Interdisciplinary research, more so in computer science and engineering, is lacking, feels N. Venkateswaran, Founder Director, Waran Research Foundation, Chennai (http://bit.ly/F4TWaran). The saddest part is that experts from a different science field who have made the most relevant applied research contributions to the field of computer science and engineering are not encouraged to come into the mainstream, he rues, in the course of a recent interaction with Business Line, during the VLSI Conference held in IIT-Madras.
Asserting that interdisciplinary research will usher in the convergence of different fields in a meaningful way, Waran cites examples from his research experience, such as digital signal processing applied to test the correctness of instruction execution in a special/ general purpose processor and the DNA encoding, and the DNA interactions employed to evolve novel processor architecture.
“Developing parallel program models, data structures, and simulation techniques for large-scale biological 3D neuronal network demands multidisciplinary research. Research in computational/ experimental neuroscience has not received its due importance in Indian institutes and universities and I think it should also be a part of engineering programme and, in particular, computer science.”
Excerpts from the e-mail interview.
What are the top 3-4 areas seeing a lot of research activity in computer science, globally and in India?
Let me try to put both computer science and engineering together, as there is a strong synergy across. With the advent of multi-core processors coming up in a major way, table-top parallel computing will be the future, with great stress on cost and power reduction, maintaining peak performance in the range of petaflops.
Till now, parallel computing has been the exclusive domains of scientists. This scenario is changing with the advent of powerful play-stations which run massive real-time simulations on multi-core processors. The common man’s market is getting invaded by such high-performance parallel systems.
Computer science research is getting geared up in the areas of operating systems, parallel programming, and intelligent scheduling algorithms to harness the power of multi-core processors. Security in a parallel environment becomes a complex issue and it is a promising research field. It may be of interest to note that Indian Government agencies and institutions are engaged in evolving a novel operating system meant for porting onto multi-core processors.
Would you like to talk about some of the key breakthroughs achieved by computer science research in recent times?
Visualisation is an area in which breakthroughs are expected. Massive scientific data in the range of hundreds of terabytes dumped during simulation of grand challenge applications like climate modelling, aerodynamics of spaceships, and brain energetic and modelling demand intense research for visualisation.
Computer scientists from India are rigorously analysing the ever-growing Internet communication complexity. Breakthroughs are underway in developing very high-speed, robust and efficient search engines through powerful optimisation techniques.
The genome research is a big breakthrough and still a lot more left to be achieved. Studying the impact of drugs and the genetic code for certain human characteristics through genome-wide investigation is a big challenge demanding raw computational power and the multi-core processor is the saviour.
To combat diseases such as HIV-AIDS, bringing in the right combination of genetic set to develop a vaccine is a marathon process. To optimally fix this combination from a massive sample space, powerful algorithms (to achieve time reduction) are being evolved. Tera-flop multi-core processors come in handy for executing such complex applications.
Your suggestions on how we can create interest in computer science research among students in Indian campuses?
From the secondary school level itself, there is a great awareness among the students about computers, including their assembly, specialised applications, commercial packages etc. Unfortunately, these students fail to understand, or are not properly informed, that computer science and engineering can be something different from their conception.
A number of parents do ask me this question: “My son/ daughter has attended computer courses. Is it necessary to admit him/ her into BE computer science and engineering programme?” I have to spend quite a bit of time to convince them. It is not just the research in computer science and engineering alone; there is a strong need to motivate the younger generation into research itself.
With the so-called IT ‘dream jobs’ around, it is becoming difficult to motivate students into research. Conducting a number of small-scale high calibre qualitative workshops frequently in the campus to expose the students to a wider spectrum of science, technology and engineering should help create interest. For instance, in my endeavours with students from different disciplines such as IT/EEE/CSE /ECE, I could get them successfully diverted into computational neuroscience and neurochemistry!
The big question is how to finish off the syllabus requirements besides holding these workshops. But one can strike a balance with more planning and motivation and should be very well supported by the college authorities. Ultimately, the teachers need to sacrifice a bit from their side to motivate some percentage of students into research.
Universities should come forward to provide some credit-based programmes in 4th and 6th semesters (say, two credits in each of these semesters) to individual students for internal paper presentation. These presentations can be of review class in a chosen field pertaining to the programme, in consultation with the faculty. All students can be covered in a semester and this should be an internal assessment only. These presentations should be very well monitored by the assigned faculty members such that there is no plagiarism etc.
Further, it is necessary to constitute very prestigious awards in every university in the name of State Governor and Chief Minister and these should be given to students who come up with innovative and research-oriented projects carried out during their curriculum and students should be made aware of this. Leading industries can profusely sponsor these awards. There may be implementation problems, but those can be overcome.
Above all, the college authorities seem to lay more stress on campus placements, and this is a major factor of merit for the parents too to admit their children. Strong counselling should be given to the parents as well with regard to research, and convince a small percentage.
There is also an interesting social problem associated with research-based students. A number of my students who have obtained PhD from leading universities tell me that in the marriage market there are no takers for PhD, but IT people get sold out as hot cakes!
All these factors presented above are concerning the UG students, as I strongly feel that the inspiration into research should be imparted at this level besides the school. The Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India has launched a major initiative to motivate young Indian minds into research through a commendable programme called INSPIRE (INnovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired REsearch) at the school level.
The AICTE, ISTE and CSI sponsor workshops in recognised private colleges, in specialised areas including computer science and engineering. But I am not sure about the follow up. When I spoke to some of the attendees in a couple of workshops where I gave lectures, they say that these workshops help them in fixing up their research areas for pursuing their PhD and PG project work. I think recognised private institutions should increasingly come forward to make use of these sponsorship programmes. Without enormous efforts and sacrifice, one cannot motivate students into research, given the current highly-charged scenario.
Your views on the research focus of Indian IT industry.
The fact that hundreds of students are getting recruited into IT industry shows that there is not much focus on research in Indian IT industry, excepting in a few companies. One hardly finds useful research papers published and international patents taken by Indian IT companies.
There are research grants from IT companies to educational institutions but this is not enough. There is no intellectual pursuit, without which no patents can be taken, and even the best creative brains are lost. This is the most disturbing factor in the long run for building up the Indian economy itself.
The percentage of high-end tech projects in Indian IT industry is not remarkable. A few among the leading IT companies can develop full-fledged universities including primary schools where research in computer science may be encouraged. This may have some compensating effect. Also, this is a long-term way to groom personnel for the companies involved.