An interview with creator of Alexa Rohit Prasad

TechNews Writers
Mon Nov 26, 2018


Prior to the Darsh Wasan lecture on November 12, TechNews members David Arnold, Grace Arnold, and Ethan Castro were given the opportunity to interview Rohit Prasad. Prasad is best known for his work on Amazon Alexa and currently works as the Vice President and Head Scientist on Alexa Artificial Intelligence. Prior to his work in artificial intelligence, Prasad attended Illinois Tech where he worked on low-bit rate speech compression and graduated with a master of science in electrical engineering in 1999.

When asked about his time at Illinois Tech, Prasad reflected on his work in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, such as his research on low-bit rate speech compression. The importance of this topic in his homeland of India inspired him to initially enter this field. Although there was so much technological innovation here in the states, India was still “struggling to get landlines,” according to Prasad. It turned out that the field was much further along than he had initially thought, and he eventually moved into artificial intelligence, (AI) which he considered a “great societal impact problem.” Additionally, when talking about his time in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, he mentioned that he learned so much about work ethics. There was an extra rigor on scientific experiments that instilled this diligence in him, which he later applied when he went on to create Alexa. Prasad also learned a lot about data integrity - which “sounds trivial, but are some of the hardest skills to acquire.” Finally, he realized that at Illinois Tech, there was an incredibly high standard for writing things such as essays and lab reports, which he advised students to also place an importance upon. It doesn’t matter how innovative an idea is if it isn’t conveyed properly.

Prasad stated that some of his learning as a graduate student at Illinois Tech transferred into his work at Alexa, such as some of the technical learning. But he also learned how to go from a product vision to making something real through invention. When he first started working after college, he mentioned that he was “still operating as a student in a company,” and learning new things. When working, it’s very similar to college, and “just the scale changes.” People looking to be successful in technology and design have to be passionate and able to communicate, because they should be able to propose an idea and then execute it properly.

As far as advice for current Illinois Tech students, Prasad offered some words for students interested in being at the forefront of technological design and innovation. He advised that students should make their work a passion, instead of just following the current trends. Additionally, students should marry the problem, not the solution. Problems will take years to solve, and the first solution is not always the one that will work best. Prasad took 18 years himself in his own field solving problems, proving that the best result comes from hard work. That’s another piece of advice from Prasad - work extremely hard at whatever you choose. But be aware that failure is possible. There are three types of failures that Prasad warned are possible - mistimed ideas when the market isn’t ready yet, too many ideas that bog a project down, and the worst kind of failure - sloppy execution. This is the type to avoid, which can be done with high standards for yourself and for your team.

Prasad also extended advice for students interested in getting involved in artificial intelligence and aren’t sure where to start. Those students should take an online course or do some reading on the topic before you spend too much money. This ensures that you’re truly interested in artificial intelligence. Also, there are so many resources out there - one could get involved in open-source data to get their hands dirty and get in the weeds of it. Additionally, Prasad commented that the beauty of (AI) is that it is in so many different fields, like robotics, so there is a wide realm of possibilities. Finally, it’s important not to just get involved in artificial intelligence for the sake of it. Have an idea of a problem you’d like to solve - like disease prevention or power failure, and research it well.

Finally, when asked about advice for students that want to start work in design of entrepreneurship, Prasad advertised the Alexa Fund - a venture fund for anyone interested to apply to. The fund focuses on conversational AI and has two dozen funding rounds. Prasad suggested that interested students should be passionate about solving problems, have a real customer-focused mindset, and test out their ideas first before applying. This opportunity gives students a chance to finance their ideas.

While Prasad’s graduate work at Illinois Tech on speech compression may not have had much of a direct impact on Alexa, the thoroughness with which he was expected to work certainly transferred. Hopefully the advice he offered to students just starting out in technology, artificial intelligence, or entrepreneurship helps them create something as innovative as Alexa.



Appears in
2018 - Fall - Issue 11