Anirudh Koul joins Aira as Head of Artificial Intelligence and Research

August 15th, 2018

Photo of Anirudh Koul by Baihan Huang

Photo of Anirudh Koul by Baihan Huang

Aira is excited to announce that Anirudh Koul, founder of the award-winning Seeing AI app, and former Senior Data Scientist at Microsoft is joining Aira as Head of Artificial Intelligence and Research. In this role, Anirudh will lead the development of Aira’s AI platform, leveraging advances in computer vision and machine learning to improve the experience and capabilities of both Aira agents and Explorers.

Anirudh has built and led winning teams for four consecutive years at Microsoft’s One Week Hackathon, deemed the planet’s largest private hacking event. He is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University specializing in machine learning and natural language processing. His teams have been recognized with several prestigious awards, including the Helen Keller Achievement Award from the American Foundation for the Blind. He is a noted AI expert with experience in deep learning, computer vision, NLP, and robotics.

We sat down for a Q&A with Anirudh about why he is joining Aira and his vision for the future of AI and some thoughts on his new role.

Why Aira?

“Artificial Intelligence is the new electricity.”

— Professor Andrew Ng

Just as electricity revolutionized the world in the 1900s, AI is on the verge of doing the same today. From self-driving cars to robotics, movie recommendations to the voice assistant on your phone, its presence is becoming ubiquitous.

Having worked for the last five years on applying artificial intelligence for assistive needs, including people with low vision, profound hearing loss, and those with motor impairments, I have had the privilege to witness firsthand the impact AI can have on daily lives. Seeing AI, the talking camera app for the blind community is one such example, which is used by hundreds of thousands of users worldwide.

I worked intimately on this project with some exceptionally talented and passionate people who wanted to make a real difference. It made me truly appreciate the constant iterative approach to solving difficult problems, and companies like Microsoft that provide the necessary resources, space, and support to make projects like these a reality. I have seen the power of what a small team of motivated individuals is capable of achieving, and it’s truly incredible!

During this time, I often came across stories of people in the blind and low vision community doing incredible things with the help of another technology called Aira. Aira connects an individual with a professional, remotely-located agent who can provide visual description and assistance on-demand. I heard about Erich Manser, running the Boston Marathon with his Aira agent, Greg Stilson, who attended his first Super Bowl game solely with his Aira agent and a mother of the bride, who experienced her daughter walk down the aisle with help from an Aira agent.

I kept encountering this small, ambitious team at industry events. I heard them make promises, and I saw them stay true to their word. The technology was impressive, but more than that, Aira established a magical human connection with their ‘Explorers’, making fans out of them. It’s evident why Aira has become a recognized leader in the accessibility community in such a short period. No wonder it has attracted many technical visionaries, including Segway inventor Dean Kamen, futurist Ray Kurzweil, and Uber co-founder Oscar Salazar.

My ‘a-ha’ moment came a month ago when I got lost at a large international airport. As I was trying to determine which terminal I was in, I decided to give the Aira app a try in this real-world scenario. I was instantly connected to Aira agent Emily, who, armed with a live video feed from my phone’s camera and a floor plan of the airport, knew my surroundings better than I did. She navigated me through a giant maze with ease and even spotted my bag as it was coming over the conveyor belt. I knew what the technology was capable of, but using it firsthand made me a believer.

“I knew what the technology was capable of, but using it firsthand made me a believer.”

Aira has done a wonderful job of working with the community to address key challenges. Through its Aira Access programs, Aira is already removing many remaining barriers in attaining education and employment. The statistics are unacceptable: 60 percent of students who are blind and low vision who enter college won’t graduate, while 70 percent of working-age adults remain unemployed. I want to play a part in seeing these numbers improve drastically. I truly believe Aira is the company that can make it happen.

Why now?

Accessibility accelerates innovation. Assistive technologies have time and again paved the way for mainstream innovation, and we are on the cusp of a new technological revolution, thanks to AI.

Alexander Graham Bell experimented with hearing devices for his wife and mother, who had profound hearing loss. Along the way, he invented the telephone. Cruise control was created by an ingenious mechanical engineer who was blind, and particularly sensitive to speed changes while riding in a car. Today’s microscopes and telescopes have their origins in lenses created in the 10th century to correct vision problems. Optical character recognition (OCR), speech-to-text, and the digital scanner were all invented when Ray Kurzweil tried to build a book reader in the 1970s.

It’s hard to imagine the modern world without these advances – all born of assistive technology.

AI is the next frontier to be revolutionized by advances in assistive technology, and Aira has a unique opportunity to lead the way.

At Aira, we can teach computers to understand the visual and auditory world far better than the state-of-the-art by learning from the agents. This ‘human-in-the-loop’ approach can help accelerate the semantic understanding of the world, and potentially fulfill the most pressing needs of our users. By investing in areas such as computer vision, natural language processing, and conversational interfaces, the possibilities are seemingly endless.

We can draw an analogy with self-driving cars. They both attempt to tackle a very complex problem by mimicking human understanding of the environment, and responding accordingly. And the solution needs a slow and deliberate iterative process. Most of all, both can change lives dramatically. So far we have only just scratched the surface.

I am thankful to Aira for extending the opportunity to join them on their journey, and for providing a platform to do AI research and bring it to users. After all, it does have ‘AI’ in its name.