Dr Manik Varma : 2019 Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Prize recipient in engineering

Dr Manik Varma is the sole recipient of the 2019 Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Prize in engineering, which is the most coveted award in multidisciplinary science in India. Dr Varma is a Senior Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research India and an adjunct faculty at the CSE Department and the Khosla School of IT at IIT Delhi. His areas of interest are machine learning, computational advertising and computer vision. His algorithms are benefitting millions of people around the world. He has been a Visiting Miller Professor at UC Berkeley, a Post-Doctoral Fellow at MSRI Berkeley, a Rhodes Scholar and a University Scholar at the University of Oxford.

In an interview with Dr Vanita Srivastava he talks about his journey in the research terrain and more.

Edited excerpts:

How would you describe your journey in the research world-- the challenges and the learning?

The journey has been a lot of fun. It has allowed me to work with amazing students and exceptional colleagues from whom I have learnt many technical skills over the years. I have also learnt a lot from my mentors about how to choose problems, about taking and mitigating risks, about scaling up projects and trying to increase impact, about communicating my research outside my area of specialization, etc.

Can you elucidate a bit on extreme classification in machine learning? Why did you choose this area for research?

Extreme classification is a term I coined with John Langford in 2013 to describe classification problems with millions, or perhaps even billions, of classes. It's a new area of research that I started with my students and colleagues. Today extreme classification is thriving in both academia and industry. Students have done PhDs in the area, publications have come out in top-ranked fora in diverse communities including machine learning, artificial intelligence, data mining, information retrieval, web search, computer vision, natural language processing, etc. Extreme classification has also had significant industrial impact as it has opened a new paradigm for key industrial applications such as large scale ranking and recommendation.

What does this award mean to you?

The award is foremost a recognition of the world class research carried out by my students, collaborators and colleagues as well as a recognition of the great supportive and enabling environment provided by IIT Delhi and Microsoft Research India. It is also an inspiration for us to try harder, do better and have even greater impact. I hope it will inspire more students to do PhDs at IIT and join us in our journey.

You are a researcher at Microsoft as well as an adjunct faculty at IIT Delhi. How has this arrangement worked out for you?

I am immensely grateful to both Microsoft Research India and IIT Delhi for supporting me and contributing to my success. This dual arrangement has allowed me to have one foot in academia and one foot in industry, thereby getting the best of both worlds. I have the privilege of working with the best students in the world as well as exceptional colleagues and collaborators at IITD and MSRI.