Prof. Bal Krishna Bal Website | LinkedIn
Please tell us briefly about your current teaching and research activities.
I am teaching “Machine Learning” and “Speech and Language Processing” to the undergraduate students and “Research Methodologies” and “Advanced Database Management System” to the graduate students. As far as research is concerned, I am working on a few Research Projects being conducted at the Information and Language Processing Research Lab(ILPRL), Department of Computer Science & Engineering (DoCSE) which includes Nepali Optical Character Recognition (Desktop and mobile-based) as well as Sentiment Analysis on the News Media texts.
You are one of the pioneers who have worked in the field of Natural Language Processing (NLP) in Nepal. What made you interested in the field of computer science and NLP? Please share your academic journey.
I did my Undergraduate and Masters in Informatics and Computer Engineering from Russia. Back then, during my Masters, I worked on a course Project on Experts System. Though everything was rule-based, I was impressed by the limited amount of intelligence demonstrated by the system. This fascinated me towards Artificial Intelligence in my early student days. After returning to Nepal after my studies, I got the unique opportunity to be involved in the two mega Projects on Language Technologies, namely the PAN Localization Project, and Bhasha Sanchar, which were respectively supported by the International Development Research Center (IDRC), Canada and the IT&C Program of the European Commission. The projects were focused on developing NLP resources and applications for Nepali language covering corpora, spell checker, grammar checker, optical character recognition, text-to-speech, etc. The projects were led by Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya, an archive house for publications in Nepali language. My association with this institution gave me further impetus and inspiration to continue my research career in the field of NLP. In 2009, I moved to Kathmandu University (KU) full time as a faculty at the Department of Computer Science & Engineering. In 2015, I completed my PhD on Sentiment Analysis from KU.
What was your early educational experience like? What subjects fascinated you most and what were your interests and goals?
I had my early dreams to become a medical doctor. Hence, I took Biology as my major during my intermediate studies. I had also taken additional math in grade XII. However, I gradually lost interest in biology. I participated in MBBS entrance examinations, but my attempts were unsuccessful. On the other hand, I passed the entrance examination conducted by the Ministry of Education, Nepal Government for Physics, Chemistry and Math and was selected to study Engineering in Russia on scholarship.
When was the first time you saw and used a computer? Can you please describe that experience?
I saw a computer for the first time in Kathmandu in 1997 (I was a high school student). But that was from a distance only and I was not able to use it. I got a real chance to boot a computer and use it in 1998 when I started my undergraduate studies in Informatics and Computer Engineering in Russia. It was a wonderful experience for me, especially seeing screen saver animations and changing desktop wallpapers were thrilling experiences in the beginning. I remember typing a lot in Word Pad and other editors and watching movies.
What is the research and development scenario in the field of NLP and AI in Nepal? What are the various projects in AI/NLP happening in Nepal?
As far as I know, AI/NLP Projects have been undertaken in Nepal as early as 2004 formally on a big scale under different project banners. Some of the AI/NLP Projects include Spell checker, Grammar checker, Machine Translation, Text-to-Speech, Optical Character Recognition (OCR), Handwriting Recognition, Speech Recognition, etc. Some of the works like OCR and the Text-to-Speech are in quite a mature state whereas others are in the process of getting matured. Lately, there has been a major attraction among undergraduate and graduate students to take up AI/NLP Projects as part of their course works. AI-based start-ups and software companies also have come up in recent years and are contributing to AI/NLP problems.
Overall, there is an increasing interest in NLP and AI in Nepal in recent days. The wider availability of learning materials on the web is one of the major contributing factors.
What kind of AI projects do you think are most needed/relevant in Nepal?
If I need to make a choice, I would go for two primary domains – Education and Health as AI projects and applications in these domains have high capabilities to transform our society. The technologies along with the world are changing rapidly and Nepal is also no exception to this. There are some good outcomes- in recent years, we saw a vast improvement in access and quality of internet service. This has made resources and infrastructure more accessible for AI research. We need to set priorities for Nepal focusing on the AI projects that would help not only addressing our local burning problems but also leapfrog and make our presence in the international arena.
There is a perception that doing cutting-edge research is very difficult in Nepal. What are your experiences and observations? What are the opportunities and what are the challenges?
The perception that doing cutting-edge research is very difficult in Nepal is not totally true. The world has become more and more globalized and hence narrowed like never before. Be it in hardware or software, it is not difficult to find appropriate technical solutions. The main issue is about tapping the right set of people and resources. Having been working in Nepal, I would say we have both opportunities and challenges. We have opportunities because the technologies used and implemented in developed countries are yet to be introduced in Nepal. This opens up avenues for many diverse and unique opportunities. On the other hand, our major challenges lie in the mindset and the lack of research culture. There is a very limited understanding and approach to doing research in Nepal which is typically limited to doing literature reviews and producing reports. Another very unfortunate aspect hindering research and innovation is that there is an underlying layer of unhealthy competitiveness among major key players. This has been hindering the spirit of collaboration and joint efforts. We all need to realize that in today’s interdisciplinary world, problems are getting more complex and it is impossible to solve them with a one-man-army model and therefore, collaboration is the key.
How do you compare working in university to working in the industry? What would you say to an aspiring academic/researcher who might be concerned that our universities are not conducive to research and innovation?
Between 2005-2009, I was working full time in the industry sector and part-time in academia. Starting in 2009, my roles just got reversed. Nevertheless, the working methodologies have remained pretty much the same. Back then, I was in my thirties and I had a lot more in my daily to-do list than what I have today. But my working style today is still action-oriented. Academia is comparatively process-oriented and at times may even appear sluggish. Yet, it is in academia where core innovations and breakthrough ideas evolve. And it is the industries which take forward these new ideas and innovations towards implementation.
Regarding the concern that our universities are not providing research conducive atmosphere, I would like to say we are limited by our human and logistic resources and we need to adjust our expectations based on this ground reality of ours. But the fundamental point is that we should start from somewhere and nobody else will do the work for us unless we start working for ourselves. We need to be very strategic. One good strategic plan could be building larger solutions based on the prior solutions to smaller sub-problems. This involves consolidation as well as reuse of the solutions achieved earlier.
Do you think our students in science and technology have a good understanding of how technology and society impact each other? What should we do to make our technology education more holistic and grounded?
There was a time when the students in science and technology seemed to be totally detached from society. But times have changed and the perception and understanding have also gradually changed. We can take the application of computer as an example. Today, it has become so widespread that any discipline cannot think of living without it. Technology has the enormous potential to transform and impact society. To make our understanding of technology even more relevant, we should relate it with our real day-to-day problems. That way, technology education can be made more holistic, grounded and practical.
As the head of the Computer Science department at KU, what are your priorities about leading computer science education in Nepal?
My priorities would be to maintain quality in the teaching/learning experience of the current undergraduate and graduate programs at the department. Furthermore, I would put efforts towards streamlining the research culture in the Masters and PhD level.
Tell us about a time you made an exciting breakthrough — or any other highlight in your journey so far.
Since 2005, we were struggling to come up with good accuracy results for the Nepali Optical Character Recognition System. It was in 2017 that we were able to develop a system that gave more than 90% accuracy. We developed this system for the visually impaired community and this I think was one of the exciting breakthroughs in my research and development career.
Tell us about a time you had serious doubts about your own ability in the fields you chose. How did you overcome that?
When I was in Grade VIII, I had chosen “Industrial Education” as my vocational subject. However, I struggled with understanding the science behind the different views of any object. Drawing did not seem to be my cup of tea, no matter how hard I tried. I dropped this subject and switched to another. Not only was I able to comprehend but I topped the class as well. That was an eye-opener to me in the sense that when I had thought something was the end of it, I realized there would be several other options. The important thing is to find something where your passion truly lies in.
Tell us about the role of mentorship in your professional life.
My job at Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya(MPP) taught me a lot of things but most importantly it gave me insights to working on research & development projects- the importance of meeting deadlines, communicating with project stakeholders and so on. I got to work with several effective managers from whom I received direct and indirect mentorship. After my job at MPP, I joined KU in the year 2009 and then onwards every day has been a learning opportunity for me. In the meanwhile, I also completed my PhD. That is another level of learning and the opportunity of getting mentorship.
What is the best career advice you have ever received?
“Never ever give up hope in life. Even in the bleakest situations, one should always look for a ray of light”.
The career advice you wished you received in your twenties.
“Don’t fear to try out/experiment new things. Get out of your comfort zone”.
Your advice for students in the field of computer science.
Computer Science as a field provides immense problems and opportunities. It is up to you to explore it to the fullest and engage in something of your passion.
Your advice for educators and researchers trying to create an impact in Nepal.
Let’s look into the problems within Nepal and try to find out solutions for the same. Let’s be open-minded and promote healthy competition as well as meaningful collaborations. Gone are the days of a “one-man-army” paradigm and mentality. It is through consolidated and meaningful collaborations that we attain heights and get success in anything.