An interview of Prof. Paulraj (IITD73)
Marconi prize recipient, by Editor Sunil Agarwal

Arogyaswami J Paulraj, professor emeritus at the department of electrical engineering, Stanford University, is the winner of the Marconi prize — the equivalent of the Nobel prize for information tech pioneers. In a conversation with Sunil Agarwal, Paulraj, a pioneer in MIMO, a core enabling technology in wi-fi and mobile wireless networks, crystal-gazes into the future of the web. Where do you see the internet in the next 10 years?

Internet connectivity will become faster and cheaper, supporting a range of new multimedia applications and transforming the delivery of entertainment , news and many other services. Wireless delivery will become more reliable, guaranteeing a high quality of service almost everywhere. The internet will also usher in a world of powerful robots and sensors that will provide greater convenience, enhance productivity, expand education and strengthen security. A new wave of advanced sensors that can detect bio-hazards , monitor internal bio-markers , or are capable of facial recognition will bring about striking advances in personal health, security and productivity. One such exciting development will be small unmanned aircraft or drones. With the latest sensors, they will help us monitor crop health and provide law enforcement in metros , among other benefits.Wireless connectivity will become quite important. There is a new concept called the “internet of things”. How do you see that evolving?

Today’s internet connects devices used by humans who create, consume and transfer information. This is fast evolving into the “internet of things” where machines, controllers, RFID tags, actuators, robots and sensors interact for data generation, command decision-making and control implementation. Examples of simple devices range from door locks that can be opened by smart phones, high-powered home appliances whose power requirements can be scheduled to ease peak grid demands and traffic lights that network with each other to ease road congestion. However, this interconnectedness raises critical issues about privacy and vulnerabilities created by vast information collection capabilities . India, like the west, needs to evolve wise policies to balance privacy concerns and security requirements. Is there need for a change in mindset among our young engineers and the parents who influence them?

Technological innovation requires risk-taking , which comes with frequent failures. Not taking risks means stagnation. Today’s world rewards innovators extremely well because it understands how hard the innovation process can be. In India, we need much more risk-taking and failure-tolerance in tech ventures if we are going to build a high-tech country. My parents, like many others in their time, were focused entirely on job security for my career. We need a very different mindset today. We also need to develop the right brain skills in our engineers — creativity, curiosity, and spatial and visual thinking. How do you view the Indian IT industry?

India is a big consumer of IT — from cell phones to laptops to data networks. However, we are not a producer of IT — we import virtually all of our IT technology. While the sector is a source of legitimate pride for India, the country also needs ownership of IT technology and that can only come from world-class innovation and cutting-edge products. What are the major opportunities for IT innovation in India?

While technologies like the cellphone have no downside for India, this may not be true of the next generation of internet-powered robots and sensors , since these technologies often displace human labour. The impact of such displacement has usually been benign in countries that originally developed such technologies. However, in a country like India that imports rather than creates, the possibility of job losses among the weaker sections of our society is high. Many low-skill jobs could be displaced, causing great stress in our society. This is a huge incentive to build our own advanced IT industry. Also, these new technologies can offer fresh opportunities for solving the unmet needs of hundred million fellow citizens — clean water, better education and improved healthcare. However, that still requires a very robust innovation culture. What are the things that you believe will radically change our lives in the next ten years?

Yogi Berra once said that it is hard to predict the future. Nevertheless, there are many iconic technology candidates out there that can be classified as “radical” — driverless cars, Google glasses, robot drones, cellphone-based health labs, seamless access to data anywhere, to name a few. I believe that Indian engineers have an obligation to harness these new technologies in order to find innovative solutions for the persistent issues faced by our country – weak physical infrastructure , inadequate delivery of health and education for the poor, among others.

The interview was published in the Times of India.

Do you like it?

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *