We need to re-think about research areas
Chennai: Among the research interests of Sugata Sanyal, Professor in the School of Technology & Computer Science at the TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) are: ‘multi-factor security issues, security in wireless and mobile ad hoc networks, distributed processing, and scheduling techniques.’
However, it is not about the security-related projects at the TIFR that Sanyal speaks with vigour; what seem dear to him are scientific projects with societal value. ‘Jaipur Foot’ is a classic example of this thought process, he says, when recently interacting with Business Line, over the e-mail.
“I am involved with some projects where groups are involved in making systems for differently enabled persons. I have been looking at the problems of special training for autistic children; India is still not hugely equipped with these processes.” Can we not take the help of computers to progress in this direction, he asks?
“I am not talking about absolute cutting-edge development, but I do want to say that we can develop small and simple things which, despite being simple, may have a huge impact on the society,” avers Sanyal (www.tifr.res.in/~sanyal).
“Apart from the ‘blue sky research’ projects, we must also look at projects that will provide a return to the society,” he argues. “We need to motivate our children to think originally and to be innovative. We need to understand that all children need not be engineers or MBAs, in the India of the 21st century; we need to re-think about research areas.”
Excerpts from a freewheeling interview.
As someone who has been watching the IT (information technology) field over the last about a quarter century, what are the decisive trends that are currently in full force in IT products?
Let me take your question a bit further. When I started my career in computers at the TIFR, Mumbai, it was 35 years back. I, and many like me, were engineers, and we were busy in doing high level research and development with computers and computer-based systems (big systems).
We were busy in developing hardware systems and also software to run the same; the only difference was that we were doing the development for our nation, India. It was just not IT as it is today; it was computer science and engineering at its peak. We enjoyed our work, hugely. The biggest fun was there was no cookbook solution to the problems that we faced; we had to many times invent and, possibly many times, re-invent.
A side that needs mention is about the Indian infrastructure. We needed the things that we did develop, salary was strictly three-digits; and it crawled to a low four-digits after many years of deliberation. But we were happy, and that counted. Children were neglected, family was neglected, and to top it all, the work I did was not mainstream mathematical computer science research either.
So, though we were doing work for the nation, it is a fact that no human being can keep doing high-level research and development for the simple love of it; money and position and appreciation are necessary. That was missing, and it is still missing.
Today, when I give a recommendation to a student, fresh students, they are looking at many parameters such as salary, career profile, and so on. Nothing wrong with it. We are at the world level in IT remuneration generation. But I am not sure how much original work is being done. Some pockets in India are dedicated, but very few. Without original work, no country can become self-sustaining.
The continual effort of the IT hardware industry has been to shrink. What are the key drivers behind the ‘shrinking’? Or, is it all about nanotechnology?
IT hardware industry is a subset of hardware industry in India. It is of course the most prominent. Let us take the IT industry to start with. Yes, there are groups with dedicated technology subgroups and they are doing fantastic work. I know of computer companies that have developed systems, which are small in size, consume very less power, and are cheap as well. It is a very high achievement. ‘Shrinking’ is one part of it. The innovative usage of ‘nanotechnology’ in various fields is a huge field. India needs to take a lead role in these areas.
And, what has been the flip side, if any? Is security, for instance, an issue with shrinking technology?
There are many issues, which are connected with shrinking technology. We must accept that this methodology can take us to areas of application never thought of before. If you talk of IT issues, we can think of everybody carrying an affordable laptop, which is small but has huge processing power and is also having powerful connectivity capability through high-speed Internet connection.
And with a low physical dimension, it will consume very less power. We can, by extending our thought process, look at nano medical devices which will one day work at doing nano-surgery, removing blood clots and repairing internal organs, which were so far inaccessible.
Security issues are not available as a part of the package. But we can think of ultra-small devices that can provide security. We can have small GPS (global positioning system) chips, which can help cars and vehicles navigate. We can have nano-devices (embedded) as well, which can help locate people or vehicles.
So, though security is not available as a part of the package, by useful application of the technology, we can develop systems that can provide security, which was not available so far.
India is predominantly seen as an IT services country. Do we have IT products, too, to showcase to the world? Are we creating enough IP (intellectual property), compared to other countries?
I would like to provide one example, MiLeap from HCL Info systems, a leap into future. According to available technical details, the ultra portable MiLeap weighs less than a kilogram, and features a 7-inch screen equipped with an Intel processor. It has a navigational pad that offers multiple features like touch-screen, thumboard, stylus, keyboard, mouse, one-touch buttons, and a swivel 7-inch display cum notepad, and the price is sub-Rs 15,000. A product with a potential to shape the future of computing and empower every Indian with a PC.
This is one available example. I would request you to do a survey of what all are happening in the Indian IT scene, similar to this. Also, we need to assess what IP (intellectual property) is being created here. One observation is that we in India are not much aware of creating IP, though we are as good.
In what different ways should we evaluate a new IT product, against technology benchmarks?
A new IT product, let us say a new computer workstation, needs to go through all available benchmark programs. It is a non-trivial project; each benchmark suite of programs is quite costly. Running each program for a series of computers takes time; it also needs to be compared with a similar set of computers, available elsewhere.
If we talk about a software package (or system) as a new IT product, then we need to look at it first from the completeness point of view. Does it cater to a huge sector or industry, as for example, ERP products like Oracle or SAP?
If yes, then the evaluation needs to be done with respect to a particular application set. Are we looking at computerisation of a whole organisation? For instance, we did take up the task of connecting all coalmines in India through CMPFO (Coal Mines Provident Fund Organisation). The technical team deliberated first on the requirement, the available antique system, and then on what software systems were available to meet the requirements.
A big exercise ensued, and finally SAP was chosen, and successful integration was completed. What I want to point out is that we need to look at what our basic requirement is, and then see what hardware or software system is available.
For the complete computerisation of the SIDBI (Small Industries Development Bank of India), Oracle suite of software has been chosen, and HCL Technology group is the system implementer. But we also need to understand that a lot of software re-engineering is needed, which HCL is doing right now. There is no magic structure or formula available; one has to objectively look at the requirement and will have to see the available systems that best fit.
Where do you think will be the greatest application of shrinking technology? Any applications of relevance to the common man?
Undoubtedly, medical instrumentation will be the greatest application to benefit the common man. We must understand that machines are created to help human beings, not the other way round. We need to, therefore, have applications that maximally cater to the common man.
You are on the technical boards of financial and other institutions. Do you think the industry, in general, has been able to leverage the cutting-edge product talent available in India? Do we have the right policies to help accelerate innovation?
Yes, I have been helping various organisations for upgrading their organisation and to improve their productivity. You will be amazed to see how open many Government of India organisations are, today. They are thinking in the right direction. We need to have scientists and experts who can see both sides of the coin.
If I am asked to help an enterprise go hi-tech, I need to have the capacity to look at the needs of the enterprise, not what a scientist like me wants to see. That is matured thinking; and we need many matured thinkers.
And we also must have the right matching policies that should be all-encompassing. Woefully, respect for scientific knowledge does not always get translated to equitable distribution of the expenditure, which is a big dichotomy meriting attention.
A Ph.D. from Mumbai University, M. Tech. from IIT, Kharagpur, and B.E. from Jadavpur University, Sanyal is on the editorial board of four international journals. He is co-recipient of Vividhlaxi Audyogik Samsodhan Vikas Kendra Award (VASVIK) for Electrical and Electronics Science and Technologies (combined) for the year 1985. Sanyal was a Visiting Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science in the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA in 2003. He has been an Honorary Member of Technical Board in UTI (Unit Trust of India), SIDBI (Small Industries Development Bank of India), and Coal Mines Provident Funds Organization (CMPFO). He has also been acting as a consultant to a number of leading industrial houses in India.