue a PhD. I applied for a PhD admission at IIIT-Hyderabad and am proud to say that I was selected for the course. The PhD journey till now has been a life-changing experience.
In my PhD topic I am exploring the area of semantic type systems and how they could be applied to synthesis based system design. It’s a topic that has been in my mind since the last few years, and I see a potential solution for it. The PhD is kind of separated from my professional work, however there are subject wise overlaps. It’s kind of like taking up two jobs !!
I see the outcome of a PhD for me as a ‘student: someone who knows how to gain knowledge. My PhD is a working PhD, which means “yes, it’s kind of pressing sometimes!!”. But, my teacher is very supportive and has always been a great source of inspiration. But sometimes, I feel that a full-time PhD would’ve been better as there are no professional commitments. But again, on the other hand, professional responsibilities fetch a lot of working knowledge. So, it’s kind of a tradeoff!
How did you get your first break?
As I said earlier, my first break was through a TCS Program called iGnite Labs. It was a program to enable science students to learn, work and explore new technologies. I applied and got selected after a few rounds of interviews. If I remember correctly, I read about this program online and used the opportunity. Earlier, we just spoke about the iGnite experience.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: One of the significant challenges that I faced was explaining ideas to others. Traditionally, these are the things they do not teach in schools or colleges. For me, this is very different from making presentations. While presentations are visual, the art of communicating an idea from one human to another human is quite different. I struggled a lot while sharing ideas (sometimes, I still do) to others, primarily due to my vocabulary. I can’t speak math to a medical professional if I need to convince them of a groundbreaking idea. This is where I had to teach myself some cross-domain learning skills before discussing with experts from other domains.
Challenge 2: Balancing family life with a job, ongoing PhD, and of course, a home loan! It can be pretty challenging. A lot of dynamics in each of these areas can be quite demanding sometimes. What seems to work for me (still trying to figure out) is to be strict on time and reduce overlaps for commitments. Some good time management skills are required. Well, I am just able to pull this off!
Challenge 3: Writing skills matter a lot in a research career! When you write a paper or a patent, the reader expects clear, precise, and crisp content. I still struggle with this challenge, even after many articles and patents. But, I keep writing and self-evaluating my work. Sometimes, I have re-written papers multiple times. I am still learning to write better, so it’s a work in progress.
Where do you work now?
At present, I work at Siemens Research as a Researcher.
What problems do you solve?
We work in AI/ML and semantic technologies applied to a number of complex technical and business domains. We target solving some critical problems in AI/ML that could potentially benefit state of the art technologies in these areas and companies using the solutions.
What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?
For me, the most critical skill is ‘curiosity’. Without curiosity, it would have been tough for me to get into this career. Apart from that, reading, comprehending, writing, I would say mathematics and some basic coding could be the top skills on this path.
Math is globally recognized to be the language of science and also the language of nature. Not knowing enough math is like speaking to someone without knowing their language. Research is primarily about exploring and describing knowledge elements that interplay between human, nature and systems. Math cuts across all the science areas, as well as natural laws and human cognition. Also, there is math pretty much everywhere in computational sciences; the compilers use automata theory, data science uses statistical methods, control systems use differential equations……. many more……. Finally, math is important!
What’s a typical day like?
Talking to customers, understanding their problems, brainstorming to formulate a research problem statement, developing solutions, reading papers, and writing papers and working on patents are some general activities. Apart from that, we also guide interns, mentor students, and learn from other colleagues.
What is it you love about this job?
I love to work with problems that will define the course of technology in future. I feel great that someday, whatever we do, will be seen as a learning study for the next generation of engineers. I mean, that’s how technology grows, right? Imagine the satisfaction of the researchers who worked on AI 30 years ago when their theories are brought into practice today! Another great thing about this job is that you get to collect diverse knowledge. Finally, having your names on papers and patents is a cherry on top!
How does your work benefit society?
Our work primarily focuses on designing the future of the world through technologies. We get the privilege to think openly about how technologies will look in future. If we trace the evolution of technologies, we see that it grows based on visions from society. On behalf of society, the scientific community of researchers, engineers and designers are the torch bearers of the future of engineering. Students with a keen interest in these areas should consider getting into research. I might strongly suggest that many Indian Universities are providing research-oriented courses to retain the research talent within the country. Apart from that, the papers and patents one writes will have their names on them for a long time. And finally, it’s a massive contribution from an individual to society in shaping its future. Extra motivation – Nobel prize !!
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
During my days at TRDDC, we were a part of a research collaboration with NCRA (National Center for Radio Astrophysics). NCRA represented India in a larger global consortium called SKA (Square Kilometer Array). SKA is the world’s largest radio telescope based in the UK, South Africa, and Australia. All the major scientific players in the world are contributing to this project. India is playing a major role in building its control system. As a part of the research collaboration, we were also involved in SKA, both from research and engineering aspects. A lot of great work was done during those collaborations. I got a lot to learn and made some great friends, which was a memorable experience in my career.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Dream big, take small steps as per your strength, don’t burn out, and keep reading!
My immediate plan is to contribute my best to Siemens Research and deliver top-quality research work. I plan to get my PhD completed in the next 2 years. I would spend as much time as possible with family and friends. Also, build a good reputation in the industry as a good and capable researcher. Finally, aim to be a scientist and try to contribute even more to society!