Conversations with Balaji Viswanathan, the most followed person on Quora

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With close to 3,27,000 followers on Quora, Balaji Viswanathan, CEO of Invento, is the most followed person on Quora. He also has over 3,700 Quora answers to a diverse range of questions in his name. So there is no doubt that he felt right at home at YourStory, when we hosted him for our weekly Conversations at YourStory session on June 28.

In his bio, Balaji describes himself as a ‘writer, wanderer, coder, marketer, product manager and a crazy driver’. He runs a robotics company, but cheekily adds, "We build our robots not in China." Here are some of the highlights of his session with YourStory.

Humanoid invasion at events?

For events ranging from corporate get-togethers to birthday parties, Invento’s robots act as event photographers and entertainers. The company has manufactured humanoids that can understand speech, recognise faces and converse in Indian languages. The goal is to make humanoids key members at places like banks, malls and hotels.

Talking about the future of jobs and potential impact humanoids could have on the workforce, Balaji remarked that humans are already replaced at many places of customer interaction. In many buildings these days, you don't find quality receptionists. The skillset that is needed for that is also needed in other places and not enough smart people apply for those "boring jobs”. He said,

We (Invento) are often replacing vacuum. Robots bring no more layoffs than washing machines do. Robots can do jobs that we are not doing now: taking care of elders—the alternative is loneliness, pain and hardships. Playing with children on the ground—the present alternative is TV. Doing security—present alternative is crimes. Doing customer service—present alternative is confusion.

Invento currently manufactures their humanoids in India. On the long-term feasibility and use case of humanoids, Balaji said that 20 years ago people thought that cellphones were fancy and expensive. Nobody thought they would be used by the masses. He said,

But, here we are in the smartphone revolution. For robotics, it would take about three years to get ubiquitous.

Are humanoids the best solution?

Some banks have deployed tablets to cater to human needs and queries. So will robots have enough functionality and will their costs be justified? Balaji noted,

Tablets cannot do the job we are envisioning. Have you tried speaking to a tablet five feet away, for instance? We patrol the area for security and alert if there is a problem. Tablet can be easily ignored as it is not human-like and is usually relegated to a corner. Robots, on the other hand, can move around and 'intercept' the customers.

Talking about customer service in retail scenarios, Balaji said that their hypothesis is that robots can do far better than humans in many retail scenarios. He explained,

In the previous era, we had the neighbourhood kiranas who knew us and our requirements. The shopping was quite easy. Once we have moved to big box chain stores the human touch has gone missing. The staff is less trained and the only reason we go there is because of the variety and the cost.

So with their robots, Balaji wants to combine the best of both worlds. What if the robots could recognise you from previous trips to any of the stores and then provide recommendations, suggestions or product demos?

India vs the US

Balaji stated that he has been out of India for 10 of the last 12 years of his life. He had run startups in Boston, Nashville and San Francisco and believes that starting up abroad (especially in the US) is easier than in India. He said,

Our incorporation in the US took 24 hours and $200. In India, it took four months and $500. That is just one example of how excruciatingly hard it is to run a business in India. The angel ecosystem is much better developed in the US and the ecosystem is much more compact. Indian ecosystem is a tenth of the US size and is way too fragmented.

But despite the hurdles, Balaji noted that he felt more satisfaction in starting up in India and believed it is a booking market with one of the largest talent pools.

Writing and dealing with trolls

Balaji, who defines his meetings with APJ Kalam as some of the best moments of his life, said the secret sauce behind his ability to answer a high volume of diverse questions was practice and experience. He pointed out that he had been writing for a long time and during his stint at Microsoft, he was known more for his writing than coding skills. He elaborated,

I was a professional writer for a while and a blogger for 10 years. And on Quora for five years. That is a fair chunk of writing. Like any skill it gets better with time. I also have a diverse experience and tried a lot of things with varied successes. Most people with my experience don't spend enough time doing this.

Balaji’s advice for dealing with trolls is simple—“Don’t feed the trolls.” Never engage them in a conversation. He advised, “Report them to the moderators where possible and block them where possible. If you get worked up, they will get to you more and more.”

The roadmap for Invento

Talking about vision and the impact that he wants to achieve with his startup, Balaji said that he wants to build robots to help people with speech recognition, object recognition and mobility. He further said,

Our first area is in security (given India's lax security infra) and customer service. Eventually geriatrics and helping children.

The long-term goal for them is to make their robots work for different use-cases, like assisting elders suffering from loneliness, insecurity and pain, and assisting rural health clinics that suffer from a shortage of quality health workers.

Future of jobs, and advice for budding entrepreneurs

Balaji believes that integrating robots into the workforce is inevitable even if there will be resistance everywhere. But he feels that India will make the transition with more ease. He said, 

We don't have a lot of trained, quality labour for an economy our size. A lot of our young people want to work cool jobs and not the boring jobs that their parents worked. In the West, people are more okay to work on uncool jobs.

To those young entrepreneurs exploring the field of robotics and looking to start up in this space would be, Balaji advised that the key is to think big, keep an eye on the customer pain point and have a lot of patience. He noted,

For the first three years, nothing might happen. Most people quit digging before they reach the water spring… But there are hundreds of problems waiting to get solved. It is like the case with PCs in the 1970s. Things have only started—it is going to be an amazing ride that no one can even imagine.

You can read the entire conversation with Balaji here.