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When Odds Inspire: The Journey to Build a World-class Research Lab

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Bharat Kaul is the Director for Intel Labs/Parallel Computing Labs (India), with extensive technical and management experience spanning two decades. Bharat and his team are responsible for driving Intel's performance leadership for emerging application areas in close collaboration with leading academic and industry partners on breakthrough applications addressing global challenges. The research team has been behind several industry impact technologies and roadmap influences, published more than 50 papers at Tier-1 conferences worldwide, gained the 1st spot on prestigious industry benchmarks, and won multiple Gordy awards, including the Intel Labs Top Research Annual Award for high impact output.

Building a world-class research lab is an exciting journey, even more so when constructed in a remote location. And here's the most interesting part—with no formal training in research and an engineering degree in hand, how did Bharat, who started his journey in a terrorism-stricken environment surrounded by violence, become the Director of one of the leading technological labs in the world? 

Intrigued? So were we, which led to a very interesting chat with the man himself.

 

How has your turbulent childhood impacted your career?

I grew up in a beautiful place in India called Kashmir. While Kashmir has been at the root of several wars over the last 75 years, unfortunately, the place also became a hotbed of rising fundamentalism and terrorism throughout the 1980s. Consequently, my happy childhood became a traumatic story of witnessing gruesome sights at close quarters. With our minuscule community of Kashmiri Pandits being a soft target and young 15–16-year-olds being picked by terrorist organizations for forcible recruitment, my parents made an unimaginably brave decision. They arranged for me to be smuggled away in the middle of the night, packed into a truck filled with strangers and some money in my pocket. I was sent to a safer part of the country 300kms away, with the promise of meeting up a week later at a designated place. We, as a family, like many other families, lost everything we had possessed forever. And that also meant picking up the pieces of a shattered future and figuring out how to rebuild.

I suppose, through that period, I developed a certain self-belief and resilience that taught me to be scrappy about finding a way forward, embracing uncertainty and struggle, with a belief that there is a way to figure it out. My adverse experiences as a teenager have shaped how I look at challenges and opportunities in life and work. Industries change rapidly, and we must constantly adapt, re-skill, reinvent every 4-5 years, and I believe that I can figure it out. The scrappiness that was imbibed in my childhood has helped me adapt and get better step by step while staying focused on delivering impact.

 

What is your educational background?

That's yet another story of the universe being kind. Having to flee from Kashmir, the rest of my education happened in make-shift schools created by the government. With the combination of a need to embrace the struggle, friends that pushed and inspired me, and my supportive family, I managed to gain admission into BITS Pilani, one of the top engineering schools in India. But the problem was that my family didn't have the money to send me there. That's where my father's "can do" approach came into play. Through his own resourceful means, he laid the foundation for the miracle about to happen. We found ourselves meeting with Mr. K. K. Birla, the owner of the college and a legendary industrialist, who promised me a scholarship, thus kicking into gear the next phase of my life. That is how I ended up studying Electrical and Electronics in BITS Pilani, and I loved every single moment of my time there. It set the stage for my journey ahead. Right now, I have the privilege and honor of leading a research lab, working alongside some of the smartest, most humble, and simply amazing teammates. I still feel the push every day.

 

How did you land an Intel Labs research role that typically requires a Ph.D.?

It is certainly an interesting aspect of my career journey, and you are right about Research Labs typically hiring Ph.D. holders. And in that sense, it is yet another story of life being kind to me through these amazing leaders willing to take a bet on me and the culture at Intel.

I spent the first 13 years of my career in engineering, building data networking solutions, which was fun. I got to work on many exciting projects and lead global teams that built many enabling technologies behind today's broadband infrastructure. There was never a dull moment. Around the same time I started contemplating my next career move, Intel was restructuring its business and organizations.

At that stage in my career, I wanted to learn and work on upstream aspects that drove either technology or business strategy. I was curious about conceiving and incubating technology, driving strategy before finally bringing it to the market, especially for a large company like Intel. So, in 2008, a friend of mine at Intel Labs suggested that I explore an opportunity with Intel Labs.

It sounded exciting and daunting. I was fully aware that I had no formal background in research, and it made no sense for Intel Labs to hire me. After 6-7 nerve-wracking conversations with the Intel Labs leaders in India and across the globe, a door to the next exciting phase in my life presented itself.

The opportunity meant I went from leading a fantastic engineering execution machine of 75-80 engineers to leading a much smaller team of researchers with more knowledge, expertise, and different scale of focus. This career detour wasn't a conventional trajectory, and it wasn't easy. It was tumultuous in my head with all kinds of questions. While being supportive, my wife and friends echoed my own apprehensions—I had no formal background in research, so it was a new domain and unchartered territory. But, somewhere in there, I suppose I was willing to take on the risk and take one little step at a time. I was comfortable with knowing far less than the people surrounding me. But I was willing to learn from anyone and everyone. So, I took the leap. The odds and the opportunity inspired me.

Now, I've spent more than 13 years in research; that's more time than I've spent in engineering. My team, manager, amazing colleagues, and leaders at Intel have played an instrumental role in what we have accomplished as a research lab. The very fact that together we have built a world-class research lab in India is magical and surreal. I'm hoping I did justice to everyone's faith in me. There is no limit to dreaming big at Intel, but there are surely challenges in realizing these dreams that require tenacity, commitment, teamwork, and passion.

 

Can you elaborate on the three phases that define your career?

I am often drawn to emerging technologies or areas, and then I can't help but dig deeper. As a result, I am constantly reading and exploring. That has been a habit since childhood. And I suppose it keeps playing out.

My engineering degree should have set me for a career in chip design. However, in the early 1990s, I had my first brush with email and the internet through my internship. I found it amazing that we could instantly communicate from anywhere in the world and access any information. The draw to understanding how it all worked was so irresistible that I spent the following six months reading about it and educating myself on computer networking via additional courses and whatever material I could get my hands on. It seemed so transformative that I wanted to start my career in that domain. I consciously identified emerging technology areas where demand existed. And that's exactly what I did—the first 13 years of my career focused on the domain of data networking and communication. I had the good fortune to work on protocols of technologies used regularly today in internet voice and video calls.

As I mentioned earlier, my second fascination was with strategies associated with shaping long-term technology, as I had wanted to impact the business side of the organization as well. And that led to my journey at Intel Labs.

The third phase is underway now, as it has been over the last couple of years—the desire to directly contribute to building platforms at scale that can affect billions of lives. Leveraging AI and computing at scale, we hope to build open Population Scale AI platforms, addressing societal challenges in life sciences, agriculture, smart mobility. Having already implemented population-scale platforms for payments, identification, and more, India is an optimal place to start. The Government of India has been receptive, and we are on a productive collaboration path to building the Population Scale AI Platform.

 

Tell us about your research work on AI and high-performance computing and how it affects the end-user.

I'll draw an analogy to make it easy to understand. When humans discovered the wheel and its various uses, we created all kinds of vehicles, gears, and machines in the centuries that followed. That will be the exact roadmap for AI in the next 2-3 decades. From reverse engineering biological mechanisms to designing completely new materials that don't even exist, AI is all set to transform our way of life and help us gain superhuman capabilities. The AI algorithms and methods required for this need computations at the rate of trillions and trillions of operations per second, which we call Exascale computing. For example, earlier this year, Intel announced a collaboration with MILA to collaborate on such problems, and our lab is at the center of it.

In fact, we rely on supercomputing every day without even realizing it. When you do a Google search, the supercomputing infrastructure behind it searches through web pages in the order of 10 to the power of 9 (109)—all within a second. Netflix suggesting what movie to watch is yet another example of harnessing data. These are important first-generation use cases of supercomputing accessible to us. Now imagine if more such AI-driven capabilities were available at the fingertips of every citizen on the planet—capabilities like creating your own molecule or identifying precise medical interventions.

 

Your team has actively contributed to India's National AI Strategy document. Could you take us through the journey?

We came up with this notion of Population Scale AI in 2016-2017. We also had to articulate what this moniker represents as a novel capability. So, for example, 17 lives are lost every hour in India due to road accidents. It is an immensely tragic statistic. Along with other Intel India leaders, we envisaged the creation of a driving dataset for India that allows AI to learn about India's traffic conditions. In turn, we can design technology to prevent and altogether eliminate such tragic accidents. We partnered with IIIT-Hyderabad and the Government to create a dataset and ran multiple pilots with encouraging results.

Since Population Scale AI was about impacting billions, there was a natural intersection with what was and is happening in India. India is already on this journey with its digital biometric ID system (Aadhaar) and the Unified Payment Interface (UPI payments) platform. The next step was natural—engage with the Government of India and see if they share our vision of Population Scale AI.

So, we reached out to the Government of India to share our idea of India's opportunity in AI and its ability to make India a global leader. When the government found resonance with us on various levels, they included our ideas in the National AI Strategy Document published by NITI Aayog.

INAI, an Applied AI Research Institute initiative, was also born out of this partnership and anchored in IIIT Hyderabad, which has Intel as an industry lead partner.

Henceforth, our colleagues have made significant progress on the India Driving Dataset, carrying out technology pilots. I am hopeful that we will significantly reduce the number of road accident cases through this decade. On top of that, we are also getting started on Life Sciences and Health.

 

Can you tell us your leadership philosophy?

I love the idea of being a force multiplier in a positive way. Leading by example, thus influencing people around me to follow suit, be it at work or in life. To do that, you need to work on becoming better day after day so that you can have an ever-increasing positive impact on others. I also constantly keep a 'day 1' mentality when it comes to my work, i.e., we still need to go out and be a world-class team, every day, every year, year on year and drive impact. In a way, I am uncomfortable with being anything less than that. Anything less scares me.

Another important aspect that I keep telling my team is always "lead with expertise." While solving hard challenges and pushing frontiers, expertise and strategic acumen must come together. This is essential as you are eventually competing on a global scale as an organization, and that's the only way to gain support and credibility. For me, I am someone who bets on people, their dreams, and their characters. I am where I am today because people bet on me, and I want to keep that faith going. As a leader, I truly believe that everyone wants to make a difference, and it's just a matter of creating the right environment for them. I haven't met a human who doesn't aspire to excel.

What advice do you have for young aspiring minds?

As opposed to the common notion of becoming a manager for career growth, I would advise people to become an expert first. To become good at something, you need to invest in yourself, gain leadership skills and learn the dynamics of the business. To understand a business, you need to know all the pieces and aspects, from debugging to validation to architecture, to the business aspect of it, to understanding your competition. It is essential to know and appreciate everything in a business and keep asking yourself what output you want to generate that helps your organization differentiate itself. In a constantly evolving world, learning and adaptation are essential skills. So, I would round up my advice in two short sentences: actively invest in the start-up called ‘You’, build the habit of learning tirelessly, and don't be afraid. You can figure it out, sniff your way out through the jungle.

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1 Comment
MaryT_Intel
Moderator

Another fantastic article on the amazing people at Intel! Thanks @We_Are_Intel !!

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