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Srinivasan Ramani: Innovating for India


Director of New Hp Research Lab in India Plans Technologies for Emerging Markets

February 2002

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Dr. Srinivasan Ramani, director of HP's new research laboratory in India, has spent a good part of his career working to bring the advantages of technology to India.

He played a pioneering role in bringing the first Internet connection to India in the 1980s. He used satellite technology to expand telecommunications networks to small towns, and he helped launch an "open university" to train computer professionals.

Following is the text of a recent interview, in which Dr. Ramani talks about his research interests, what motivates him, why he chose HP Labs and his vision for the new lab.

Tell me about your primary research interests.

I had a kind of split personality, research-wise. I spent a fair amount of time in Artificial Intelligence, particularly a kind of practical form of AI known as applied artificial intelligence. That included an interest in natural language and understanding, an interest in tutoring systems and an interest in using heuristic programming in the context of operations research.

So that's one part of my personality. I came to the United States to do a post-doc in artificial intelligence, but saw the early days of ARPANET (the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, which is considered the progenitor of the global Internet) and realized the importance that computer networks would have in developing countries. So when I went back to India, I focused on that and I became a computer networks person.

One thing I did was play a key role in creating the Indian academic network. We were introducing technology that was very far ahead of its commercial application, using TCP/IP technology in 1985-86, and betting on Internet protocols when it was it almost illegal.

We had this amazing experience of not just learning the technology and adopting it, but also of seeing some social transformation coming out of the technology. When you bring the Internet into universities, you're bringing something disruptive. You're making it possible for graduate students to bypass the hierarchical organization of professors and departments to communicate directly with the leading experts in their fields.

You've been deeply involved in bringing the Internet to India. How did this come about?

A key thing in my life has been not just computer communication, but computer communication for developing countries. We had this pioneering opportunity to introduce this new technology to India, partly because we were working with leading universities in India, funded by the government of India, assisted by the United Nations. The first Internet connection from India to the outside was made from our lab in 1987.

The moment you have a communications link going into a small town, you can change the lives of the people

We were driven by the unarticulated needs of the developing market. This is an environment where millions of people do not have access to affordable communications.

Another issue was language. Most e-mail around the world is in English. India has about 500 dialects and 17 scripts. What is great about technology - the fact that it is making our lives better is only part of it - is that it's giving us the hope of changing our lives. The thing is to not be on the receiving end of fate, but to have your hand on the wheel - I think that changes you. People needed something where they could post materials in their own languages.

You've also helped promote VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) technology in India. What about these small satellite terminals made them appropriate for India? What are they used for?

Where you have an excellent telecommunications infrastructure, the VSAT is unimportant, but if you had difficulty getting a telecom line into your city or a nearby city, then the VSAT is a miraculous thing. It extends a data link to wherever you are, to the middle of nowhere, so suddenly there is no part of India that is not connected.

You can buy a VSAT for $5,000. Say the local branch of bank gets connected. Then you can wire money, which you couldn't do before. People in small towns and villages can get funds from bigger cities.

The moment you have a communications link going into a small town, you change the lives of the people. Until recently, the stock exchange was a place for the big investors and the speculators, not the middle class -- which means the middle class lost the opportunity to make good money as economic development occurred and as businesses grew.

The VSAT opened the stock market to the hinterland. The number of people in India who own stock has probably grown tenfold in the past 10 years.

Another key project has been opening up software technology education in your country to people outside of universities. Why was this important for India?

In India, the number of seats in the university for people to study computers was very small. The "open university" concept would allow us to expand the number and lower the costs. We could teach in the evenings and on the weekends, extend education to more people. Typically in India in those days you had to be less than 21 years old to be a student. It wasn't a formal requirement --people just didn't do it. It didn't occur to people that you could do part-time education.

This was 10 years before universities had computer science departments. Computer science as an established discipline was not yet there in India, and yet there was a tremendous need for people to work in the technology industry. We never tried to offer a full undergraduate program. We took people who were graduates and offered specialized software technology training.

We wound up running a very prestigious course - software technology and applications -- that became very popular. In Silicon Valley today, there are probably hundreds company vice presidents who are our former students.

What motivates you? What is the driving force behind what you've done?

It's enthusiasm. I'm enthusiastic about many things, and I believe we can change the world. We're already changing it in small ways.

If you want to find a reason why something will not work, you can find a hundred reasons. If you want to find ideas that work, you'll look through a hundred and find three that work

I'm also motivated by the belief that the society I am living in is going to evolve into a better place to live and work, and that it is going to do that in my lifetime. Many Indians who do post-doctorate work in the United States stay on, but I decided to return to India. I have this faith and believe that the environment here is going to improve, and that we are all going to be part of the solution. This is part of my positive streak. I can't explain it - I think some people are just born that way.

If you want to find a reason why something will not work, you can find a hundred reasons. If you want to find ideas that work, you'll look through a hundred and find three that work.

Another motivation is my interest in technology. That began when I was 10 years old! While other people were pursuing sports, I was reading Popular Science magazine and building my own radio sets.

What attracted you to HP Labs?

Innovation is very organized these days. It requires a lot of resources. It requires the ability to innovate to your business. It involves taking some risks. Researchers have to work in a stimulating, highly organized, supportive environment. That is what HP Labs offered me.

Until 2000, I had worked primarily in not-for-profit R&D labs. I had the freedom to do research and enormous opportunity to learn, but they denied me one thing - the close link with something like a product division. For example, we built our own high-speed modems in 1982. We built our own workstations and our own hardware. We wrote our own software. We made computer networks run. Having done all this, we had a seminar, published our papers and moved on - and four years of my life went down the drain.

That's in contrast to what I expect at HP Labs. Just because it's HP Labs, it's not necessarily easy to go from innovation to success in business, but I think I have a greater chance of it happening here. To me, pure technology is irrelevant. Pure science is justifiable, but pure technology is a waste of time. Technology has to be utilized. It has to lead to economic gain. It has to create jobs. From that point of view, I've always been excited about the impact technology can have on the world.

What do you see as the challenges and opportunities for HP Labs India? What's your vision for the lab?

We have many challenges. One is obviously, to be relevant. We must be true to the basic mission of our lab in India, which is to look at the emerging markets and economies of the world - particularly the Indian economy - and to do innovation that's relevant to the lives of the people in these regions. That is the primary challenge.

Secondarily, we have to be broad-minded enough to be open to new ideas, while at the same time recognize that as a small lab, we can only do so many things. The technically most exciting thing is not the key. The most relevant thing is the key.

interview by Jamie Beckett



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