Jun 17, 2016

Meet Tanmay Bakshi, the world's youngest Watson programmer

BYPankaj Mishra

Meet Tanmay Bakshi, 12, a software programming whiz who started coding when he was just five. Bakshi, a cute, nerdy-looking boy in glasses, is clearly among the most articulate technorati I have met in my career. He is also perhaps the youngest developer building applications around Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence platform.
“First of all, I had pretty much nothing to do when I was five years old,” he told me in an interview on Thursday.
“My dad was a computer programmer and since he would code a lot, it kind of intrigued me how computers could display things like ‘hello world’ and even my name. As a five-year-old, I thought it was magic and I wanted to know how it’s done, and get to the depth of it.”
Bakshi, who is home-schooled in Ontario, Canada, travels around the globe giving keynote talks at software developer conferences organised by IBM, the world’s largest technology company. On Friday, Bakshi was addressing thousands of software developers at an IBM conference in Bangalore and demoing an application he built using Watson.
Bakshi loves playing table tennis when he is not coding and idolises Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder.
Bakshi also finds time to offer online tutorials about coding through his YouTube channel. “We just crossed 1300 subscribers,” he says with child-like exuberance.
Sitting down with him on Thursday for an interview, it was difficult to imagine he actually started coding when he was just five. By the time he was nine, he had already developed a few apps. A few months ago, he discovered Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan and his famous television gameshow, KBC. Now, Bakshi wants to meet Bachchan and get him to play the game using Watson’s NLQA (Natural Language Question Answering).
“I want Amitabh Bachchan to not just sign my book, but also play the KBC kind of game using ‘AskTanmay’.” On Friday, Bakshi addressed nearly 10,000 developers in Bangalore demoing “AskTanmay”, which is the world’s first web-based NLQA system built using IBM’s cognitive solutions.
It’s all part of the hectic life of a child prodigy.

Rajesh Subramaniam/FactorDaily

“Coding is like a break time for me, when I have nothing to do, I just code,” he says. It’s almost as if Tanmay uses coding as his primary language of expression.
So will intelligent, cognitive machines and newer solutions and products built using artificial intelligence take over the world?
“Machines and humans are good in what they do. A robot can only replace a human up to a certain point, not after that.”
On Monday, we will be publishing the full video interview with Bakshi, so do look out for that.
For now, here are a few things I learnt from my conversation with Bakshi. Some of these are actually useful if you’re among the three million software developers working in India’s over $150 billion IT industry.

  • Future of jobs: Bakshi, who started homeschooling last year, loves the freedom of being able to solve multiple problems without pursuing them like a typical day job. He doesn’t fancy working full-time with one employer. This kind of underscores the massive shift in workplaces we are witnessing. The best and the brightest are looking for flexibility.
  • Future of programming: Over years, I have met young software professionals in the Indian IT industry who describe themselves as being “a Java programmer” or “a Ruby programmer” and so on. Bakshi already thinks and acts like a much more evolved software developer who looks at computing languages as mere tools to build solutions, like an architect and computer scientist. The whole notion of being an “Object Oriented Programmer” makes much more sense in the changing world. And as Bakshi says, the future of programming is about cognitive computing and AI.
  • Communication: At 12, Bakshi beats many experienced project managers I have met, especially when it comes to communication. It’s probably not too late to reiterate the importance of being a team player and collaborate effectively as a software developer.

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Pankaj Mishra is a writer of FactorDaily.