AI is going to be the front and centre of every company post the pandemic, says IBM India CTO Subram Natarajan

The Indian Council for Medical Research leveraged Watson assistant to disseminate information in a standardised and consistent way, and in real-time during the COVID-19.

3rd Jul 2020
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Subram Natarajan, the CTO of IBM India, is responsible for the overall positioning of IBM's technology to clients. He is currently working with various groups within IBM to oversee a group of architects who are responsible for developing innovative solutions to help with various transformation projects during the COVID-19 crisis. 


As a leader, work from home has allowed him to talk to more employees than he normally could because everyone is online more frequently. He believes that going forward, all individuals and companies will be heavily influenced by the growing adoption of AI to deliver services.


He says upskilling is very important in the India and South Asia market. Design thinking and automation are words that companies keep in mind and implement. People are reskilling themselves to get up to speed in their organisations. 


“The DNA of a company will define how fast they will recover and how they use data to lead in their business,” he says. In a candid chat with YourStory, he recommends that organisations should start implementing digital solutions if they have to stay ahead in the AI race.


IBM CTO

IBM India CTO Subram




Edited excerpts from the interview:


YourStory [YS]: Can you talk about the scenario on the ground for IBM India, as you see it?


Subram Natarajan [SN]: Let me provide a perspective on the situation and talk about what IBM is doing for customers and internally. Everyone knows the times are tough, all types of companies are affected. Essentially, this is a turning point. I used the term because as we reflect upon this pandemic, we will look at new ways to innovate for our customers and our workforce. This time has exposed the vulnerabilities of organisations.


The whole culture of working from home has put tremendous stress on the system. Everyone is scrambling to get new technologies to enable work from home. As for IT, the whole collaboration piece has become very big. The side effect of this is that the acceleration of digital transformation has picked up.


AI is in the front and centre of the whole enterprise. Using insights is the key feature now, in terms of products and services, and is the only way forward for digital transformation. 


As for IBM, 99 percent of the workforce worked from home location, and only one percent worked on client location because they were handling critical applications. The entire organisation, in all verticals, is working out of home, and now you must imagine the workload on the traffic. Video conferencing always existed but virtual collaboration where you make decisions is becoming supercritical. Many companies are rapidly accelerating to this form of collaboration.


YS: What are your customers focussed on, and how is IBM helping?

SN: Customers are focussed on key tactical challenges. They look at business continuity and cybersecurity to be their prime drivers for growth. They ask questions like, "how do you reduce operations costs and ensure that the supply chain remains resilient."


Customer engagement was important for us and we used Watson heavily for this. The Indian Council for Medical Research leveraged Watson assistant to disseminate information in a standardised and consistent way and in real-time. Watson learns and starts making sure that healthcare professionals know what is going on. Our customers want to know symptoms of COVID-19, and we help health agencies convey messages to citizens consistently. 


We also have the “Call for CODE” platform for developers from 160 countries. In this programme, developers volunteer their own time in addressing world issues and come up with projects. This year, the theme was 'Climate change and COVID-19.' Teams across the world participated. Altran came up with an app called “Are You Well” to reduce stress on overburdened medical systems. They used Watson. All developers came up with excellent solutions.


Even scientists are putting supercomputers to use to design the molecules and to understand the virus. IBM’s IP can be used to fight COVID-19. We granted free access to algorithms to create modelling for drugs and helped scientists with drug discovery. Companies are now becoming AI-centric. 

YS: Is the world really going digital faster?

SN: There are examples galore of how the physical world is going digital. Yes, non-essential businesses were hurt but, they are looking at digital to manage costs. Their first question was to reduce operational expenses to keep their shops alive. How do you create stores to thrive by using AI is becoming an important question? The green store concept, pioneered by IBM, allows retailers to use AI to reduce their power and lighting costs.


One of India’s top retailers use IBM Services to monitor real-time electricity consumption, and facilitate centralised energy management and automated alert systems by leveraging IoT, Big Data, and Analytics. These are new business models for many businesses. The biggest challenge for businesses has been to work from home and skilling. Cloud, automation, and AI have become every employee's function. This will continue for small and big companies. 


YS: Do you see IoT and the edge becoming part of digital transformation?

SN: IoT has always been there as an endpoint and is supported by the cloud. The edge devices are far more intelligent now. In an ATM device, you have a camera which verifies people. The data goes all the way to the cloud and comes back. Now, although, all this is happening real-time, it is not quick enough to prevent fraud, imagine if I can now make the end-device intelligent. The IoT device will become effective because computing gets done on the edge. There are so many intelligent devices for an organisation today that they do not know how to manage them. These end-devices need to be managed. The edge network management will make life easy for the industry, and this will be accelerated with the advent of 5G. 


In manufacturing, management of CNC machines remains manual. We can use Watson AI ops to allow any company to manage IT in an autonomous manner. As far as IBM is concerned, we follow open source technologies and everything is based on Red Hat open shift containers, they are all Kubernetes based.  There are specific solutions that each domain or vertical in the industry needs. Startups can develop on the IBM platform and they can go to market with IBM. The entire platform that we have for the systems integrators community is open source.


(Edited by Apoorva Puranik)

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