Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Nov 06, 2020
Retail is among the most ‘legacy’ industries there is today. Coupled with the fact that the consumer buying today is nothing like the industry out there makes this the perfect space for disruptors.
Mad Street Den: Building generalisable Artificial Intelligence architectures at scale

ORF: What is your contrarian thinking about enabling people to participate in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) economy? Please share your thoughts on why the average Indian must be excited about AI.

Ashwini Asokan: The central thesis for our company and our journey as entrepreneurs has always been ‘helping people become AI-natives.’ There is a distinct milestone coming up, one where all the infrastructure, hardware, cloud, software, and our knowledge of smart systems are exactly where we need them to be for the perfect storm. And the market is ready. This pandemic has wreaked havoc, but it has also served its purpose of pushing industries to think about change as a necessity and not as an option. And there is a race for access to trained talent, experience and infrastructure. China obviously leads this right now, with the US at its heels. India really needs to sit up and ask where it is in this game. We have a choice ahead of us — either become like the talent powering companies in China and the US, replicating the decades that have gone by, or become the powers that have put AI to use in a meaningful way to help its citizens get better access to finance, healthcare, lifestyle and more. Racing to become a surveillance nation is not what we should be focusing on. There’s immense talent in the country that is ready to build new companies, new infrastructure for the country and more. Finding ways to remove friction in those processes and create systems that do not hinder growth is extremely important.

In a nutshell, our motivation and ambitions are to build an AI-literate, AI-native talent and force of people across a variety of disciplines who are vested in the creation and design of AI, not just the implementation of readymade solutions.

ORF: How did you personally arrive at your unique thesis about AI?

AA: From the latter half of the 2000s until a few years ago, AI was still largely all about early experiments. We have been trying to breakthrough on hardware, software, architectures, silicon, neuroscience, user interface, understanding of human behaviours and more. And in the last ten years, the mobile has evolved faster than the 50 years before that. Mobile, data and the internet accelerated everything.

I was part of an interdisciplinary team of experts across these disciplines while working at Intel in the Valley for Genevieve Bell, a wonderful anthropologist and leader who was challenging the way corporations were thinking about the technological change ahead of us by putting people at the centre. For decades, she and other Intel fellows like Lama Nachman were laying the ground for where we are today. They were asking the ecosystem to think about how humans would interact with sensors, with technology that had some ‘smartness.’ At the same time, I was privy to my husband and now cofounder Dr. Anand Chandrasekaran’s work in neuroscience and neuromorphic engineering in academia. I was observing growth in academia and in industry while developing my own point of view on the future of technology and building some versions of it at Intel.

It became clear to me that both academia and corporations were approaching AI as a bunch of specs, as pushing hard on physics and performance and more. This is undoubtedly critical and fundamental to this trajectory, but it was always at the cost of pushing the envelope on the why and the how. We were hardly thinking about who would use this, why and how, or the place of AI in a world full of humans. Beyond the movies and the shows we now have, I doubt we have made a lot of progress as humanity on consciously designing a path for AI and a path for humans to be in a world with AI.

This pretty much became the bedrock of my thesis around why I wanted to build this company to focus on three things:

1. Building new AI architecture that allowed us to deploy AI on scale across a range of applications motivated by people’s real needs,

2. Develop and design AI-powered solutions that made people’s work and lives better in ways they could not foresee, and

3. Enable us to recruit people into the world of building and designing AI.

This is our path at Mad Street Den.

ORF: Mad Street Den spun off its first vertical with a retail focus. How do you envision an AI-backed solution will change the face of the retail industry?

AA: Retail is among the most ‘legacy’ industries there is today. Coupled with the fact that the consumer buying today is nothing like the industry out there makes this the perfect space for disruptors. The retail industry is being disrupted piece by piece, department by department, faster than we have ever seen before because of the pandemic. We are seeing AI at the centre of this change. Whether it is processing contactless payments, enabling retailers to do contactless photography, or helping merchandisers and teams automate their processes so they can focus on performance and value generation rather than doing manual tasks, the opportunity for AI is huge. And we are seeing chief experience officers all over the globe run to embrace this change and enable their employees to adopt it as well.

ORF: Which sectors are you focusing on next with the Mad Street Den platform solution, and how do you approach global markets with it?

AA: We have been global from the get-go. Opportunities for growth in retail the world over is incredible. At Mad Street Den, our ambitions stretch far beyond retail., our retail vertical is the start. We have learnt discipline, rigour, mechanics of the business, the domain and organisation building. In the coming years, we will certainly be looking to expand. The market is ripe for disruption. There are problems in finance, insurance, healthcare, shipping and so much more. There is also the problem of making developers participate in the creation of these solutions. We see this as a demand and supply problem at Mad Street Den. It is not enough to just focus on industries that need help, it is equally important to focus on the talent and the community that will be building this. This is our goal. We look at AI as a problem of demand and supply and not just as a tool to solve problems. We are invested in creating this community and growing it across the country. We have done it with and we are all set to grow and replicate that.

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Ashwini Asokan

Ashwini Asokan

Ashwini Asokan is the founder and CEO of Mad Street Den an Artificial Intelligence company working on the retail sector.

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