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Shrikanth (Shri) Narayanan is University Professor and Niki & C. L. Max Nikias Chair in Engineering at the University of Southern California, where he is Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Computer Science, Linguistics, Psychology, Neuroscience, Pediatrics, and Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, Director of the Ming Hsieh Institute and Research Director of the Information Sciences Institute. Prior to USC he was with AT&T Bell Labs and AT&T Research. His research focuses on human-centered information processing and communication technologies.
He is a 2022 Guggenheim Fellow and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, the Acoustical Society of America, IEEE, ISCA, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Association for Psychological Science, and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE).
He is a recipient of several honors including the 2015 Engineers Council’s Distinguished Educator Award, a Mellon award for mentoring excellence, the 2005 and 2009 Best Journal Paper awards from the IEEE Signal Processing Society and serving as its Distinguished Lecturer for 2010-11, a 2018 ISCA CSL Best Journal Paper award, and serving as an ISCA Distinguished Lecturer for 2015-16, Willard R. Zemlin Memorial Lecturer for ASHA in 2017, and the Ten Year Technical Impact Award in 2014 and the Sustained Accomplishment Award in 2020 from ACM ICMI. He has published over 900 papers and has been granted eighteen U.S. patents. His research and inventions have led to technology commercialization including through startups he co-founded: Behavioral Signals Technologies focused on the telecommunication services and AI based conversational assistance industry and Lyssn focused on mental health care delivery, treatment and quality assurance.
Shri has served the IEEE Signal Processing Society in many roles, and most recently as its inaugural Vice President for Education.
1. What have been the most important factors in your career path?
Every important factor in my career path is people-centric. First, the domain of my core interest is human focused: I have had an endless fascination for human functioning, communication and interaction, particularly when viewed from a signals and systems lens, with the objective to develop technologies that have direct societal purpose. I have been incredibly fortunate to have been able to pursue these interdisciplinary interests, which has mainly been enabled by the incredible people that I have been lucky to have as mentors and collaborators over the years. I should especially highlight three distinct groups: the amazing teachers and colleagues I had in graduate school at UCLA, not just in engineering but in fields such as linguistics, psychology and music, who opened up new and fresh ways of looking at problems; my mentors and colleagues at the phenomenal AT&T Bell Labs, a place that has been hugely influential in my intellectual growth and journey; and lastly, my incredible students and collaborators at USC, and globally, over the last 20+ years who make the continuation of my professional journey so joyful and rewarding.
2. What were the main changes in your field during the last 25-30 years?
Research has become more accessible, more open, and more global. Technology has enabled easier and more fruitful collaborations across the world. This, combined with freer sharing of data, tools and ideas, has made new ideas flourish and allowed the research community to grow. It has also opened up opportunities to work on critical and broad societal problems such as the sustainable developmental goals of the UN or the grand challenges of the National Academy of Engineering. In a somewhat narrower perspective, there is also an increasing trend toward data-driven technology development with a big empirical reliance and somewhat less emphasis on the basic sciences (which I personally feel is still a critical element of inquiries centered on human communication and interaction). Alongside these changes, there have been cultural shifts that view team science, interdisciplinary research and applied endeavors more positively and inclusively within the world of research and scholarship.
3. What were the main scientific and technological obstacles in the beginning of your career (or in 90’s) and have they been addressed?
One of the perennial challenges in human-focused studies is the wide variety and variability within and across people, and their contexts. The challenges in observing and mapping the rich patterns in human communication and behavior patterns in ecologically valid ways have been addressed by continual advances that occur in two ways: converging technologies in sensing, imaging, signal processing and machine learning, guided by interdisciplinary scholarship across human centered domains including linguistics, psychology and behavioral sciences. This has resulted in sustained waves of technological advances enabled by, and in the sharing of, more veritable data and supporting technology and tools grounded in excellent science and empiricism. While incredible progress continues to be made, there is so much more to learn, and to do in this realm––in advancing human communication science, in creating applications focused on human health and wellbeing, learning, and in the creation of trustworthy human-centered technologies.
4. In your opinion, what are some of the most exciting areas of research for students and upcoming researchers?
I think there is so much to uncover, at so many levels, about how humans produce, process and interact with information-we can create and use engineering ideas and tools to make scientific advances, including in illuminating when and how when things breakdown in illness and disease. In turn we can create novel technologies to support and enhance human lives in an inclusive and trustworthy way. I believe signal processing has a central role to play in this endeavor. Of course, this is obviously a highly biased answer!
5. If there is one take home message you want the readers of this interview to have, what would it be?
Keep dreaming, be persistent and be open minded in research-before you know things good things come along.
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