Serving Through Tech: Pranav Khaitan on board WFP's 'Noble' pursuits
Ambition, Intellect, and Passion have led yet another alumnus of NIT Rourkela to achieve a feat that every student aspires for. Leading the Innovation Advisory Council of the World Food Programme (WFP), the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize 2020, is Mr Pranav Khaitan, a 2009 Btech graduate in Computer Science & Engineering from NIT Rourkela. He pursued an MS in Computer Science at Stanford University, USA, and is currently a Senior Engineering Lead at Google USA. Recognized by WFP for his leadership in pioneering Artificial Intelligence development to revolutionize humanitarian operations, Mr Pranav and his team build AI technologies to assess the disaster damage within the crucial 24 to 72 hours to make the delivery of the aid timely and efficiently.
The WFP (the world's largest humanitarian organization) has been putting tireless efforts for decades into the upliftment of millions of people out of hunger. It has contributed towards bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and acting as a driving force to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict. Google Research under Mr Pranav's leadership has contributed to this mission by pioneering the use of AI.
With a casket of quotes, he is an inspiration to the NIT Rourkela students. Team MM took this opportunity to have a one-to-one with Mr Khaitan.
Life before NITR
Monday Morning (MM): Tell us something about your days before joining NIT Rourkela. How did NIT Rourkela happen to you?
Pranav Khaitan(PK): Before NIT Rourkela, I studied at a residential school in Bangalore for four years, where I had a very good time, made some amazing friends, and learned a lot. While it was a wonderful place, we were in our bubble and somewhat immune to the world outside us.
When choosing my college, the reason to go to NIT Rourkela was mostly emotional for me. My paternal grandparents lived in Rourkela, and maternal grandparents lived in Cuttack. I had spent almost all of my summer vacations in Odisha. So, even though I had lived in many different places, I felt a deep connection towards Odisha, and I was eager to spend more time there. I still remember when I went to my admission counselling in NIT Surathkal, everyone else was mentioning the local NIT Surathkal as their top preference, and they all turned around to look at me when I mentioned NIT Rourkela as my top preference.
Life at NITR
MM: Share with us your experiences at your Alma Mater. How has NIT Rourkela contributed to your accomplishments?
PK: Even though I had chosen NIT Rourkela for emotional reasons, in hindsight, that was the best career decision I have ever made in my life. My time there is some of the most cherished moments I have ever lived. I still remember how we used to sneak out between classes and go to 'Rengcol' for some tea. People there believed in simple living and high thinking. I feel extremely lucky to have been at this amazing institute, surrounded by wonderful friends and Professors. NIT Rourkela was very foundational, both culturally and educationally, in everything that came after. The time spent at NIT Rourkela has shaped me for who I am today, and I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am if not for them.
Recalling one of his fond memories while trying for the role of a web developer on Monday Morning, he recalls,
I could not proceed with that interview because usually on Saturday/Sunday, I used to go to my local relatives in Rourkela, and my interviewer said all the work happens on Saturday/Sunday, so it doesn't make sense if I am not in college on the weekend (smiles).
MM: What captivated your imagination to work in the field you are currently in, and how did NIT Rourkela help you realize your vision?
PK: What fascinated me most about Computer Science was that the field, while still in its infancy, would play a critical role in defining our society for the decades and centuries to come. Instead of watching from the sidelines, I always desired to do my bit to help shape the field.
NIT Rourkela, through its deep focus on research, was a key enabler of that vision. Our Professors have always emphasized that we are not just a college; we are a research institute. That is something that resonated deeply with me, and I would encourage all my juniors to internalize that and take advantage of that. We go to NIT Rourkela not just to attend classes but to become thinkers with the ability to shape our field itself. I still remember that, even while we were in the second year, our respected Professor Majhi went out of his way to support all of us second-year students to initiate ambitious research projects. These were the kind of projects done by PhD students at other institutes, and the fact that second-year BTech students at NIT Rourkela were able to do it speaks a lot about our research strength institute.
MM: How essential was your MS degree in shaping your corporate career? How much does a higher degree, such as MS/MBA, impact a student's growth, considering there are so many options to chalk out?
PK: To be honest, I hadn’t planned to go abroad during my initial years at NIT Rourkela. But towards the end of my bachelor’s degree, my well-wishing friends and professors finally convinced me to go for it. Given their inspiration, I used the Durga Puja vacation to prepare and appear for GRE in my final year. I got lucky and got admitted to some good universities.
My Masters at Stanford added an entirely new dimension to my engineering skills, a crucial asset for my entire career. While NIT Rourkela had instilled strong engineering fundamentals, the MS degree supplemented that knowledge with a lot more exposure and real-world experience.
Given my experience, I would strongly recommend my NITR juniors to consider higher studies. Investing in ourselves and our education is the best investment we can ever make, so we should take advantage of the opportunity.
MM: What challenges did you face while pursuing an MS at Stanford University in terms of lifestyle changes or culture?
PK: Fortunately, NIT Rourkela had prepared me well enough that my time at Stanford didn’t feel challenging. That being said, Stanford exposed me to a diverse range of things, so I was very keen to absorb it all in the very limited time I had there. I was lucky to research with some of the most renowned names in Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science. I was privileged to take classes across many Stanford departments, several of which were unrelated to my field of study. During my time at Stanford, I had this constant feeling that time was short, and there is so much I have to learn and experience.
At NIT Rourkela, it was like a Gurukul system, where the schedule was rigid and defined, which was not the case at Stanford University.
MM: Walk us through the research projects at Stanford University.
PK: I was exposed to a diverse range of research projects at Stanford. The first project was on cognitive psychology, where we modelled how humans think and reason and whether we can get computers to do the same. The other big project I did was around probabilistic models and computation genomics, where we modelled human genes to predict the diseases proactively each of us might be more susceptible to. What I loved the most about these projects was that each of these was multidisciplinary.
MM: You are the Senior Engineering Lead at Google. You have also interned at reputed software giants like Facebook, HCL, and Microsoft. Tell us about your professional journey that has been.
PK: It has been a wonderful journey, but something that I had never anticipated or planned for. Soon after graduating from NIT Rourkela, I went for my master’s at Stanford. The three internships I did at Microsoft, Facebook, and HCL gave me a lot of industry exposure. Even though I hadn’t worked full time, I felt confident that I had a good understanding of the software engineering industry. Each of these three internships allowed me to work on high impact products. After graduating from Stanford, I joined Google in 2011. I have had an amazing time at Google, building high impact technologies that directly help improve billions of users’ lives. What I love most about working at Google is that we can research and develop fundamentally new technologies and directly use these technologies to help millions of users.
MM: How is the company culture at Google San Francisco different from its Indian counterpart? Walk us through a typical working day over there.
PK: In general, Silicon Valley culture is a laid-back culture. There is a sense of purpose and mission over there and a will to accomplish something significant for the society. The employees get a lot of freedom and flexibility to define their day at work, i.e., the time duration and work location. However, the sense of purpose is what connects all the 'Googlers'.
A typical day at work would be filled with meetings where we plan strategies and review projects. The remaining time would be spent on technical stuff like coding and designing systems.
MM: You are one of the founding leads of the Machine Intelligence organization at Google. How have you contributed to the evolution of Machine Intelligence at Google?
PK: During my first few years at Google, I was able to work on a wide range of technologies across the entire engineering stack. Around 2013, we realized that computing was at a major inflexion point and that Machine Intelligence has the potential to improve human lives for the next few decades fundamentally. So, we created an entirely new Machine intelligence organization, and I was fortunate to be one of the organization’s leads. Over the last few years, we have researched and developed AI technologies that today power almost all major Google products, including Search, Android, Cloud, YouTube, and Chrome. Back then, most people were sceptical that it would happen, but it is a reality today.
Contribution to the ‘Noble’ WFP project
MM: The use of AI technology and innovation to combat hunger is a new conception. What encouraged you to work towards using AI for humanitarianism.
PK: About two years ago, I felt that even though AI was significantly helping our world, many parts of our society were still left behind and could not benefit from it. So, along with my team, I set out on a mission to help uplift sections of our society that needed it the most by focusing on the basic problem of global hunger. I came across the UN World Food Programme, an outstanding organization that was already feeding tens of millions of people and has been hugely instrumental in reducing hunger across our planet. During our initial discussions, the senior leaders at the UN WFP were thrilled about the idea, and we developed a strong partnership to make it happen.
MM: Brief us about your Famine Project with the World Bank.
PK: Around the same time, when we started working with the UN World Food Programme, we also started a project in partnership with the World Bank to use AI technology to help prevent famines through proactive aid deployment. This was an ambitious project that was announced at the UN General Assembly by the UN Secretary-General and the World Bank President along with the heads of all other UN agencies. It has been deeply humbling to work with such respected organizations that I have been inspired by ever since I was a small kid.
MM: How do you at the Innovation Advisory Council of World Food Programme (WFP) help solve humanitarian aid problems and achieve the UN goal of 'zero hunger'?
PK: The Innovation Advisory Council is composed of leaders from across many disciplines who have the common mission of eradicating global hunger. One of the things we focus on is taking advantage of big shifts in technology to help uplift society. We identify early-stage ideas that show potential and further invest in them on those ideas to deliver long-term impact. We know that these problems are so vast that no small group of individuals can solve all these problems. So we work hard to empower other entrepreneurs to innovate in this field.
MM: What are your future goals in extending this partnership with the UN and the world bank? How do you see yourself in this collaboration in the future?
PK: Working in this space constantly reminds one that humanity continues to face major fundamental problems, and it is on each of us to do our bit to make our global civilization a bit safer, happier and harmonious. While we have advanced a lot as a civilization, we cannot take these advancements for granted, and we might very well go back if we become complacent. So we have to aspire to help improve society constantly. I consider my primary task here to set an example and kickstart an ecosystem where innovators such as our fellow students from NIT Rourkela feel confident and empowered to take on some of the biggest problems that our planet is facing.
MM: When was the last time you visited NIT Rourkela? What are the significant changes that you observed since the time you graduated in 2009?
PK: I last visited NIT Rourkela in 2014, and I was blown away by the infrastructure growth that had happened in just five years between my graduation in 2009 and 2014. But, even though a long time had passed and the infrastructure had grown significantly, the warmth of our Professors and everyone else at college still felt the same. I felt so much at home when meeting everyone at NIT Rourkela, and I could almost feel like I was still a student.
MM: Do you feel there is a lack of proper guidance and exposure for the students at NIT Rourkela to aspire for achieving global recognition and high ranking position at UN, for instance?
PK: I believe that all the ingredients are already there for the students of NIT Rourkela. We have the best Professors and students from across the country. Our infrastructure is world-class. Our alumni network is strong and healthy. What we do need to work on is the recipe that brings all these ingredients together. Our students need to feel confident to aspire high and take bold risks. And it is on each of us to make it happen.
MM: How important are alumni relations to an Institute like ours? Comment on the current scenario.
PK: The bond between the student community and alumni community is a core ingredient of any good institute. Most of us need the help of alumni during the early stages of our careers, and we all aspire to contribute back to our alma mater during the later stages of our careers. For NIT Rourkela, this bond has been strengthened over the years thanks to many hardworking alumni like Mr Sandip Dasverma, who have been working tirelessly to support our students and alma mater. But clearly, we have more work to do.
MM: Would you like to mention some people who have been an advisor/supporter in your accomplishments so far?
PK: I have been extremely fortunate to have been blessed with family members and friends who have supported me throughout this journey. My parents, my brother, my entire extended family have been there for me during every step along the way. I have been deeply fortunate to be blessed with wonderful friends both during my time at NIT Rourkela and elsewhere. My accomplishments are in no way just mine. Each of my family members and friends has played a critical role in making it happen.
MM: Considering the present situation, what are the major challenges to the field of Artificial Intelligence?
PK: Even though AI has advanced over the past few years, it has to overcome many problems. AI is disproportionately affecting society, and we see the inequality still prevalent in our society.
One challenge for all AI engineers is to check if such advancements help all sections of the society. AI is still relatively opaque and not very understandable, and such factors critically dampen its ability in sectors like health care or transportations.
MM: What piece of advice would you like to give to the present students here at NIT Rourkela?
The one advice I would give for everyone is, be kind to yourself and be kind to others around you. Each of us is filled with lots of potentials, and we can only realize that potential when we nurture it within us. We need to constantly remind ourselves that we are capable and feel confident about it. I know that all students who come to NIT Rourkela are all very capable, so I am sure that if they can confidently pursue their vision, the sky's the limit, and each of our students can accomplish wonders.
Likewise, being kind to others around us is important since everyone is fighting their own battle. A little kindness costs us nothing and can do wonders to improve the lives of people around us radically. Each of us is nothing without our friends, colleagues, and family members, so we always need to work hard to support and help grow the people around us.
Team MM congratulates Mr Pranav Khaitan and the WFP on achieving this endeavour through leadership on innovative technologies that have such deep benefit for all of humanity and acts as a source of inspiration for all the youngsters.