First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Rajasankar Viswanathan: Thank you for asking! We are doing relatively well. Chennai, where I live, and India as a whole, had a very strict lockdown imposed, which helped to dampen the impact of COVID. The government ensured everyone has access to essential commodities, but not being able to venture outside or meet friends and relatives was tough for my parents. Millions of people have not been as lucky as we have been, though. We are thankful for our health.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded NaturalText.
Rajasankar Viswanathan: I spent 15 years in I.T. before making the leap into entrepreneurship. At the time, I was familiar with two languages that have codified grammar rules, Tamil (my mother tongue) and Sanskrit. I was also learning English, which famously has an exception for every rule. My motivation for becoming an entrepreneur was less about a particular technology and more about my interest in understanding how languages and their rules come to be and how we learn languages and their rules.
My research eventually led me to the topic of how people access information…and the unsettling realization that the tools we use to find and consume information are fundamentally flawed. They cannot understand content or context, so search results and recommendations are delivered without guarantee accuracy, relevance, or truthfulness. They perpetuate bias instead of reducing it. These crippling limitations are a result of the way the tools are built. Among A.I. solutions, for example, using statistical algorithms for processing language (a non-numerical form of data) and supervised methods of learning lead to next-best guesses and untempered bias.
However, for all of the troubles, these tools have an even larger problem arises when people have unequal access to information. Today, we are not only dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are also dealing with a disinformation pandemic. Building next-generation tools that deliver accurate, relevant, and truthful information is not a vanity improvement—upgrading technology for technology’s sake. It is a matter of health and safety. It is a matter of our future.
We believe in building a future in which everyone is able to find relevant and correct information with ease; democratizing access to knowledge and information is one of our most critical goals. Our first step toward this goal was to make a program that was built to understand the language in the same way that humans do. Years of research and development resulted in NaturalText, an unsupervised engine that uses novel A.I. to analyze text and other unstructured data. Its unique way of reading text enables it to correct bias, understand the context, draw connections between concepts, identify “fake news,” and more. Unlike supervised solutions, NaturalText does not require massive datasets, making it accessible to businesses, nonprofits, and organizations of all sizes and industries.
How does NaturalText innovate?
Rajasankar Viswanathan: We are constantly listening, observing, and testing. Basic questions are key to a strong foundation: what do our customers say their greatest problem or need is? What are existing solutions, and where are they successful and unsuccessful? What are other ways to solve the problem? Following a thread of common sense, logic, and reasoning—and avoiding bias—throughout the entire process leads to innovation. It is how we concluded that the most natural and accurate analysis of unstructured data would use unsupervised learning and non-statistical, explainable A.I., even if no existing solutions had gone that route yet.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Rajasankar Viswanathan: The pandemic up-ended many aspects of our strategy as a B2B company. For example, pre-pandemic in-person interaction and outreach strategies are not possible in a lockdown. Even after the lockdown, when restrictions loosened a bit, changes to the business world remained and will be with us for some time. We re-calibrated our strategies and have since resumed reaching out to customers.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Rajasankar Viswanathan: Money is already tight in a startup, and COVID only reinforced the importance of smart money management. We learned to be more patient and flexible, avoid planning too far ahead during a pandemic, and find new ways to reach out to customers. You cannot predict who will come down with COVID or when. Someone can get sick, and before you know it, the whole office is closed. Customer payments, meetings with leads, and other critical events may suddenly be delayed, and all you can do is be understanding and grateful for each day you are healthy and working.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Rajasankar Viswanathan: During the pandemic lockdown, yoga and meditation helped. Once gyms re-opened, I was able to get back to working out regularly in the gym. Physical exercise helps a lot in overcoming stress.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Rajasankar Viswanathan: A.I. is a very contested space right now. Broadly speaking, you could say that open-source frameworks, F.A.A.N.G. companies, and N.L.P. text analytics solutions are competitive with us in different ways. NaturalText is unique in what it does and how it does it, though. Our unsupervised, explainable A.I. offers more to a wider range of customers than traditional supervised, “black box” models do. We also concentrate mostly on non-statistical data, which are largely underutilized and unexplored, and we tackle real-world business problems that other players have left unaddressed.
Your final thoughts?
Rajasankar Viswanathan: The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way even A.I. models look at the world. The challenges facing individuals and businesses today call on all of us to innovate ways to find and consume information, reimagine marketplaces, and, most of all, strengthen our support for our communities. We will only overcome hardships together.
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