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Artificial Intelligence Systems & Specializations: An Interview with Microsoft’s Sha Viswanathan

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What is AI?

The ability of a computer to learn and problem solve (i.e., machine learning) is what makes AI different from any other major technological advances we’ve seen in the last century. More than simply assisting people with tasks, AI allows the technology to take the reins and improve processes without any help from humans.

Most of us implicitly interact with AI in our day-to-day lives without even realizing it. That’s because algorithms that utilize AI are embedded into the apps we use on our smartphones. Siri, Gmail, Facebook, Amazon, and even Netflix are all examples.

The algorithms within these apps are constantly taking in bits of data that you provide and using it to tailor your user experience. For example, social media sites like Facebook use AI to automatically identify your friends’ faces in photos and operating systems use it to personalize auto-correct to reflect your own language preferences.

But AI does more than promote a more personalized software interface. It also enables businesses and retailers to more accurately reach their target markets. For instance, Amazon and Instagram use AI to personalize ads and product suggestions at an individual level by finding commonalities in your internet activity. If you search Google for “camping spots,” you’ll start seeing ads from Columbia Sportswear and REI.

And these are just the initial applications of AI. As we’ve witnessed the technology rapidly evolve over the last five years, the implications of how it could transform our economy and society at large have become clearer. Outside of the parameters of smartphones, AI is being used to automate traditionally time-consuming processes in work scenarios. With the help of AI and automation, labor-intensive tasks like data entry and translation can be completed in a fraction of the old time and cost, drastically reducing the need for workers in various industries and businesses.

Technologists have been predicting this turn of events for years now, but the reality is finally penetrating the job market and the economy, causing many to wonder how AI will affect these areas in years to come. The scope and impact of AI might just be in areas yet to be explored. By illustration, Microsoft software engineering manager Sha Viswanathan explains, “With tech trends, there can be a tendency to overestimate impact. This is true of the dot-com era, Bitcoin, and others,” he said. “I’d love to have AI predict what clothes I want to buy, or what music I want to listen to, but it’s the applications of AI I can’t think of that are most exciting to me.”

How is AI Changing the Future of Employment?

“Literally every job sector has potential to benefit from AI—just like when computers became popular, every industry found a way to use them to their advantage,” Viswanathan said. “Every sector will be affected in some way, especially any industry in which there is a lot of structured data. Data is the food for machine learning and AI, so anywhere there’s data, there’s a potential for AI to have an impact.”

This reality has caused concern surrounding a mass reduction in jobs, which could hypothetically lead to higher rates of unemployment. A study conducted about five years ago from Oxford University predicted that almost half of all jobs in the US, from sales, to legal administration, to accounting, to trucking, are at risk of being replaced by automation over the next ten to twenty years.

But don’t despair just yet. Viswanathan says that the belief that AI will cause an employment crisis is somewhat misguided: “The truth is that not a lot of jobs are fully automatable—maybe parts of people’s jobs, but the number of jobs themselves won’t necessarily decrease,” he said. “In general, over time, technology doesn’t immediately reduce the total number of jobs; it makes people more efficient at their jobs. And a certain number of people may refocus their skills to [accommodate] what AI cannot do.”

According to a recent report from the research organization Gartner Inc., AI will actually create more jobs than it stands to replace. Their research estimates that there will be 2.3 million new jobs created by AI by 2020—a half million more than the estimated 1.8 million jobs it stands to eliminate.

In short, while AI will undoubtedly change the way that the world economy is run, the result will not be a decrease in the number of jobs available but rather a shift in demand for the kind of workers needed—from menial labor to roles more rooted in creative thinking.

At present, AI is already being used to improve industries like logistics, transportation and even healthcare, reducing the number of hours of human power required to ensure operations run smoothly.

In the medical field, this means less time spent on tasks like collecting and analyzing data related to patients, symptoms, and diagnoses. AI systems make these processes more efficient, freeing up time spent on activities like corresponding with patients on these matters when they’ve already been documented.

In retail and logistics, AI helps promote accurate predictions of demand for certain products, so that disorganization in warehouses can be reduced and delivery times shortened. These are just a couple of examples, but the applications are limitless.

What AI Jobs Are in Demand?

How can individuals get behind the scenes to become a part of the development of the technology?

There is already demand from software companies like Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Google for employees interested in headlining the development of AI. They’re on the hunt for fresh talent that can help them develop software that incorporates AI to be marketed to companies in various industries like logistics and healthcare.

“There’s already a pretty notable pattern of increased jobs for machine learning and data science, so as AI has become more popular, companies across the board are hiring,” Viswanathan says.

According to TechRepublic and, the top five AI-related job titles that are in demand are machine learning engineer, data scientist, research scientist, research and development (R&D) engineer, and business intelligence developer.

Beyond roles at the software company giants themselves, Viswanathan says that in-house AI operations positions at smaller companies are already appearing: “Obviously, the major [software] companies themselves are the ones advancing the ‘state of the art,’ but how you apply it to each company is different. Any CTO today, if they’re not thinking about how AI can be used to make their company more valuable, could be missing a big opportunity. All good companies are already thinking about how to respond to AI being a practical and useful thing”—and they’re willing to shell out the big bucks in order to stay ahead of the curve.

According to the New York Times, AI specialists can make upwards of $300,000 to $500,000 per year. Most of these jobs are concentrated in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York City, and Seattle, where the tech giants live.

The share of jobs that require knowledge of AI in the US has more than quadrupled since 2013, according to a study from Stanford University, and job growth related to AI is climbing at even faster rates in the UK and Canada (perhaps because they had a smaller pool of AI-related teams to begin with). And this kind of growth is expected to continue.

While the salaries and high demand for applicants make the job appealing to prospective students, the education required is quite substantial.

How to Pursue Opportunities in AI

So, how do you break into this lucrative, fast-growing industry?

In terms of the technical requirements, an undergraduate degree, usually in computer science, is absolutely required. But these days, a masters or doctorate degree is preferred by most companies, Viswanathan says.

While most of today’s AI designers began their relevant studies in college, contemporary computer science classes are being offered at the high school level in many US public schools. Like anything else, the sooner you can master the fundamental concepts, the better off you are.

“You have to be good at mathematics, so take the full curriculum of algebra through calculus in high school. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ AI works is grounded in mathematics,” Viswanathan says. “If you have the ability to harness the mathematics behind AI, the next subject to cover is computer science.”

You’ll need to master computer science concepts that are essential to understanding AI, including Python, Java, Spark, SAS, R language, Big Data, and machine learning, largely during your undergraduate education. According to US News, the top five schools to prime yourself for a higher education in AI are:

  1. Carnegie Mellon University – Pittsburgh, PA
  2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Cambridge, MA
  3. Stanford University – Stanford, CA
  4. University of California – Berkeley, CA
  5. University of Washington – Seattle, WA

You may want to take a close look at the curriculum at tech-oriented schools to see if they offer AI-specific courses and majors, which can give you an edge above other the competition, many of whom are just studying basic computer science.

After you secure your undergraduate degree, you can pursue a master’s degree in computer science or apply to a more AI-specific program. Columbia University is now hosting a graduate-level AI program comprising four graduate-level courses: artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and computer animation.

As AI becomes increasingly prevalent, we’ll likely witness more undergraduate and master’s degree programs emerge as individual subspecialties of AI. These programs can help students hone their skills and determine what specific area of AI they want to delve into.

The Future Implications of AI

We are entering an exciting era in the technology revolution. While the 20th century was marked by innovations like the first computer and the commercialization of the Internet, it’s becoming clear that the next frontier of the evolution of technology will be characterized by AI

“I think there will be exponential progress [in AI] in the next 15 years compared to the previous 15,” Viswanathan said. “It’s not just people in the tech world that will be affected, but everybody’s lives.”

With the many different avenues of AI still in the developmental stages—from human-like interactive cyborgs to business optimization models—the full projection of AI and its implications to society is anyone’s guess.

But like Viswanathan said, it’s the applications that we can’t imagine that will likely turn out to be the most groundbreaking.


About the interviewee: Sha Viswanathan is a 14-year veteran at Microsoft, currently serving as a software engineering manager in the company’s cloud and AI division. He studied electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and moved to Seattle to start his career at Microsoft. His first five years at the company were spent in research and development of Internet of Things (IoT), when the concept was still in its formative stages. Now, Viswanathan hires and manages teams of engineers that have worked on projects that integrate AI into Windows and other Microsoft products.

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