Can machines think? It is a thought that is loaded with
implications both of the physical and metaphysical types. For long, scientists
and philosophers have debated on the issue of whether it is possible for a
machine to be ‘conscious’ and if it is a good thing or not. The debate
heated up with the emergence of computers on the scene in the middle of the
twentieth century. Philosophers pooh-poohed the notion, fiction writers warned
against it and scientist were working towards it.
Sometime around 1950, Alan Turing, referred to as the father of
modern computer science, devised a ‘test’ that machines could undergo in
order to classify whether they were seemingly intelligent or not. Called the
Turing test, and based on a popular game of those times, all the machine had to
do was fool an observer into believing that it was not a machine, but a human,
through a series of interactions over chat. Till date none of the machines has
been able to pass the Turing test convincingly.
The Soft Side
Yet, in many ways, the Turing challenge sets off a race for intelligence, or
more precisely, artificial intelligence (AI). AI is a branch of computer science
that deals with writing computer programs that can solve problems creatively;
namely, workers in AI hope to imitate or duplicate intelligence in computers and
|Rajendra Sonar at his office
in IIT-B, working towards an ‘intelligent’ future
While much of the focus has been on developing intelligent
machines, robots like Aiko and Aibo, there has been an intelligent revolution on
the software front. The software that manage huge databases, like in banks and
retail stores, are increasingly becoming ‘intelligent’, sniffing out scams
before they happen or place an order for a product before the stock is depleted.
Using artificial intelligence techniques, these software and platforms have
evolved into more sophisticated products and are clubbed under the tag of
Over the last few decades, big universities like MIT and
Stanford have set up special labs on artificial intelligence, where a whole
breed of engineers and scientists are pitting their wits. Traditionally,
renowned universities have been the germinating ground for innovative ideas and
that is quite the case at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B),
where a professor has founded a company in the AI space.
Rajendra M Sonar, PhD, assistant professor, SJMSOM, IIT-B, has launched iKen
Solutions under the aegis of SINE Incubator. IIT-Bombay’s SINE Incubator helps
students, professors, and alumni develop and commercialize their business ideas.
As of now around fifteen ventures are developing at the SINE campus, ranging
from robotics to AI in the case of iKen. "I am truly happy about the way
IIT and SINE has funded my venture. It has let me commercialize my idea, else it
would have been quite difficult," says Sonar.
iKen Solutions is a software product and solution company
providing tools and solutions to develop knowledge-based business applications
and decision support systems based on or enhanced with integrated AI techniques
across verticals. Sonar and his team have developed a Web-based integrated
development environment to develop enterprise applications and decision support
systems backed by or enhanced with hybrid AI. They have named this environment
as iKen Studio, and it supports integrated architectures of intelligent
techniques, namely, expert system, neural network and case-based reasoning along
with analytical methods.
"The iKen Studio is very adaptable to different scenarios.
For instance, we have adapted it on a mobile company’s platform; it sits on
top of the WAP site, acting as a business intelligence software," he says.
"This solution is one of the first AI studios that is completely Web-based,
and works on an Application Server Protocol (ASP) model. There is no specific
database requirement either, and can be easily plugged to any operational
database. It is a kind of Salesforce.com model that we are working on."
in specialized domain like AI are not instant as in the services industry,
and one needs a lot of patience and vision
AI in India
On being asked for his views on the evolution of AI in India vis-Ã -vis the
movement happening across the globe, he says, "We are steadily catching up,
especially in the software domain. I see a lot of companies nowadays actively
using AI techniques in their products; companies like Subex or 3i Infotech are
good examples." He also believes that Indian companies need to change their
mindset when it comes to working in specialized domain like AI product
development. "The returns are not instant as in services industry, and one
needs a lot of patience and vision," says Sonar.
Entrepreneur vs Academician
Sonar is also a faculty at the management institute at IIT-B and divides his
time between his students and iKen. "Fortunately for me, IIT encourages
such venture, and, thus, I am able to devote my time and energy both to my job
and venture. Sometimes it gets tough, but since I stay and work in the campus, I
am able to manage it," he says. In the coming months, when he will not be
working at the institute, he will completely immerse himself in iKen.
"I believe every academician in IIT should start a venture.
It is a great way to share domain knowledge and expertise, and thus help the
nation. And in the end, if all goes wrong, at least one has a job in hand,"
he says. "Thus, you could well say that it is a safe bet," he adds.
The zealous entrepreneur seems to be gearing up for better things. Already
iKen has developed two innovative applications, namely iKen.Push Technology and
True Knowledge Delivery Portal that sit on top of iKen Studio. Sonar is very
excited about the prospects. "True Knowledge Delivery portal will help to
create, share and deliver knowledge rather than just information over the
Internet. With this, any and every website can offer the same kind of
functionality like that of Amazon.com. The prospects are really amazing,"
Already, iKen has secured funding to the tune of Rs 80 lakh, and
has contracted clients like Cellent Technologies, Dena Bank (a pilot project),
and others. Negotiations are on with an oil and gas major PSU and a mobile
company as well.
iKen derives its name from a combination of two words, I stands
for intelligence and ‘ken’ means a body of knowledge, thus, iKen means an
intelligent body of knowledge and it seems that the company is realizing the
name. Sonar ‘can do it’, after all.