As it is, interviewing a lawyer is a tough task. And if the lawyer heads an organization that is often embroiled in controvresies, the task becomes more onerous. This was my dilemma, as I started my interaction with Peter Dengate Thrush, chairman of the board, ICANN. The Kiwi Barrister had come down to India for an ICANN event and I met up with him at one of the seminars he was attending. He is one of the rare people, who genuinely was eager to attend all the sessions at the seminar (more so because he was the keynote speaker). Thus, I had to time the conversation between two sessions and he sat down with a cup of coffee.
Now, ICANN as an institution over the past decade has been involved in lot many controversies, some of its making and a majority of them not. Thus, as I would put forth those questions, Thrush would thrash them away in his characteristic 'lawyerly' way. Certain questions, he would make me repeat, then a few times he would ask me to elaborate and sometimes he would just dismiss them altogerther. Everytime he WAS ready with his defense and ready it to back it up. As the interview proceeded, he softened a bit and that is when the conversation,in a sort of way, took off.
While researching on Thursh, I had come across this very tragic incident in his life, wherein he lost his father, wife and brother in a car accident. I wanted to ask him about the foundation that he has set up in the memory of his wife and family, but I let it be. I really didn't wish to remind him of those traumatic days.
Here is Barrister Thrush defending ICANN on all the diiferent issues that I could think of. Believe me, he did a jolly well job.
‘US is not controlling Net Resources’
It has been nearly a decade since Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) came into being at Marina Del Rey, California. Set up as a non-profit corporation to oversee a number of Internet-related tasks previously performed directly on behalf of the US Government by other organizations. The chief task of ICANN is to manage the assignment of domain names (over 145 million domain names) and IP addresses, popularly referred to as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) function. Yet, over the years, ICANN has been embroiled in controversies, be it political or technical in nature. The main grouse many seem to have with ICANN, is that it seems to be a trifle more conscious to the whims and fancies of the US Government.
In the past few years, there has also been an increasing chorus asking for either ICANN to be freed from its obligations to the US Government, or all together stripped of the role it plays. Nonetheless, the ICANN boat seems sail quite merrily, recently it launched the .Asia domain name with much fanfare and also announced the shift to IPV6 from IPV4. In midst of all this jumble-tumble, there was also a change of guard at ICANN, Internet pioneer Vincent Cerf was replaced by barrister Peter Dengate Thrush as the chairman of the board. It has been a significant move, as many argue that by appointing a New Zealander the Board is trying to play down its association with the US Government. Whatever be the reasons or compulsions, one thing is for sure, Thrush is completely in control with the developments at ICANN. It is almost impossible to pin down this suave barrister, he seems to be ready at all times with facts, figures and arguments to prove his contention.
Recently, Thrush had come down to India to attend the 33rd ICANN conference held in India. Taking some time out, Thrush spoke at length to Dataquest on the different controversies that surround ICANN and what he feels about the coming years. Excerpts.
How does it feel about fitting into Vincent Cerf’s shoes?
It is a big honor really, to follow someone who is such a pioneer and rightly rewarded for his work. I remember mentioning in my speech that he was ranked at number 11 in the list of 40 most influential technologists. I was elected unamiously by the Board, thus I have got the confidence of the rest of the Board. I have been on the Board for years, and know what the expectations are and how it functions. SO I have to just press on and execute the responsibilities that I have been given.
What will be your main tasks as the chairman of the Board?
Rather than main tasks, I think that there are a whole lot of tasks, starting with the most obvious one, i.e., to chair the meetings of the board to ensuring that the right direction is given to the corporation. Thinking strategically, being aware of the opportunities, obligations we have to the environment and the society at large, are some of the major responsibilities of the chair.You recently spoke about the fact that ICANN had outlived the Joint Project Agreement (JPA)?What I had stated in fact was that JPA had itself outlived itself, it only had a limited life, and it was put in place for only three years. With a very clear indication that it should be reviewed half way through. The point about JPA is that sets up a number of conditions, which if ICANN completes them, it would have done the work that is necessary to be the trusted coordinator of resources and the Board thinks that those things have been done. We have to be careful though, as some of those things can never be really done, as they are never ending, it is a sort of journey not arrival. The question is whether we are doing it well enough. And the feedback that I have been getting from the community is that we are doing those things well enough to be allowed to continue to do.
There is often this perception that the US government is controlling all the resources of the Internet, discreetly or overtly. Your views.
First up, it is a wrong perception that the US government is controlling the Internet resources. There are some very specific roles of the US government used to play for historic reasons. Most people are very grateful that they did that and that they continue to do that. And we are talking about transition out of a set of controls. The JPA doesn’t really provide any control and the removal of the JPA would not affect the control mechanisms that are in place. There are a number of key control mechanisms currently in place, and the most important one is the contract that the US government gives to ICANN, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) function. It is in fact the IANA function that actually controls what goes into the root.
And there is still a continuing role, in terms of changes to the root by the US Department of Commerce. Now we recognize that is in regards to what the other governments particularly in terms of changes to the country-code top-level domains (CCTLDs) for example, find difficult that the US Department of Commerce official actually has a role to play changing something which, for better or for worse, countries see as something that is very close to their own sovereignty. That isn’t actually going to change by the JPA coming to an end. JPA is much more about forming and building ICANN, the rules under which ICANN runs will continue to be as they were.
If you consider the following, it will be obvious that the US government does not interfere in the functioning of ICANN as the chairman of the board is from New Zealand (Thrush), the vice chairman is from Italy, the CEO is from Australia. We are gradually moving to a different environment, where our accountability will be to the Internet community of the entire world rather than to any one government.
According to Prof. Milton Mueller, in the past ICANN has been ‘generally willing to go along with US control’. What do you say to that?
Milton is a good friend of mine, and we disagree on a number of things. I am not quite sure of what you are referring to but what ICANN is prepared to go along is a number of things that I mentioned earlier. First of all, we are very happy to be a California registered corporation, as a result of that we get tax advantages in the US, which we are very happy to have, so we are prepared to meet the obligations of being a US corporation to get that advantage. We are delighted to have the contract from the US Government on the IANA functions and we are prepared to live with the obligations of that creates. We work closely with the US Department of Commerce in relation of the World Summit of Information Society and the committee that came out of that, the working group on Internet Governance (WGIG). So we have a close relationship with the US government. That said, that government has no greater say in the policy issues that come in front of us, for e.g. the debate on whether or not to introduce .XXX into the root.
There is speculation that the US government played a more influential role than the other governments, but as a member of the Board at that time and someone who voted in favour of .XXX for entirely different reasons, I was unaware of any untoward pressure from the US government.
In the end, we are very clear about what the issues are, we are a US corporation at the moment that brings with it, obligations and responsibilities, so if you are talking about that then there is no problem. The US connection is something that the media is much keener to focus on than anyone else. The reality is ICANN is enormously international, with 21 members of the board, a vast majority of those who come from outside the US. There is staff spread all around the world, the meetings are held almost anywhere but the US. Probably I think it is more of a media issue than a real one.
In such a scenario, what do you see as the role that various governments continue to play in the functioning of ICANN?
I think a strong Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) is seen as essential to the wellbeing of the continuous survival of ICANN. ICANN has to be the place where all the interested stakeholders come together and much of what we have done over the past 10 years is building a structure in which all those different people can come and can have their voices heard, and for a balance to be struck in all the competing interests. My first 4-5 years at ICANN, went fighting on the behalf of one of those voices, the country code managers, and there is now a place in ICANN in terms of CCNA for country code managers to come and talk to each other about whatever they want, talk to ICANN when they need to about crucial issues for country code management. Similarly for the GAC, there is the place for governments to come, band together, and sort out amongst themselves firstly whatever their issues are and finally when they are more or less in agreement to bring those issues forward as the governments of the world. Hence, their role is as crucial, as it for all the other components, probably more if you take the collective influence governments have worldwide.
There is a constant criticism on ICANN on issues of transparency, i.e., there hasn’t been sufficient public disclosure, ‘too many discussions take place out of the sight of public’. Your comments.
I don’t think that is a fair description of the criticism. That is a transparency problem, and I think that ICANN is reasonably transparent in terms of its processes do go on in public. In fact, we recently were audited by a global body that found that we had very high levels of transparency. That said, we can always do better. We are doing more, we have got a manager of public participation who is doing a great job of running alternative methods of making information available. We are working towards substantially improve the quality of the website, where you can find things all that has been published in the past and we are working towards making the website much more user friendly. We have got blogs running. It will be fair to say that we genuinely accept that we want to run a transparent way, the reality is that if we don’t do that, then we need to stop and go back and explain and get the community behind us again on a particular issue. That will be much more complicated and time wasting than if we just take the trouble to be clear about what we are doing. So first and foremost, I think it is a passion for most of us to make sure that things are done in a transparent way. From a business perspective as well, it is the best way to run a business, keep the community informed and moving in the same direction.
I think that the objection, I believe it to be fairer one, is that there are insufficient accountability mechanisms and again we take it seriously and are exploring ways at making sure that the individual components of ICANN are responsible to their communities and that ICANN itself is collectively responsible to the whole of the community. We are having a particular debate about how under certain circumstances, the Board itself might be able to be recalled in case of substantial community discontent on a particular decision. As you might know, currently, it is rather difficult to remove a director. Most of us think that it probably isn’t appropriate and think that director should be responsible and accountable as they are in other commercial corporations. What we are working on now, is a mechanism to do that in a reasonable way.
There also seems to be much debate and discussion on spending by ICANN. Consular of European Top Level Domain Registry had apparently accused ICANN of lack of financial prudence, stating that, the organization set for itself ‘unrealistic political and operational targets’.
Again, that is quite interesting, as I not quite sure where that quote came from. But the answer to that is you tell us which part of the budget you don’t want us to do and then we will stop spending that money. We have just published our budget, with operational planning coming closely behind it. All the things in it, are the things that have been asked for, if not demanded by the Internet community. They want these services, they want these things provided and someone has to pay for it.
What do you make of the increase in domain registration rates by Verisign, as part of the settlement ICANN had with it. I think it is a commercial matter for Verisign and I am not sure if I in the position to comment on it.
The cost of domain registry is pretty much high, especially for the developing world like India when you factor in the per capita income..
I think you should do more research on that, because the cost of registering a domain name ranges from free, because many people give them away, to extraordinary prices. So it is a question of doing the marketing. You also could be talking about Indians purchasing the generic top level domain names, namely in the .com space. What you should be comparing is the cost of registering .in space or any other space. I think there is an extraordinary range, no one ever requires that you register a .com domain name and in came they want to register a .com. there are very many cheap providers.
But then .in is equally priced vis-a-vis a .com domain name, so it doesn’t really make a difference. Also the fact .com domain names are more popular and one is able to relate to them very well, as .in isn’t as popular here.
Well, then there is obviously a perceived value that you must be prepared to pay for, if you think the value a .com brings. I am not sure if you can have something that you perceive to have more value and then get it for nothing.
There has been much criticism of the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) as well, what do you make of it?
UDRP has worked very well for what was its primary purpose at that time, which was to provide a very fast and easy mechanism at a reasonable price and in a short time frame to get rid of the egregious cases of cyber squatting. I have acknowledged in a couple of board meetings that UDRP is due for review that was part of the originals things. In the main, I think it has worked substantially well for its purpose. There have been suggestions that its scope should be expanded, that has been rejected by all of the ICANN community unanimously. But yes there are things that can be done make the UDRP better.
There is also the discussion doing round, that decisions at ICANN are not driven bottom up and that the organization is not paying real attention to the Internet user community at large...
I think if that were true, we would all be very concerned. In fact, it seems to be on the contrary take the recent example of the IDNs, there has been huge pressure for that from the bottom up, it has been dealt appropriately by referring to that as a technical matter affecting the substrate, going deep into the engine and we do that with considerable caution. So the Internet Engineering Task Force, has been developing the appropriate protocols and we have taken time to test those and given feedback to the community. I think these are the kinds of things people say, with an outcome that they don’t like. It is a very easy challenge to make. But if you analyse most of the process at ICANN, I am not suggesting that they are perfect, they are done substantially bottom up way.
Sometime back during an interaction with Dataquest, Sir Tim Berners-Lee had stated that Internet can happily survive for the next 10 years without an introduction of a new Top Level Domain name. What do you feel about it?
I concur with Sir Tim, we only need one. We don’t actually need multiplicity of top level domain names. We could only do with one, we don’t need country code domain names, and other domains as well.
But then it is not the question of need, it is a question of want. My view is that, the market wants it, provided it does no harm, then they should have them. Why not create facilities for people, what we have seen is that each time we have introduced a new top level domain name, there has been a great amount of unexpected response from the Internet users. To my mind, it is the classic let the market decide.
How has been the response so far to the introduction of .Asia, .EU, and others?
I don’t have the numbers, but talking to the .Asia people, they seemed to be very pleased with the way their launch has gone. .Eu is also raking substantial numbers of registrations. There are a numbers of measures of success , large numbers or large revenues may not be the best criterion to judge success. For instance, some of the chartered domains like .museum, we will always going to have a very limited amount of museums. So different top level domains are created for different purposes.
Is there a need for an alternative to ICANN, could UN play the role?
The results of the World Summit on Information systems, eventually there was the conclusion that ICANN was the appropriate body for managing the Internet’s technical resources. So that has been thoroughly thrashed out over the years. We are substaintial financial sponsors of the Internet Governance Forum, we support and appreciate the work done by IGF but that should not be confused by the technical job done by ICANN.
The key outcome of the working of the IGF, this is not a function that can be done by a government and that the UN organization is completely not suited to deal with this particular technology. The model that ICANN represent s which is a multi stakeholder model. Remember that the participants of the UN are representatives of governments that is not the appropriate bunch to manage the Internet. That is not my conclusion that is the conclusion of the working group on Internet Governance, which the multistake holder model which brings together the technical community which provides it and the operators who run it domain name registers and the businesses and others. To make this work, you need to have everybody in the room, and that’s inconsistent with most of the UN model.
What are your views of domain name trading?
I think it is tremendously exciting, the market is vibrant and expanding. Trading creates jobs, it creates wealth and it is part of our charter to create competition, and it is one small aspect of the same.And cyber squatting..Remember my original training is as an Intellectual Property lawyer, so I share a greater concern about some of those aspects than other members of the board. In general, we all take infringement of legal rights very seriously. We have to ensure that we have the proper mechanisms to deal with that, what we can’t do is tread into areas where national laws are applicable. So we have to tread carefully.
What is ICANN’s commitment to multilingualism?
We are extremely committed to multilingualism. Again it is a question of budget, we haven’t been able to afford it but at the last meeting at Los Angeles, for the first time we had simultaneous interpretation in 6-7 different languages, and it was hugely beneficial to non-English to be able to understand and participate in our meetings. Most of us thought it was a tremendous advance, so there is a commitment to multilingualism. We are working at making our website multilingual, all our documents should be available in different languages. But you need to bear in mind that it comes at an enormous expense. You have to start having the budget of United Nations to start operating in a UN way. But we do what we can.
What about domain names in non ASCII characters?
We are delighted with the work that has gone on to make the computer be able to read non ASCII script. We are going beyond that, we are talking about hieroglyphs and that will be available in domain names in the future. That hasn’t of course held up, content available in different languages.
What could be India’s role at ICANN?
India’s most visible role at the moment has been with providing the secretariat to the GAC, and we are very grateful for the same. There has also been some financial support for the meeting conducted in New Delhi recently.As India’s economy grows and as the Internet user base widens, as companies become more and more active. ISPs could join hands with ICANN in places like the ISP committee and businesses with the business constituency. There so many places at ICANN, where we would be more pleased to see greater Indian participation.
What is the need to shift from IPV4 to IPV6?
The driving factor has been the fact that by about 2011, we would have exhausted easily accessible blocks of IP4 addresses. Partly because nobody really understood at that time, when 4.5 billion of those were created what the demand was going to be at that time. Internet at that time was used by a few techies sending files from one university to another, who knew that we would have the enormous commercial application since achieved. The new system will have 340 trillion trillion numbers which most of us think is going to suffice for at least the next few months (laughs).
Your views on .XXX
That was a particularly interesting legal situation. Wherein the conditions that were set by the board for creation of new GTLDs had to be met by a new applicant and the debate that the board had was almost entirely whether this applicant had met the conditions and we split on whether or not. And I after working on hundreds of hours over the voluminous documents, averred that the applicant had met the set criterion and the majority board members felt that they hadn’t. It had very little to do with the nature of the content they wanted to provide, except as to have that related to conditions that we imposed on running that particular domain name. So I don’t think so, there was anybody for example on the board, who thought that adult content was bad or good, it was nothing to do with the merits of the content. It was with the safeguards that we require and the operating rules, systems. Under those proposals you had to actually produce a community that you said was going to be served by this proposal. One of the arguments was that the applicant had not demonstrated that supported any community. So there was a considerable debate on what support means, what sufficient levels is, and whether this applicant had met those conditions, that the kind of things reasonable people can disagree on. And some of us thought that they had proved it and others thought they had not. And it had to do very little with the actual nature of the content, it was the nature of the community.
Interesting, though it seemed like a very moral kind of a decision.
I think that’s a mistake, what needs to be reminded that the content they were talking about was moral and legal. I don’t exactly understand the moral aspects, but it was certainly legal. Pornography is legal in most countries, and this applicant was quite clear that he would only be providing legal content . So I think most of us, got past that reasonably quickly, had there been any suggestions about illegal content than the application would have been killed immediately.
It has been close to 10 years of ICANN. What do you make of it?
I think the 10 years have been longer than anyone of us had expected in 1999, when we were arguing about the bylaws and that’s reflected on the fact that MOU with the US government while building of ICANN and what needed to be done was set for 2 years. And we were completely confident completely wrongly that things were completely under control. It was only later that we realised that we had almost all of the things that had been listed in the original document, sort of blueprint set out on a whitepaper. The huge challenges that we faced in 1999 we have tackled them all. So I think we move into the next decade with much confidence.
As it is, interviewing a lawyer is a tough task. And if the lawyer heads an organization that is often embroiled in controvresies, the task becomes more onerous. This was my dilemma, as I started my interaction with Peter Dengate Thrush, chairman of the board, ICANN. The Kiwi Barrister had come down to India for an ICANN event and I met up with him at one of the seminars he was attending. He is one of the rare people, who genuinely was eager to attend all the sessions at the seminar (more so because he was the keynote speaker). Thus, I had to time the conversation between two sessions and he sat down with a cup of coffee.
Imagine, if you could fold your computer screen like paper. Would we then ever need paper at all? For the past many years there has been a lot of work going along on foldable displays and other things like that with limited success. The good news is that there is an Indian researcher at Bell Labs is not only working on the prospect of foldable screens, but is seeing frution of his work. He was one of the TR35 winners, and profiling him was a challenge for me.
Chemistry was always something that I was mighty uncomfortable with, in fact, after mathematics, if there is anything that I really disliked, it would be chemistry. I could never understand why we roted those weird molecular diagrams of ethyl alcohol or Benzene. So I was literally grappling with Organic Electronics, much work went into understanding the basics first. And by the time I was done with the story, I had developed a healthy respect for chemistry in general and Organic Electronics in specific. Here goes the fourth part of the 6 TR35 series.
Of foldable screens and printed electronics
Ashok Maliakal for the past three years has been toiling at ways to revolutionize the computing world with the use of organic electronics. Going by the signs, it does not seem to be as far-fetched, as it may sound.
Much as we dislike it, plastic or polymer has nevertheless permeated everything in our lives. This organic substance seems to be fairly ubiquitous from white goods to textiles; polymer is an undisputed king. While it rules on the macro level, somehow it has not made headway on the nano scale. That all could very well change with the emergence of organic electronics.
Revolution seems like understatement, when one refers to the change that has occurred in the computing industry. Everything has dramatically and drastically changed; the processing power has increased hundred times over, applications have changed, newer devices have emerged. The only thing that has remained more or less untouched is the display device, or the unassuming monitor.
To be fair, the green monitor screen has been replaced by a much vibrant color screen; much slimmer and sleeker. In spite of these cosmetic changes, monitors have remained bulky and big. Take the case of a laptop display screen, in all these years; it has remained much as it was.
There is a ray of hope breaking on the horizon. A hope that in the future, display screens would not be as bulky as they are, they would not be limited to current materials, etc. All in all, the displays will be not only be sleeker but also more flexible in nature. A researcher at Bell Laboraties in the U.S. is earnestly working at making that dream come true and his name is Ashok Maliakal. He is a researcher in organic electronics.
Organic electronics (plastic electronics) is basically a branch of electronics that deals with conductive polymers, or plastics. The term 'organic' is used as the molecules in the polymer are carbon-based, like they are in every living or organic thing. Organic electronics differs from traditional electronics as the latter relies on inorganic conductors such as copper or silicon. “Since my doctoral work, I’ve been interested in how molecular structure affects a materials properties. Organic electronics is a wonderful place to explore these interactions,” says Maliakal.
The singular biggest application of organic electronics can be seen in what is popularly termed as ‘printed electronics’. This is an emerging technology that talks about printing of electronics on common media such as paper, plastic, and textile using current printing processes, just like we print a newspaper for instance. This printing utilizes common press equipment in the graphics arts industry, such as screen-printing, flexography, gravure, and offset lithography. Though, instead of the regular printing inks, families of electrically functional electronic inks are used to print active devices, such as thin film transistors, or RFID tags.
Once, printing electronics picks up, there is going to be an explosion of low-cost electronics useful for applications not typically associated with conventional (i.e., silicon-based) electronics, such as flexible displays, smart labels, animated posters, and active clothing. “Conventional ways of creating electronic circuitry are not only complicated but costly as well, with printed electronics there would be large scale upsurge in low cost devices. It would be quite dramatic,” says Maliakal.
One of the biggest application of printing electronics could be in the production of flexible electronic displays. As the current displays are quite rigid in nature, printed electronics could help in the invention of a low-cost, foldable, bendable display devices that can be mass produced for applications such as large area sensor networks, lightweight viewing screens for various handheld devices like PDAs, etc. Philips last year displayed a device with a rollable display known as Readius, that is fairly similar in design but quite different in the way it is manufactured. “My work could help enable a practical printing process for generating flexible display technologies,” says Maliakal.
Maliakal´s work at Bell Labs focuses on the design and development of nano-structured organic and hybrid materials for advanced electronic applications. His research is paving the way for design and development of functional electronic materials that will lead to new, fully integrated devices and sub-systems, as well as low-cost fabrication methodologies and increased functionality. Maliakal has made a breakthrough in the development of a new printable hybrid organic-inorganic material that formed good films with triple the permittivity of known polymers. “In it, I have mixed the certain properties of polymers (plastic) with that of titanium dioxide (ceramic) to achieve the new functional nano particle,” he says.
The beauty of Malaikal’s invention is that it not only allows inventive usage but at much lesser power consumption. “Prototype circuits made with the material operate at one-third the voltage of those made with the polymer alone. That could mean displays that consume a lot less power, “ he adds.
For his pioneering work, Maliakal was recently awarded the prestigious TR35 Award. It is an award given annually by MIT’s Technology Review to a selection of 35 of the world’s leading high-tech innovators under the age of 35. And all that Maliakal would say is, “Excellent! It is a great honor.”
Maliakal is a first generation American, as his parents had migrated from India a few decades back. He currently holds five patents awarded or pending and has published more than 16 papers. He completed his Bachelor´s degree in Chemistry from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Columbia University. His interests range from going out with family (wife and son) to music and running. He admits to occasionally see a Hindi movie, now and then.
Since, his parents are from Kerala, is he conversant in Malayalam? “I can understand it, but can’t speak fluently. I will certainly not win awards with my Malayalam,” he says. He occasionally visits India, and feels that “India certainly is improving in terms of scientific contributions. The number of research papers I read originating from India has been increasing.”
Maliakal also does not believe in astrology or sun signs and would not share his birthdate, as one could discern his sun sign and would judge him accordingly. On a lighter note, that seems a rather obstinate trait; now which sign could that be, any guesses?
Go to any part of India, and it is hard not to find a cell phone. If there is one revolution that has truly taken off in India, it is the mobile revolution. Indeed India has the fastest going mobile population in the world.So while we seem to be truly addicted to our Nokias and Motorolas, we are also completely oblivious to the challenges and the dangers it presents. The biggest challenge is data loss. I remember Swapnil Raje, a dear friend of mine, who had lost his mobile phone, was disconsolate not because of the hi-end cell but for the low end SD card that had pictures of all the wonderful places that he visits and other personal data. We could argue till doomsdays, about how and why should you back up the data on the phone, but the reality is no one really does. It is here that MOSES could come to our aid.
This is the third part of the 6 series on TR35, in this piece I wrote on Anand Raghunathan and his endeavor to make mobiles much secure. He is a proud IIT'ian and is surely making his almameter swell with pride as well.
MOSES’ second coming
This time to make mobile devices more secure; lest you think it to be blasphemous, we are talking about Anand Raghunathan and his team at NEC Labs have invented MObile SEcurity processor System (MOSES).
From fridges that place order for fruits over the Internet, to cars that pay toll tax wirelessly or phones that perform bank transactions, computers, rather embedded chips have become an integral part of our lives in ways we can barely imagine. Little wonder the phenomenon is called as ubiquitous computing. All these chips in myriad of products have made our lives more easier and if these companies are to be believed more productive. Yet, at the same time they also make us more vulnerable. The risk is often as grave as the convenience it offers. And the risk is from the small piece of code that infringes our PC and wrecks havoc on the system, a virus.
Rich Skrenta, a programmer by vocation is credited for creating the first computer virus “to appear in the wild”. In 1982, Skrenta created “Elk Cloner” that attached itself to Apple DOS operating system. The whole thing started of from a prank and has become a problem of mammoth dimensions. Every year billions of dollars are lost due to problems caused by computer viruses and more billions are spent protecting against them. It is an ending war fought on the PC front. And now, the war could just get murkier.
Device independent viruses are an eventuality many fear and few comprehend. Increasingly, the devices we use are communicating with each other in myriad ways through means like cables, Blue-tooth or even infrared. The phone connects to the MP3 player, the player to the PC, the PC to the phone, the phone to television. With the increase in this interconnect the threat levels also grow manifold.
What if a virus infected one of the devices, it could easily spread to other connected gadgets. Till now, there have been viruses that infect PCs and there have been bugs that attack mobile phones. But with the same OS running on our PC and PDA, the chances of a debilitating virus attack on both are quite a possibility. As more and more chips are being embedded into devices, the chances are increasing that a bug in one could affect another. There has been a lot of work done by software companies to safeguard against such attacks. Somehow, things seem to be spiraling a bit out of control.
Anand Raghunathan is a scientist working with NEC-Labs (America) for the past nine years or so. He has been grappling with idea of making mobile devices more secure. Raghunathan and his team are responsible for a paradigm shift in the battle with malicious code. He has invented a supplementary processor, called as MOSES (MObile SEcurity processor System) to safeguard critical data on a mobile device. This supplementary processor refurbishes security by separating it from the rest of the procession power.
“MOSES is a flexible hardware and software solution that can be integrated into chips for mobile appliances, and used to deploy a wide range of security functions. MOSES is based on the philosophy that any effective security solution must be based on a foundation that is isolated from, and not subject to the same vulnerabilities as, the system that is to be secured,” says Raghunathan, before adding, “at the core of MOSES is a separate processor that can execute a device’s most sensitive functions in an isolated manner, rendering them secure from arbitrary software attacks including compromises of the operating system. Functions that can be executed on MOSES include cryptographic algorithms, key generation and management, and verification of the operating system, applications, and communications firmware that execute on the mobile appliance.”
For his work, Raghunathan was recently awarded the prestigious TR35 Award. It is an award given annually by MIT’s Technology Review to a selection of 35 of the world’s leading high-tech innovators under the age of 35. “I feel very fortunate to be a part of this group. I have followed the TR35 and TR100 lists in the past, and of course did not imagine that I would be selected for this honor,” says Raghunathan modestly.
The genesis of MOSES happened around six years back, when Raghunathan and the team started examining the issue, especially from the perspective of mobile appliances like cellphones and PDAs. “We observed that mobile appliances were starting to evolve from simple devices that were used to perform a single function (e.g., make telephone calls) to highly complex, networked, multi-functional devices that contain our personal data, identity, and even our purchasing power. It was clear from looking at mobile application trends that information security would be an important problem. Today, a wide range of mobile applications and services are security sensitive, including mobile commerce (shopping, bill payment, and banking), location-based services, playback of copyrighted content, connection to corporate networks, etc.,” he says.
According to estimates over 1 billion handsets will be sold in 2006 alone, many of them capable of performing mobile commerce, and communicating with nearby Bluetooth-enabled devices. Even in developing countries, mobile appliances are far more pervasive (e.g., India has six times more mobile phones than PCs), making them an attractive platform to bridge the “digital divide”. Due to their widespread use, the consequences of security attacks on mobile phones can be catastrophic.
“The first mobile phone virus, Cabir, was first discovered two years back, and has since affected thousands of users across over 20 countries. We have really seen only the tip of the iceberg in terms of software attacks on mobile phones. There is also an emerging concern that, due to technologies such as Bluetooth, viruses can hop from cell phones to other electronic systems such as automotive electronics or home appliances,” says Raghunathan. He cites the instance of certain cases, where virus has been found to jump from a mobile phone to a car system. MOSES has already made an appearance in mobile phones and could be soon found RFID tags, set-top boxes, and automotive systems.
Raghunathan holds 20 U.S. patents in the field of integrated circuit and chip design. He did his schooling in Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam, and Pune and his undergraduate degree was from IIT Madras. “I feel especially proud of my association with IIT-M, and the opportunity to interact with and learn from the people I met there,” he says.
In ancient Egypt, Moses protected the Hebrews from the wrath of the Pharaohs. Moses then was a protector, and thanks to Raghunathan, still is, albeit on the small device that you tag along all day.
Sitting there in auditorium of Taj Hotel, for some brief moments I found myself transmitted to Her Majesty's land, good ol' England. The Oxford University had organized an event in the city, wherein you had prominent Englishman talking on everything in general and nothing in particular. I have always admired the English wit and humour, and it is with a profound sadness that I see the coming extinction of it (the Americanization of British culture). Starting from the chivalrous knights on Arthur's round table, to profoundly sarcistic Shaw to the rather eccentric Sir Branson, Englishmen have always stood out as a race. ************************* Not quite a diplomat; fortunately Sir Humphrey Appleby: Bernard, Ministers should never know more than they need to know. Then they can't tell anyone. Like secret agents, they could be captured and tortured.
What impresses me the most, is the English art of subtely poking fun at every one, including themselves. So, when I saw all those English gents talking in humorous phrases, I was really enjoying myself. It was here that I bumped into Lord Chris Patten. I remember as a youngster, seeing those images on television of Hong Kong being handed over to China. The whole ceremony wherein the Union Jack was lowered and the Chinese flag was unfurled. In some ways the whole ceremony reminded me of India's independence from Great Britain. I imagined how it would have been some 30 odd years before I was even born. Lord Patten reminded me of the immensely famous Lord Mountbatten, the last English Governor General of India. Thus in some strange ways, India does indeed connect to Lord Patten (one of the ways is through films as well, his daughter played a central character in the hit Indian movie Rang De Basanti).
At the conference, I was able to wean Lord Patten away for a few precious moments and posed a few questions. His respones were characteristically English, namely, candid and witty. The best way is to judge it yourself, so read on.
Bernard Woolley: You mean by terrorists?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: By the BBC, Bernard.
Fortunately, neither did Lord Christopher Francis Patten, Baron Patten of Barnes, need to be captured or either tortured for him to be candid and frank. And more importantly, the liberal Tory isn’t in the government anymore; he is a chancellor with the Oxford University, and thus allowed a certain amount of leeway.
Lord Patten is more renowned for the assignment in took up in the late nineties, as the last colonial governor of Hong Kong. After a stint as a EU minister, Patten settled down in the academic environs of Oxford (currently, he is one of the contenders for the BBC top post). Yet, in spite of all his engagements, Patten finds time out for things he seems to like the most, namely writing. He has released books like: Not Quite the Diplomat; Cousins and Strangers: America, Britain, and Europe in a New Century; Tory Case and co-authored and contributed to other books like 50 Remarkable Years - the New Elizabethan Age; 150 Years of Cricket in Hong Kong.
Patten had recently come down to India for the Oxford India Business Forum and regaled the audience with his wit and humor. He refers to self as a historian and thus has a lot to share on India and its ‘spectacular’ journey so far. This is just what he did with Shashwat Chaturvedi from CyberMedia News. By the way, he also has an interesting connection with India, more appropriately Indian cinema, as his youngest daughter (Alice Patten) was the leading lady of the Bollywood hit, Range De Basanti. Excerpts.
Not quite a diplomat; fortunately
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Bernard, Ministers should never know more than they need to know. Then they can't tell anyone. Like secret agents, they could be captured and tortured.
There is a feeling among many in India has just become a low value destination for measly jobs. That it is a case of new imperialism, this time it is money instead of ammunition.That is surely not a correct observation. Over the years, Indian economy has grown in ways that had not been imagined. Today, the nation is renowned for its IT strength. In many ways, India has become a global back office. That does not mean dealing with low value added occupations only, a lot of high value jobs are being shifted to India and being done out of India. That is something to be pleased about not to be criticized. The challenge for India, as I see it, is to develop the manufacturing, food processing and agriculture, in the same ways it has done with IT, telecommunications and so on. And there is no reason, intellectually, why India should not be just as successful in those areas, just as it has been successful in the services industry.
Isn’t shift of jobs a big concern for people in the western countries like the U.K. and the U.S. There have been so many reports of backlash and hostility on the issue. Your views.
It is much less a problem with services sector, than in manufacturing, take for instance textile. A real appalling example of protectionism in the developed countries can be found in those sectors. I believe the way we behaved when the multi-fiber agreement was stopped, was very bad. The subsidies that we gave to more expensive agricultural communities like cotton are extremely bad too. I believe if we are to promote more open trade globally then we have to be much tougher on dismantling protectionism among the developed countries
You have voiced you support to India vis-à-vis China, due to the democratic institutions in place in India. How do you think the future will pan out?
The world should want both India and China to be a success. The point I make, is that you cannot see economic and social development without making political adjustment and if you open up the economy it is increasingly difficult for you to keep an iron grip on politics. As India has a political system that increasingly incorporates what is happening economically, it is better placed. China, sooner or later, will have to change its political system in order to bring it in line with the economic development. The question is whether it can do that without sacrificing stability.
You stated that the ‘world is not flat’, what makes you say so?
There is an implication and many people who must have read that book must have taken this message that technology has made us all equals. But it hasn’t. There are terrible mountains that poor people and poor countries have to climb and I don’t think it is enough to say that information technology revolution, even though it has made problems more solvable, but haven’t actually solved them. I mentioned about traveling to the incredibly impressive Infosys campus in Bangalore on the way you notice evidence to the fact that the world is not actually flat, you see very poor people and you travel on very poor infrastructure. I think we have a very long way to go before we can truly claim that the world is really flat. And it never will be entirely, though I wish we were doing more to decrease global inequity in wealth and opportunities.
Here goes the second part of the 6 series on TR35 Winner. This time I talk about ad hoc networks , believe me it was one tough nut to crack. I earnestly thank Prithwish in helping me understand ad hoc in around an hour that we spoke. Check the article for yourself.
Networking the ‘ad hoc’ way
Ad hoc networks are the current talk of the town with scores of companies working on the standards and applications. Pritwish Basu a scientist at BBN Technologies has won an award for his work on ad hoc networks.
Boxing day (December 26) of 2004 will be forever be etched in our memories. It was the day, when human misery hit a crescendo, a day when nature unleashed its fury on the South Asian shores of Indonesia, India, Srilanka and others. It was the day when the Tsunami stuck. While innumerable people died in the wake of the flooding waters, thousands died in the aftermath, for want of medicine and food.
There was no real paucity of medicine and food packages, what was lacking was a communication structure over which the relief process could be coordinated. But how can relief agencies communicate, when the whole infrastructure has been ripped apart? Satellite communication is quite dear (cost wise) and often unreliable in cases of far-flung locations.
An alumnus from Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi), based in the U.S., is currently working on a technology that will make all such concerns (communications without infrastructure) redundant. And, he recently received a prestigious award for his work. Pritwish Basu a scientist at BBN Technologies has developed algorithms that enable wireless devices to interconnect with each other (ad hoc networks) with very low drop rates. For his work, Basu recently awarded the prestigious TR35 Award. It is an award given annually by MIT’s Technology Review to a selection of 35 of the world’s leading high-tech innovators under the age of 35.
Thirty-one year old Basu is pretty gung-ho on being selected for this award and terms it to be a ‘pleasant surprise’. He describes ad hoc networks as wireless networks that can be set up quickly for communication between nodes and do not need any infrastructural support from satellites, cellular towers or base stations.
Ad hoc is a term borrowed from Latin and can be loosely translated as, “for this purpose only”. The term aptly describes the way the whole network is configured. Unlike a traditional network, in which, all the devices are linked to a central hub, in an ad hoc network, all the devices communicate with each other and relay data forward.
It may seem fairly similar to the Wi-Fi network that is common nowadays. Basu clarifies. “The similarity with Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11a/b/g) or WiMax is that an ad hoc network also may use similar wireless radio transceivers. However the difference is that in the case of Wi-Fi etc., there is a static base station that is established a priori and that allows wireless nodes to access the Internet; in case of ad hoc networks, there is no base station and nodes communicate directly with other nodes in their transmission (radio) range, and they can help in cooperatively forwarding packets to remote nodes that are not in direct communication range of the source node. There are several well-known ad hoc routing protocols that can perform this task,” he says.
In a way, Game theory finally makes an appearance in the ICT domain. For the past few decades, Game theory has been used as a tool for understanding the way people, communities, or nations interact with each other. Basically speaking, Game theory talks about interplay of different people, wherein each desires to maximize his benefit. All these people cooperate to a level, till such state is reached (maximum benefits for all). This is cooperation at its best. Ad hoc networks symbolize cooperation, wherein one device collaborates with another for transmitting data.
Considering the nature of these networks, military applications come naturally to mind. But as of now, defense forces use satellite communications extensively. What is the real benefit they can derive from this emerging technology? “Indeed, the military uses satellite networks for a lot of their communication needs. But the bandwidth that is available over satellite channels is usually inadequate to satisfy the communication needs of all soldiers in the armed forces. Ad hoc networks are extremely useful when the nodes are localized (within a few kms or tens of kms of each other) and have to communicate with each other. Then they can get higher data rates with lower delays,” says Basu, adding, “Also satellite signals are often inaccessible indoors and in dense foliage. Needless to say, access to a satellite communication link often costs several dollars per minute whereas ad hoc wireless links are free.”
“Ad hoc networking has forced designers to rethink different layers of the network protocol stack above the physical layer, i.e., medium access control (MAC), network (routing), transport, and application layers. The MAC and routing problems are what make ad hoc networking very different from traditional wired IP networking or even wireless cellular or Wi-Fi networks,” emphasizes Basu.
According to him, in an ad hoc network, the MAC layer has to coordinate the order in which different nodes transmit in a distributed manner because there is no luxury of a central authority like the base station for computing the transmission schedule. The routing layer too has a more difficult task. Whereas in wired IP networks, hierarchical routing is feasible because nodes have static IP addresses which can be aggregated into hierarchical sub-network addresses. This is not possible in mobile ad hoc networks since nodes could be moving around and hence it is not as easy to aggregate their addresses into subnet addresses. One mechanism of computing routes is by periodically broadcasting the status of all current neighboring links to all other nodes in the network. “A lot of research has occurred in the last decade for optimizing this process since the wireless channel is much more resource-limited than a wired network. Recently people have been rethinking even the design of physical layers to benefit ad hoc networking (e.g., techniques such as cooperative diversity),” he says.
Amazingly, ad hoc networks can play a major role in our everyday lives. For instance, Basu talks about networking parking meters that could be configured through an ad-hoc network. “One could have a transmitters on each parking meter; then you add a sensor that can tell whether there is a car in that spot. Thus if a user wants a parking slot near his building all he does is to query on the console in his car. The query is sent to the nearest parking meter, and if it isn’t empty, the request would be forwarded to the next meter till it finds a free spot, and then even reserves it, if possible,” he says. Buildings could also be networked on such sensorized mesh ad hoc networks, he says. “If it is a bit chilly, the sensors in different windows transmit a message, and they are closed automatically, thereby saving heat,” adds Basu.
“Blue tooth is the first truly ad hoc product. It can support up to 80 nodes, sadly till date it has only been used for cable or wire replacement. It is a cool application, so is Zigbee,” he says.
Battery life is one of the biggest challenges faced by the industry. “Since the devices are constantly transmitting data, the battery life could be a big issue. For that one needs to develop better protocols or dramatic gains in the battery technology is required,” Basu says.
Ironically, for a man who is at the forefront of designing new networks, could have been a doctor as he had passed a few medical entrance exams. But his love for maths scored over his interests in medicine. “I do not regret that choice,” he says. His father is a retired civil servant and mother a housewife, both currently reside in Delhi. Basu considers Boston University to be his Alma meter, where he did his MS and PhD. He has also graduated from his love for cricket to soccer and baseball and continues to visit India regularly.
In the years to come, Basu hopes to see a lot more ad hoc networks, even in India. “The potential of ad hoc networks is mind boggling. From saving lives in case of natural disasters like tsunami or earthquake, to making our lives easier and more happier. The future could be quite like the science fiction movies that we often see. We are getting closer to that future with ad hoc networks,” signs off an optimistic Basu.
India is regarded as an IT Powerhouse, do you think, there is enough innovation happening out of India?
There is innovation happening in India in institutions like IISc but I don’t think that it is enough considering how much progress India has made in the IT sector recently. I believe this is primarily due to the lack of research funding from the Indian IT industry. The government funding is inadequate as well. There is a direct relationship between R&D funding and research/innovation output. I believe if the IT sector invests some of its profits towards fundamental and applied research (and not just proven products), then we will see several innovations happen in India. The other roadblock is the highly structured educational system in most schools and colleges. There is much more emphasis on consistency over all subjects rather than creativity or innovation.
Can ad-hoc networks make an appearance in India?
Mesh networks and sensor networks are forms of ad hoc networks that could easily make an appearance in India. Asset tracking and monitoring applications could motivate the use of sensor networks in India. The deployment challenges and business models may be slightly different though.
Every year MIT's Technology Review comes out with an annual list of awardees, TR35. These are individuals who have broken new ground in the field they are working on be it genomics or semi-conductor and most importantly they are under 35 years of age. This list is very well respected among the scientific community, and the awardees are guaranteed their fifteen minutes of fame almost instantly.
The list that had come out in 2006, was a good for one India, as there were close to 6 awardees in that list of Indian origin. Little wonder, the Indian press back home was going gaga over the same. It was then, that I decided to profile these awardees and their work for Dataquest. Over the next few months, I was poring over literature on how a chip is designed or the double helix of the DNA strand, in my quest to understand what exactly was the work these genuises had done. Talking to them was also a high-point, in the sense a few were not so articulate while a couple of them could talk the whole day excitedly about their work. For me personally this was a most satisfying project, as it coaxed me to understand newer things and then present them in a fashion, which was understandable and more importantly readable. I love the series for the sheer challenge it presented to me as a journalist.
So, here is the first part of the 6 series, a profile of Jay Shendure from Harvard Medical School and his work in the field of genomics.
Unraveling the Code of Life
Jay Shendure, TR35 Award winner, is taking the world of genomics by storm with his innovations. Read on for more.
Ever since the dawn of human civilization, man has been obsessed with solving riddles, be it physical or meta-physical. Homo sapiens gained considerable success in the study of abstract, starting from Socrates to Freud and further. It was the physical, where they lacked. The mysteries of the cosmos were greatly explored while the origins of mankind, religiously ignored.
It took a British naturalist traveling on liner named Beagle in the nineteenth century to bring the focus back on the self. Charles Darwin’s publication of ‘The Origin of Species’ completely revolutionized the way man thought about himself and others. Around the same time frame, an Austrian abbot Gregor Johann Mendel experimented with pea plants and came up with the law of inheritance, what we refer to as genetics in modern day. This was the beginnings of the study of genetics.
Were we to list down the greatest achievements of the last century, the unraveling of the human genome would certainly rank in the top ten. And in the current century, it will definitely ascend further up. The day is not far, when people will not have to suffer from ailments they inherited from their parents. The recently concluded Human Genome Project (HGP) was a landmark in this regard.
The goal of HGP was to uncover all 3 million base pairs in the human genome, as well as all the genes, with minimal error rate. There are approximately 30,000 genes in the human genome. These genes are more or less responsible for various traits, right from the color of our pupils to our susceptibility to different disease. The main purpose behind HGP is to develop faster and more efficient methods of DNA sequencing and sequence analysis. This will lead to radical advances in the field of medicine and biotechnology.
This is where Jay Shendure, a researcher at the Harvard Medical School, comes into the picture. Shendure and his fellow researchers have discovered a novel way to sequence DNA. Going by the traditional method, it takes a few months and a few million dollars to decode a DNA. According to estimates, the HGP was worth anything between $300-$500 million. Even if DNA sequencing was to cost a few millions, it would be very much out of the reach of much of mankind.
“DNA sequence constitutes the blue print for living organisms, analogous to computer code. DNA sequencing has been performed by the same method - Sanger sequencing, for about 30 years. The cost has followed an exponential drop analogous to Moore's law for semiconductor transistors, but the fundamental method has remained the same. In the past few years, it has been increasingly recognized that this curve cannot continue without substantially rethinking the way we sequence DNA,” says Shendure. Thus, he came up with a revolutionary technique based on polony sequencing. Using off-the-shelf parts, he was quite successful in sequencing the DNA of a bacterial genome at twenty times the speed and around one-tenth the cost. Not only that, Shendure’s method has been found out to be error-free to a large extent.
A company named Applied Biosystems, which is planning to put out a commercial instrument based on the technology in 2007, is making use of the research results. “The long-term goal of our project is to bring the cost down to the point where we could routinely sequence human genomes for on the order of $1000, a price-point that would be compatible with incorporating genome sequencing as a routine component of health care,” he adds.
Shendure is quite buoyant that his research will aid in the overall benefit to mankind. “Most of humans share close to 99.9% of genetic data. The difference between you and me is that 0.1%. Once, we are able to decode that, my medical conditions will be treated differently from anyone else’s,” he says.
So in the days to come, will it be possible to predict a person’s medical future, that he could have colon cancer at 30 or probably Alzheimer’s at 60? “To a great degree indeed,” he says, adding, “the DNA of a person will easily exhibit all the diseases that he is or she is susceptible too. We might not be able to predict but we will surely be able to warn.”
Most of the diseases might also cease to exist in the future, feels Shendure. According to him, one would be able to study why a certain race of people are susceptible to certain diseases and others are not. “It could very well boil down to the genomic level,” he says.
But there are other concerns as well. The DNA sequencing could be used as a tool for racial discrimination, or even used for creation of ‘bio-technological’ weapons that target certain weak points. Yet, Shendure is unmoved by such doom-day scenarios. “Every technology has its inherent benefits and its hazards. I am sure with time there will be legislation in place to take care of such things,” he says.
For his work at Harvard Medical School, he was recently given the TR35 Award. It is an award given annually by MIT’s Technology Review to a selection of 35 of the world’s leading high-tech innovators under the age of 35. Shendure’s parents hail from small towns in Maharashtra. They had migrated to the U.S. in the late sixties, Shendure was born in Ohio. He was exposed to computers at a very young age, as his mother started a programming consulting company in the early eighties. “We had a PC in the house when I was six (1980), and I started programming at a very young age,” he candidly admits.
His progression from computer programming to DNA sequencing seems pretty natural to him. “DNA sequence is naturally analogous to computer code two bits (A,G,C,T) instead of one bit (0,1) per unit, but in a broad sense both are doing similar things, i.e., running a device, a computer in the case of code; a biological organism in the case of DNA,” he explains.
In the early sixties another Indian had taken the medical world by storm. Hargobind Singh Khorana was awarded the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine (together with Robert W. Holley and Marshall Warren Nirenberg) for work on the interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis. Some four decades later another scientist of Indian origin seems to be carrying the torch further heights. Shendure in many terms is a heir to the Khorana legacy, and for the sake of mankind, let’s wish his DNA is not disposed to any of diseases, the rest of us are.
You have predicted that in the next ten years, biologists will be able to sequence a person’s genome for as much as $1000. Can that happen?
Ten years is an educated guess as it’s hard to predict exactly when, but one way another, it will happen. Beyond just the bioinformatics field, I think that as we increasingly understand how our genome sequence defines our disease risks, and if the low cost justifies genome sequencing as a component of health care, this has the potential to revolutionize medicine. We’re still quite a ways off from that point, but it’s worth it to start thinking about it.
Do you feel, that high-end research like yours can be done out of India? Your views on innovation in India?
For some areas of research (such as mine), a lot of the requisite instrumentation is just incredibly expensive, which raises the question of where that money is going to come from. Public-private partnerships, venture capital, industry-based research programs, etc. are all great ways to bring the requisite resources to bear in terms of obtaining physical capital. International partnerships (between labs in the US and India, for example) will increasingly be critical, and I think that is one area that will get increasing attention in the next few years. One area where India already excels is intellectual capital, both in bioinformatics and information technology in general. As the biological sciences become increasingly data-rich, the equipment will be less important than the ability to analyze the data. So that's one area where India-based researchers can get ahead with nothing more than a PC and Internet access.
"The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible," go one of Sir Arthur C Clarke's law. The renowned fiction writer and futurist died yesterday in Sri Lanka, bringing to end one of the most colorful and eventful of lives. I haven't read any of Sir Arthur's novel, only a few short stories (including the 10 word story he wrote for the Wired Magazine, "God said, 'Cancel Program GENESIS.' The universe ceased to exist.").
But I have always been fascinated by him, a man who spoke about distant stars and alien beings. It is probably because at a primal level, we all are fascinated by the universe that shifts over our tiny heads day and night. Everyday, when I peer into that starry sky, I think of the millions and billions of years that have passed. That tiny spot of light, indicating a star, quasar, or whatever, has travelled through billions of years, infinite space and today I am able to see it. This star, quasar or whatever, might not even exist now. Or for the matter the whole sky might be so very different at this given moment, but then I will never know. Some other soul, probably some billions of years later would probably be standing at some point (surely not Earth, because it would cease to exist by then) in this galaxy and when he/she or it looks up would see how the universe looks right now for us. For this very reason, I like Sir Arthur, he humanised science fiction. In many ways, he liberated our fantasies, gave them wings on which they could fly.
Oh how I wish I could have spent a life writing on the mysteries that surround us all over. But the best that I could write is how an amazing Indian firm is digitizing the universe, turning the stars into simple bits and bytes. I had done this story a year and more back and on learning of Sir Arthur's death, I was just thinking about the sky and the moon, when this story came to me. And for this very reason, I am uploading this story. He had stated once that he would want his epitaph to read; ''He never grew up; but he never stopped growing". May he continue in some way his universal journey, in some form or the other.
Digitizing the universe
It is the most unlikely of places to find a quote from gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. The eighteenth century French epicure had commented to the effect, "the discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity, than the discovery of a new star."
The diners at the canteen of of Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) look up at the placard (with the quote on it), smile to themselves and continue with their food quite unperturbed by the supposition. Without a micron of a doubt, not all agree with the Brilaat-Savarin because at IUCAA, life is all about finding newer galaxies, tripping over black holes and extrapolating on the nature of things in the ever so distant universe.
Established in 1988, IUCAA’s mandate was to carry out research in theoretical astrophysics, cosmology and in observational astronomy. With all the major universities and research institutes in India and abroad collaborating at IUCAA, the center has become a vast storehouse of learning and research in the field.
The genesis of VO-I
But it was at the turn of the millennium that IUCAA came into international limelight. Around that time, the Virtual Observatory (VO) concept was taking shape internationally and Ajit Kembhavi, a renowned figure in astrophysics and astronomy, heard about the project from his colleagues based on the international shores. Kembhavi was immediately hooked on by the VO idea and it does not take rocket science to figure why?
Over the years, the biggest problem faced by astronomers and researchers alike is that of making accurate celestial observations. Guesstimates vary on the number of celestial objects in the universe, from a few hundred million to few thousand billions, making it harder for astronomers to really pin down their observations.
To make such observations, astronomers require high-end instruments capable of peering into the distant space and the only place they are available are a few observatories across the globe. There is a long list of people who have booked slots at such observatories. VO intends to solve this problem of demand-supply permanently using the latest that computing power has to offer.
Every night, as high-powered telescopes scan the sky from different angles, data collected from them is digitized and uploaded on a central location from where it can be accessed by researchers. Sounds fairly simple, except for the fact that the data generated by these surveys runs into terabytes (1024 gigabyte equals one terabyte).
“For instance, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) project generates a few terabytes of data every night,” says Kembhavi. Thus, when SDSS- DR3 data, running into a few terabytes, was to be shipped to IUCAA in Pune from John Hopkins University, the university bought special hardware drives and then shipped them manually to India. “Even with a high-speed connection, it could take around a month to transfer this data via Internet,” explains Kembhavi.
The ability to analyze this humongous amount of data is a bigger challenge than storing it. And that is where India, precisely Indian IT, comes into play. Kembhavi was well aware of the data issue and came up with the idea that India will contribute to development of new applications and technology that will aid in storage as well as analysis of data. On this basis, India became a founding member of the VO program and VO-India or VO-I was born.
Public and private
If the concept was brilliant, the implementation was even more radical. To achieve his objective, Kembhavi enlisted the support of Anand Deshpande, CEO, Persistent Systems, an IT company based in Pune.
“I knew Deshpande from the days when IUCAA provided basic e-mail facilities, limited bandwidth and electronic access to some journals to several university centers, several years ago. That time, Deshpande used to visit the campus to access his e-mails. Thus, when I discussed the idea of collaborating on the project, he readily agreed and that is how we got going,” says Kembhavi. With funding from the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, the project got rolling.
Persistent pitched in with its software engineers and set up a dedicated team to develop applications and work on new technologies in close collaboration with the team at IUCAA. The results have been quite heartening till date: VO-I has come up with applications like VOPlot, VOStat, VOTable and others.
Of the lot, VOPlot has received the maximum acclaim. It is a stand-alone system with high-end graphic user interface that can be downloaded from the IUCAA server. The tool has been integrated by many databases used in the study of stars and is available in three versions, VOPlot, VOPlot 3D and VOMegaPlot. The gains are mutual according to Kembhavi.
“We gain from their (Persistent) software expertise and they are gain from the challenges thrown up as huge amounts of data that needs to be managed and analyzed,” he said. Even, Microsoft is taking a keen interest in the development of the VO project globally.
It is not astronomy that can benefit from the development of such tools; there can be quite many commercial applications according to Kembhavi.
“Any work that requires high amount of data analysis can use these tools like VOPlot and VOStat. For instance, population census is one such field or for that matter retail market analysis, where there are huge number of small transactions that need to be analyzed,” adds Kembhavi.
Looking forward, VO-I has become a potent force in the global initiative. Kembhavi is also quite excited at the prospect of advancement of science. Using these tools, a lady researcher was able to discover a sub-dwarf star, “the second known one in the galaxy,” exults Kembhavi.
Sitting at his comfortable office, full of books on astronomy, physics and IT, Kembhavi is dreaming up newer projects, grander in design and objectives. In spite of spending so many of his years gazing at the heavens, Kembhavi is still immensely fascinated by the stars and planets. He is of the view that we (humans) are not alone in the universe, who knows with the aid of tools developed by his team, there is finally proof of it.
Kembhavi is trying real hard.
Throughout my coversation with Douglas Engelbart, not once did I come across any negativity within the grand old of computing. Honestly, I had expected him to be angry, to be unhappy, to be frustated, the way world has really treated this genius. After all, most of the amazing computing innovations (from hyperlink to GUI) today can be traced to that December night in 1968, the day of 'mother of all demos'. Engelbart not only saw the future much before every any one else did, but also gave us a glimpse of it. In many ways, he is the Nostradamus of the IT industry. Nonetheless, while people built upon the foundations laid by Engelbart, he was relegated to the sidelines. Even when he confesses of being a bit sad, he blames himself for it. “Well it is your fault Doug, you don’t know the rest of the world well enough to be able to be able to communicate and make them see what you do,” he says. Nonetheless, even today Engelbart comes to his Bootstrap office and continues to work on projects that promise to revolutionize the future.
Getting to speak to Engelbart, was a dream, especially, because, he spoke to me in detail. I was asking him rather inane questions on Collective IQ, and like an indulgent grandfather he would patiently answer all of them. Because of such ocassions, the chance to interact with a pioneer like Engelbart, that I truly love my job. Sometime during our conversation, I informed Engelbart that my name (Shashwat) means immortal, and he retorted that his surname Engelbart in Germany, means an angel's hair. "Which is also immortal," he quipped. I hope that he continues to stay with us for a long time, much like an angel's hair, and sees his dream of Collective IQ become a reality.
'Collective IQ is a capability level, there is a long road ahead and a great deal of evolution is needed'
’Twas a wintry December Monday in 1968, when 43 year old inventor Douglas C. Engelbart dressed up in formals took to stage in the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. Wearing a headset, Engelbart gave a demonstration of a project titled “Augmenting Human Intellect” that he and his team had been working on at the SRI Campus in Menlo Park, California. In some 90 odd minutes, Engelbart completely changed the way people perceived and would perceive computers henceforth. Through the numerous inventions that debuted that day, like the hyperlink, graphical user interface, an online system - NLS, object addressing and dynamic file linking, and amazingly communication over a network with audio and video interface (later to be known as video-conferencing) and not to forget the groovy mouse. By showing how he could manage his shopping list (frequently updated by wife) on a computer screen through links and charts, Engelbart liberated the computer from the labs and brought it within the realms of what he called the ‘knowledge worker’. Little wonder Engelbart’s demo has ever since been referred to as the Mother of all the Demos.
It has been some 40 years since that penultimate night and the world has changed so much. Still Engelbart continues to toil. The man, who shared tomorrow some 4 decades back, has still a lot to show to us. Renowned as the father of the mouse, Engelbart is without any doubt one of the greatest inventors of computing. But more than an inventor, he is also a philosopher, who finds metaphysical strains in his work. Even now, he is striving at the Bootstrap Institute, trying to show the world how human intelligence could be augmented through collective effort, what he calls Collective IQ. In a detailed discussion with Dataquest, Engelbart shared his vision of the future and also his hope that India would be a part of that vision. Excerpts.
All those wonderful things that you demonstrated on 1968 are becoming real now. How do you feel about it, in the sense is it great to know that you were so ahead of your time or are you saddened by the fact that computer industry is achieving now all the things that you had laid out way back then?
To be truthful, it really makes me feel inadequate. I have often wondered as to why I couldn’t explain all those advancements in ways that it could be easily understood by all. It is an overwhelming thought.
Nearly a decade back, there was an event organized that spoke about Douglas Engelbart’s unfinished revolution. What do you think is the current state of that revolution?
I don’t have a short answer at all. It is trudging along, and what I miss is a chance for direct dialogue, I think about the basic concepts of what I call “augmenting our collective IQ”. I would really welcome a direct dialogue on what is collective IQ and what is augmentation believe that it is extremely important for human society to boost its collective IQ and look. I collectively at the problems and issues we face.
It was in the sixties that you had spoken about augmenting human intellect through the use of machines. At times the implications of the same are not very clear, if you could talk of it?
The whole human society is basically divided in terms of labor, in the sense, some people create food, some manage information, and other disseminate it. Just imagine if all this complexity could be done away it, and a grand system could tap the capability. Great things achieved by humans have largely been a collective effort, take for instance the invention of language, writing, books, the human evolution has been dependent on collectivism. Even today we can see a glimpse of collectivism in the way companies or governments are run or even the World Wide Web. For instance, global warming is one such issue facing all of humanity and how well is it recognized but then how well it is being discussed at a global level…
How do we move towards the state of collective IQ?
Collective IQ is a capability level, there is a long road ahead and a great deal of evolution is needed. I have been studying literature and articles that talk of such capability and I hoped to hear echo of it by now. You must have seen from time to time these diagrams of the different functionalities that they have isolated in the brain. For instance, there are portions of brain that handle the sensory input, the others that handle logical reasoning. Haven’t you wondered that how effortlessly our brain processes information from different sensory organs be it audio from our ears or visuals from the eyes.
How is your work at Bootstrap Institute that you founded some years ago, progressing?
It has just faded away a lot because I am essentially working alone and by myself. Am old and not a very effective coordinator of things. I don’t really know what I should do to make more effective use of my dwindling energies. Many decades back with my team, I was the first one to build a hyperlink, I had wanted it to be able to address any object, and similarly I want to have discussions and debate on things that could take place. I remember the time when we were working on the GUI, one big domain was the different ways in which you could view a document, significant change to how you look and study a document. For instance you could see the 1st line of every paragraph in the document or you could view all the content. There could also be many ways to jump within a document, for instance a jump could be based on the occurrence of the given word.
The computer can be truly creative device, it can provide a whole many ways to give a symbolic presentation of the knowledge that we are trying to deal with. What the human brain can achieve with visual and auditory perception, so can the computer without significant challenges. Honestly, we have only started with how the computer can augment ones capability, understand and communicate..
What is the status of the Open Hyper Document System that you had proposed?
All these things have become stationary; because I am 82 and can’t keep running about to coordinate things. Why don’t you get India to get moving on augmenting human intellect and I could join in. I was very impressed a year or so back, the Prime Minister of India made a declaration that India will kind of look at boosting the collective IQ. The more I think about the size and opportunity and the general reputation that India has for intelligence and capabilities, the more hopeful I become of the potential of the country has. I don’t know of a country is as unusually placed as India, with its huge and educated population. It will be truly wonderful, if we could get something going in India. I hope that India will take a lead in the research of Collective IQ and the rest of the world will follow.
At times, I feel embarrassed that I come to office day after day and haven’t done much about these projects. Why don’t we get it going? How soon can I start hearing from India that Collective IQ has become a nationwide movement.
What do you feel about the commercialization of technology, the rush for riches and patents?
I am not sure if there is any real option for the society except commercialization. What incentive would the inventor have to invent or how will an innovator be paid. I wish though that there were a lot more freedom for evolution and free. I just shrug and take things as they are. I remember people talked me into patenting the mouse. But I did not patent other things. Imagine what would have happened had I patented the idea of the link (hyperlink). Commercialization should not be the be-all of everything.
How do you assess the current level of technology with powerful PCs with broadband Internet?
I think it is very good and is touching a lot of people in the world. I think the valuable thing to do further research on how computing can be made more pervasive. I think the computer has far greater potential than merely emulating the page or something, but that is what is stuck in the paradigm of today. I don’t have a research team and I wish there was some way to get research going on the way that computer technology could provide new ways to read and modify text that books don’t provide. I feel there quite much in the way of effectiveness that could be done.
You were also involved with the precursor of the Internet?
Yes I was part of the ARPANET project. At that time, the idea of the Internet was much different from what we have today. The pitch was like you have some data on your machine and someone wants to access it, it could be done through the Internet. I remember two university researchers were there when the discussions were taking place and suddenly one turned to the other and asked “What is there on your computer that I could use?” And the other retorted, “Don’t you read my reports”. Thus genesis was simple. What I proposed to set up was a Knowledge Information System.
I also read somewhere that you also hand a small role in the formulation of Moore’s Law?
I had indeed mentioned that the chips will keep getting shorter and that the transistors on it would up exponentially, but I didn’t put a number to it. I remember in 1958, I was speaking at an event and was talking about dimensional scaling, making things smaller and smaller. I had done intensive research and gave a talk on it on a professional society and it turns out that Gordon Moore was there in the audience. And the Moore’s Law came later on. I believe that electronic components would indeed be smaller and smaller due to the hunger for new inventive things that we have.
Do you believe that the digital divide between the haves and have-nots be ever bridged?
Oh! I think it is inevitable with technology getting cheaper and cheaper for instance the $100 laptop that came out recently. I believe every one in Indian university could use the laptop and then it could percolate to the schools. I feel it is inevitable that computer will replace the book, so as to say.
In a biographical sketch, your daughter had stated “people are looking at his past accomplishments while he himself continues to point to the future”. What do you say to that?
That’s right there is so little dialog going on currently and that’s what I really yearn for.
What really motivates you at this age?
I hope that something can get going in the world and I want to stay alive and alert for that. I almost gave up publishing rather stupidly, you know I had indeed published fair amount but I didn’t seem to be able to make much difference..
Is there some sort of sadness that you have?
I guess sadness may be appropriate. But then, I tend to say “Well it is your fault Doug, you don’t know the rest of the world well enough to be able to be able to communicate and make them see what you do”. So, at the end of the day that seems to be a pattern how I look at things.
Do you not think that the invention of the mouse overshadows everything else done by you?
Oh sure, it does overshadow, but it makes me very happy. Imagine a significant portion of the world’s population using my invention. It is hard for me to get used to it.