Meet Rohit Prasad, the Indian-born engineer who created Amazon's Alexa
Despite being a distant sci-fi vision in the 1970s, virtual assistants have become commonplace now. Although pioneered by Apple's Siri, virtual assistants really started taking off with Amazon's Alexa, which captured the imagination of many with its vast range of services and somtimes creepy comments. Interestingly, behind the multi-talented Alexa is Indian-born engineer Rohit Prasad, who is making waves in the tech world. Here's his story.
Prasad had studied in India up until post-graduation
Born in Ranchi, Rohit Prasad graduated in Electrical and Communication Engineering from the Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, and went on to complete his MS in Electrical Engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology, USA. Having completed his education, Prasad worked for research company BBN Technologies for 14 years before joining Amazon as the Director of Machine Learning in 2013. Then, everything changed.
Prasad saw considerable success at high-technology firm BBN Technologies
BBN Technologies is credited with the creation of ARPANET - the predecessor to the internet. Prasad saw considerable success at BBN technologies too, where he progressed from Staff Scientist in 1999 to Deputy Manager and Senior Director of Speech, Language, and Multimedia Technologies in 2011.
Inspired by Star Trek, Prasad suggested developing Alexa
Prasad joined Amazon's Lab126, and was charged with coming up with an innovative solution to how customers interacted with Amazon's products and services. Inspired by sci-fi show Star Trek's virtual assistants, and having had experience with speech recognition, Prasad's ingenuous solution was Alexa. Prasad soon climbed the ladder, and in 2016, was made the head-scientist of Alexa's artificial intelligence and speech recognition wing.
Prasad credits Star Trek for his innovative idea
"If you look at five years back, talking to a device at a distance, in the midst of a lot of noise, was science fiction. We grew up in the Star Trek era, that was the inspiration for us," Prasad said.
Developing Alexa didn't come without its challenges
Despite Prasad's honed skills, developing Alexa as we know it today proved to be a challenge. Technicalities aside, Prasad said that fine-tuning Alexa for India (where it was launched just after the US, UK, and Germany) was a daunting task given the multiplicity of accents and mixed languages. However, Prasad added that he was pleased with the progress Alexa had made.
Currently, Prasad is working to improve Alexa's core intelligence
With Alexa effectively tackling its India burden, and doing well across the world, Prasad and his team are currently working on improving Alexa's core intelligence so that the virtual assistant can better understand ambiguous commands and accomplish complex tasks like planning a vacation. Prasad is confident that Alexa will continue to improve as it learns from its interactions with humans across the world.
Prasad and his colleague Toni Reid's legacy
While the Ranchi-born Prasad isn't a household name like Sundar Pichai, Prasad and his colleague Toni Reid was ranked 15th among Recode's list of the 100 most influential people in tech, business, and media in 2017. Prasad and Reid ranked just behind the likes of Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai, and Elon Musk, for making Alexa a household name.