Leadership

How this self-taught 14-year-old kid became an AI expert for IBM

Meet Tanmay Bakshi. Computer programmer, artificial intelligence expert and all-around tech extraordinaire. He's developed multiple apps, published a book, hosted a TEDx Talk and spoken at IBM Watson summits around the world including Finland, New Zealand, Denmark and Australia.

But there's something surprising about him: He's only 14 years old.

Though he first caught the attention of IBM at age 11, Bakshi's rise in the tech industry began much earlier. While peers were stacking Legos and playing make-believe, a five-year-old Bakshi was learning how to code.

His father Puneet Bakshi worked as a computer programmer for a number of years. As the elder Bakshi typed out codes, his enthralled son watched the process.

"It was so fascinating to me how computers could really do anything," Bakshi tells CNBC Make It. "I wanted to know what goes on behind the back-end and see how you can control the computers and tell them what to do."

Sensing this budding curiosity, his father taught him how to program. From there, Bakshi began using the internet on his own and reading books on programming.

At age seven, Bakshi set up a YouTube channel where he posted tutorials on coding and web development. With each video upload, he received thousands of questions from people all over the world.

Realizing that there was a lack of knowledge about programming and machine learning, he made it his YouTube channel's mission to help 100,000 aspiring kids and beginners along their coding journey. Today, he has over 200,000 subscribers.

At age eight, Bakshi taught himself how to develop iOS apps. By age nine, he had his very first app, which teaches multiplication, accepted into the Apple store.

But as time went on, Bakshi lost interest in programming. "I always felt that technology was very limited. I always felt that the moment you put something in, it would become obsolete," says the teen.

His work took a new turn at age 11. While uploading a YouTube video, he stumbled across a documentary on the "question answering" machine IBM Watson and how it played Jeopardy.

This was his first time hearing about artificial intelligence and it instantly cured his boredom. "From there, I was just immediately hooked to IBM Watson and AI," Bakshi recalls.

Within a week, he had built his first Watson app. Named "Ask Tanmay," the app responds back to questions by weighing the best possible answers before spitting out a response.

Shortly thereafter, he came across an IBM service called Document Conversion, which was in alpha at the time. The software's main objective is to convert documents from one format, such as a PDF, to another format like HTML.

Within minutes of playing around with the software, Bakshi discovered a bug. He posted his findings on a programming website and on his personal Twitter.

Some IBMers who were working on the technical side soon took note and contacted him. "It was really really exciting," says Bakshi. "All these IBMers reaching out to me."

Two of those initial contacts eventually became his mentors and assisted him in collaborating with IBM.

Tanmay Bakshi,14, is partnering with IBM Watson on deep learning.
Tanmay Bakshi,14, is partnering with IBM Watson on deep learning.

Since then, the tech giant has offered him many speaking opportunities at conferences that the company has hosted. At their Interconnect Conference, Bakshi was a keynote speaker in front of 25,000 people, and at the IBM Developer Conference in Bengal, India he spoke in front of 10,000 people.

Though he technically does not work for IBM, because he is not paid, Bakshi has continued to partner with the tech company on various projects.

In doing so, the largely self-taught AI expert has managed to wow some key execs at the company with his intellectual prowess. Notably, his current mentor and IBM Watson's chief technology officer Rob High.

"He absorbs knowledge like a sponge," High tells CNBC Make It, "and is highly driven to learn even more about deep learning and AI."

Together, the two have held Facebook Live sessions and hosted various speaking engagements. Their most recent session was held at AI World in Boston, where they discussed how to use AI for social media analytics. The teen says he enjoys and looks forward to these speaking sessions.

A woman walks past the IBM logo
Sean Gallup | Getty Images
A woman walks past the IBM logo

"I'm really passionate about AI, and I'm excited to share my knowledge with the rest of the community," Bakshi explains. "Why should other people need to rediscover fire or reinvent the wheel just because I didn't want to share what I had already done?"

His expertise in AI has already garnered him praise. After speaking at the 2017 Knowledge Summit in Dubai, he was given the Knowledge Ambassador Award from the King of Dubai's Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation. He is also an IBM Cloud champion and an honorary IBM Cloud adviser.

But Bakshi isn't just spending his days jetting off to conferences and accumulating accolades. The teenager has also been working to improve the lives of others.

"Healthcare is a field that is really really ripe to be enhanced by AI." -Tanmay Bakshi

His latest work deals heavily with the neural network, a computer system modeled on the human brain and nervous system.

"I found out that artificial neural networks are really useful in the healthcare area," says Bakshi. "Healthcare is a field that is really really ripe to be enhanced by AI."

The teen explains that humans are more prone to making errors within the healthcare industry. It's also a field that incorporates "a ton of data" and one that utilizes trial and error, which slows down a range of medical processes.

"So it really needs that AI impact very, very badly," he says.

Although there have been many AI naysayers within the last year, Bakshi contests the notion that AI will lead to humanity's downfall. To the contrary, he says that AI is going to "augment our lives."

The teen points to a healthcare-based project he's currently involved with called the Cognitive Story.

The project is led by IBM business partners Darwin Ecosystem, an artificial intelligence design firm, cognitive computing company Not So Rocket Science and his mentor Rob High.

Their first assignment deals with a quadriplegic girl named Boo who lives just north of Toronto.

"[Boo] can't say that she's uncomfortable, that she's thirsty, that she's hungry or that she wants the TV to be turned on," says Bakshi. "Nothing."

To help Boo communicate, the team is building a device that will scan her brain waves. Bakshi's role in this project is to use deep learning algorithms to understand Boo's electroencephalography brain waves and convert them to natural language, so she can convey her thoughts.

So far, they've gotten her to communicate in binary codes, either "yes" or "no", and they plan on expanding their use of AI to other questions once members have more data.

"Imagine how many more people can communicate again," says Bakshi. "Without deep learning, it's impossible."

Doctors also stand to reap the benefits of advanced deep learning technology.

"Doctors see [AI] as a really powerful tool," says Bakshi. He gives this example: Almost every week there are new pieces of literature coming out on topics like cancer or drug discovery.

"Imagine how many more people can communicate again." -Tanmay Bakshi

Even if specialists could read one page a minute, they still wouldn't be able to finish reading all the information that's being published. Then, it takes time to understand that information and incorporate it into their diagnoses and treatments.

"That's impossible for a human," says Bakshi. "We are simply not capable of that. Our cognition doesn't let us do that."

That's where deeper learning comes in: AI can look at millions of documents within a fraction of a second, understand it and describe it in a way that we can understand.

"It is truly a very useful professional tool for doctors that can augment and save so many lives because of the fact that [the medical profession] is so data dependent," says Bakshi.

The endless possibilities when it comes to AI and healthcare is one of the many reasons why Bakshi sees himself conducting research in this field for the foreseeable future.

"No doubt about it. That's what I'm most passionate about," says the teenager.

However, he admits that understanding and implementing this realm of work can be tricky. "Building every project is a journey," says Bakshi. "But really I love to persevere through those problems because I know that the end result is truly amazing and every single step is a learning process."

To further this learning process, Bakshi plans on attending college but hasn't made any final decisions on which school to attend. However, notable institutions like MIT, Stanford and Harvard have caught his eye because of their "great research work" on topics he finds interesting.

Jobwise, he's considering joining research and development teams at companies like IBM, Google, Microsoft and Apple, but says he's not limiting himself.

"I may be starting my own company that focuses on research, and development and implementation of AI," says Bakshi.

He has also written a book, "Hello Swift!: iOS app programming for kids and other beginners," and a second book on Watson is currently in the works.

The 14-year-old credits his rapid success to his parents, who he says have nurtured his demanding studies and are proud of his work.

"They provided me the exposure and resources right when I needed them the most," says the teen. "Had it not been for my family's support, I wouldn't be working toward my dream to such an extent."

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