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A new defence lab aims to embed AI into the military

Last Updated : 31 March 2020, 05:07 IST
Last Updated : 31 March 2020, 05:07 IST
Last Updated : 31 March 2020, 05:07 IST
Last Updated : 31 March 2020, 05:07 IST

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At 33, Sunny Manchanda is one of the youngest directors of a Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) lab. Hand-picked by the defence minister’s science adviser and DRDO top brass, Manchanda heads one of the five newly established DRDO Young Scientists’ Lab (DYSL), which are meant to develop cutting-edge technologies. Operational since mid-April, Manchanda’s lab, for instance, is to develop Artificial Intelligence (AI) and associated technologies. He wants to establish the lab as a “global centre of research” and “build products for the military and those that impact the lives of people in general”, Manchanda tells DH’s Akhil Kadidal.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I started out in computer science with undergraduate studies before joining DRDO in October 2009 as a Research Scientist, where I worked on Netra, the Airborne Early Warning and Control System. By 2016, I was involved with managing the flight-testing phase of the programme, when I decided to head back to university. In 2018, I obtained a Master’s in Computer Science at IIT Delhi, with a specialty in AI and Data Sciences.

Your specialisation is in AI, but what makes it so attractive to you?

I think it has been a long-standing (human) pursuit to understand the nature of our own intelligence. Most of us do not understand how human intelligence works. In aviation, for example, we understand the principles of flying, but the principles of intelligence are still hidden from us. That is what endeavouring in AI amounts to. It is a study of perhaps ourselves. There is also the great advantage of building technology to make the lives of people better.

Is there any particular area that you and your team is focusing on in AI?

We are working on computer vision, speech, forensics and biometrics. Not only in terms of how to use AI technology for these kinds of areas, we are also looking at dual-use technologies for the defence sector and the civilian market as well.

Stephen Hawking was deeply concerned by AI, to the point that he saw it as a threat to the human race. Considering this, should we be all that proud about endeavouring in AI?

I think these concerns might be a little premature. Essentially, what we do is that we build algorithms for machines to understand and interpret the world. But the concerns for machines to actually come up with strategic thinking and take over humans is science fiction. I don’t think that will be a concern for the next at least 5-10 decades. That’s too far to look into the future. But there has to be within the AI research and development community an open and responsible debate and communication about what to use AI for.

What prompted you to join the DRDO?

I had a professor who left a lucrative job in the Bay Area (California) to teach at IIT. He said that one can of course always make a living, even as a fruit seller, but that making a living itself is not the bottom line. I could have contributed to profits at big companies, but my focus was to help with nation-building, making the lives of our soldiers better and making the lives of our people better.

So, you have a lot of freedom to experiment?

The flexibility that we have here is what makes us unique. We have the freedom to choose the kind of problems that we want to tackle. It is a unique place in terms of fulfilling every scientist’s aspiration to do good science and to help the country. We are grateful to have been given such an opportunity to serve and to be assured of all the support and resources required.

Are there any AI applications that you can talk about?

We are also interested in developing solutions for internal security. We have a few projects going on, including one intended to enhance video imagery and another to determine deep fakes or doctored videos and audio.

What is at stake?

If we are successful, a lot of our defence technology will have been given a boost even in the international market. Our final objectives are two-fold: make our military strong and help develop technologies of importance to humanity. We would also want to contribute to the global AI research community and publish in the topmost avenues.

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Published 31 March 2020, 01:23 IST

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