Have you ever wondered how the human brain works? Have you ever thought of the difficulties in mimicking it, to create the much talked about deep learning artificial intelligence? Have you ever asked about the limits of the seemingly ever-evolving computer technology? Have you ever wondered how your online transactions are safe from the 3rd party apps in your phone? Meet Dr. Anand Raghunathan, alumni of IIT Madras 1992, Electrical Engineering, who has thought about and solved most of these intriguing puzzles of science. Having been chosen by MITs TR35 2006, this Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue University recently received the Distinguished Alumni Award. He is also a recipient of the IEEE Meritorious Service Award (2001) and Outstanding Service Award (2004). He is a Fellow of the IEEE and was elected a Golden Core Member of the IEEE Computer Society in 2001, in recognition of his contributions. In his interview to Chennai 36, he talks about the future, past and present of Electrical and Computer Science Engineering, his life in the toughest branch of insti, playing hockey for Jamuna Hostel, the mess food of the 90s and how insti changed his life.
What has insti taught you or made you learn?
Many thing, I should say. But If I had to pick a few things it will be value of working hard, trying to make whatever you do for fun of course those are meta things. The broader lesson that I learnt in life is how to deal with different challenges and learning how to tackle with them. Being in one of the most challenging branch in institute, my first year was pretty rough. I knew that I was going to study with the top brains in the country but it didn’t sink in until I went through my first semester. It was getting more challenging that it was in school, this realization sunk in during first year. I was staying away from home, being responsible and independent was where the transition happened. Second year onward, things were much better. We started getting into branch subjects and fortunately I followed what I liked.
Did your time in Inst change your perspective of life? How did it help you later in your life?
My time in the Institute taught me adaptability. I was a typical pampered kid. I had eaten only home food all through my life. The hostel food was an interesting challenge in my days. We used to joke that the chapattis were waste products from CLRI which is right across. However, they taught us many valuable things. They were important life lessons in survival and adaptability.
Also, just seeing so many smart people, being around them and seeing how they approach education, subjects, exams and problems taught me a lot. Apart from the academic foundation laid here, this meta learning was much more useful and stayed with me much more longer. Also, the professors here are cool and treat you almost like colleagues. That changed my perspective a lot. I understood the need for the freedom to question and the freedom to think. The degree of freedom I experienced at IIT was greater than I had experienced any time before and that was liberating. It helped my growth both as an individual and as a researcher.
Any memorable incident that happened during your time in insti?
I can think of few, I’ll be comfortable in sharing . One funny incident was- My nickname was Andy, it was a cool thing back then so I didn’t complain. In my second semester we had this lady professor for a HS course. She was friendly with students, she would ask us our nicknames. She once asked mine and was like “Andy Andy” so I was totally taken aback because I had never experienced that from a professor. But I think there were many professors who were friendly and cool. They could relate you almost as colleagues this changed my perspective towards freedom to think and question. I experienced the degree of freedom in IIT that is much more than I have experienced before. That was liberating and it really helped my growth as an individual, as an academic and as a researcher.
What were your major interests/hobbies during your insti life? Were you involved in any clubs or events?
The opportunities back then were far fewer from what they are now. It doesn’t mean that we didn’t have a life out of studies. We did, but it was not well organised into clubs. We would have our hang out sessions in the hostel wings. We would congregate around a newspaper and have these general discussions about life, politics and everything under the sun. Looking back, I didn’t realize the values of these discussions back then, but they taught me how to think coherently, how to communicate and articulate ideas. Those were very useful. I also played sports, especially team sports which helped me learn the value of teamwork. I played hockey and badminton. I didn’t make it to the inter-IITs but I was in the Jamuna hostel team. Though we didn’t have these clubs, we still had fun in our own ways.
What were your actual career plans and how did things turned out to be?
I had no clue what I wanted to do when I graduated. As with many circumstances in life, comes opportunities and direction. You are fortunate If you enjoy both the journey and where it gets. I have been very blessed that way. But I didn’t have any specific idea of where I would be, what I would be doing. Infact I thought I would be in Biomedical Engineering for my post graduation studies because my B Tech project was in the same field. I applied for Biomedical Engineering but was not quite sure as to what future was in this prospect. I also applied to a few universities in Computer Engineering, fortunately I got Princeton. Since, it had computer engineering in a broader perspective, I went for it. Ironically, I reconnected with the Bio medical side while I got to be involved with CCBR IIT Madras. I think the interface between the engineering and science is a big hit area wherein many future advances could be seen.
How does coming back to your alma mater feel?
Coming back obviously feels good. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to be in Chennai frequently in the last 15 to 20 years. I’ve tried to visit Chennai at least once a year mostly in December. Since I am interested in music, it’s a good season to be in Chennai. And I also visit the campus for a few days and connect with old faculty members. Of late my connections to Chennai have become much more involved and serious with CCBR and my visiting faculty position here. It is great since I have so many fond and warm memories of the institute. It felt weird initially because I was so used to being a student here.
Of course, there are certain experiences I cannot relive, like living in the hostels which were some of the most fun days of my life. I mentioned this in my acceptance speech too, I think my batch at IIT was the smartest and the most fun peer group that I have been a part of and I am proud to be a part of that peer group. A lot of those memories come back when I come back to the Institute. There are quite a few moments which really stand out. Two years back I went to play badminton and I was asked a few times if I was a PhD student. I am happy that I can still pass off as a PhD student (laughs). The institute recently is reaching out to alumni and has been very welcoming. That definitely is great. I never felt like I don’t belong here. I feel welcome.
How would you describe yourself when you first joined our campus.
I was a kid, I was the baby of my batch. I was 2 years younger to all my batch mates, I skipped a grades and had double promotions. It has its own benefits. Everyone was bigger, taller and had mustache. I caught up my growth during IIT years. I got away from being ragged as they thought I am somebody’s younger brother, Laughs. Overall, I grew a lot here-both mentally and emotionally.
If you could describe yourself in one word now, what would it be?
It’s really difficult to talk about yourself. I would like to be thought of as probably someone who tries to give his best in whatever he does.
You have been chosen by MIT TR35 for making mobiles secure. How did the idea of making mobiles secure shape in?
I was working for a Japanese company called NEC. NEC in the late 90s was the top semiconductor company in the world, a position now held by Intel. NEC used to make memory chips, before the advent of microprocessors. So, NEC microchips were used in many appliances and mobile phones were one of them. NEC, being a diversified company were also leading phone manufacturers themselves. So they had this unique perspective of having 2 or 3 levels of customer chains within the company so you could talk to your customers, their customers’ customers directly and find out their problems. We were constantly looking for innovations in technology and one of the things we realized was customers were using these phones to download untrustworthy apps , play games but also to carry out sensitive work like exchange information and transfer money. So, very sensitive functions and untrustworthy apps were residing together. This was something which people were concerned about, especially when the first mobile virus was released. So we set out to solve the problem. One thing we recognized looking at the history of security in the PCs and internet, was that software solutions end up in a cat and mouse chase between the attackers and the security providers. We could of course try the same thing with mobile phones but we wanted to try something more bottoms up with phones making them more fundamentally secure. Being a hardware person myself we asked what could be done in building the hardware to make the phones more secure and provide a secure foundation for the software and apps to run. So, we developed a technology to segregate the computing environment, which would guarantee that all the sensitive apps would be secure even if the operating system was compromised. Normally the OS is omnipotent and omniscient, which is also a problem because the os is large and it is difficult to make it free of bugs. So we decided to separate a small set of applications and provide a secure computing environment with a minimal codebase and ensure a strong isolation between the regular OS and applications and the sensitive apps.
You recently mentioned in an interview that, “There is a need to make energy-efficient radical computer systems because of the explosion of big data. Or it will not sustainable.” Are we moving towards that sustainability?
I think it is an open question. If you look at the rate of growth in energy consumption, such as in data centers, it is tremendous. Most of the services we use like Google search, email and YouTube are powered by these data centers. Most end users don’t realize this, but every time we fire a request we are burning a huge amount of energy. In most countries, data centers are the fastest growing energy consumers. Some radical solutions have been proposed like locating data centers near power stations or underwater power stations which will consume less energy due to the free cooling. These will take us a bit closer but fundamentally we have a problem. The semiconductor technology used in transistors was improving by becoming smaller, faster and more power-efficient at the same time. This is known as Moore’s law, which is the doubling of speed and number of transistors at the same time keeping the power consumed under control. But that ended. Transistors can be smaller and faster but not power efficient at the same time. The cost to manufacture a chip of a cutting-edge technology has become higher and higher that only a few products can justify that cost. You wouldn’t be willing to pay several hundred more dollars for your cell phone. Once consumers are used to a certain amount of functionality for a certain price it is very difficult to go the other way around. There are also fundamentals laws of physics which cause a problem. When transistors get a few atoms thick you have all sorts of weird quantum effects coming in. They don’t behave like switches anymore. That’s why the industry moved from clock frequency based performance improvements to multi cores where parallelism is used to improve performance. However, improvements have a limit. In parallel computing, more processors do not mean better performance, things get saturated very quickly. So, the problem is semiconductor technology is not improving, but the demand for computing driven by big data and the necessity to crunch this and do meaningful things is increasing. There is this divergence between the ability of computing and the demand for computing. People are trying out various solutions. It is an interesting time to be in, in terms of computer technology. People are ready to listen to viable ideas and innovations. Innovations always come when there is a risk because if there are risk-free ways to run a company, no company would try to innovate. In a way, people are forced to embrace radical ideas and innovations. So, the question is whether we can deliver the necessary technology to satisfy that growth in demand. But if we are not able to, the answer is simple we will not be able to analyse more data. But the implications are huge, the computer industry won’t be a growth industry anymore and all the benefits that India has enjoyed especially in terms of IT industry will saturate.
How does it feel like being a recognised professor at such a deemed university?
It feels amazing. I am truly privileged to be a part of such a deemed university. Its really good to have a set of group who come through PURE. Talking and interacting with them reconnects me to my own days.
You have been a student and a visiting faculty at Princeton, you are a faculty of Purdue. How are these institutes different from IITs? What should we do to reach their standards?
I will argue that IITs are already pre-eminent and comparable, arguably if not better than these institutions in terms of the standard of undergraduates. If you would allow me to morph the question, IITs are already world-renowned, if you look at the selectivity of students, it is much smaller than Princeton or Harvard. I will say that IITs have already excelled in one dimension. I think what the big opportunity for the IITs is the concept of evolving from an undergraduate institution, an institution of teaching excellence to a research university and I think IITs, especially IIT-M are well on the path towards addressing this challenge. The notion of research universities evolved in many countries because it was felt that the people who are involved in pushing the boundaries of knowledge i.e. people who do cutting edge research should also teach because they can bring the latest innovations and inventions to the classroom and teach it to the students. The gap between what we are taught in the text books and what is happening in the labs is greatly reduced. I think that is starting to happen and IITM is transforming in that area. Right now, the number of graduate students outnumber undergraduates in IIT. I think that’s remarkable when compared to the days I studied here. The idea to attract high quality, top students to do masters and PhD based degrees would be a good step forward. A lot of students are opting to stay back in India. I see that from the other side, the number of students applying to graduate schools is decreasing. That’s already a big step. We are keeping them in the country. If IITs can’t do world-class cutting edge research in India among those who can like IISCs and IISERs, who can? There is no choice for IITs but to evolve and fill this gap. If you look at China, there are papers coming out of them is science, research and all areas. There is no reason this cannot happen in India. I don’t think there is any need to copy any other country. India has unique capabilities and unique needs. But I think this broader concept of research based universities producing top class research is a challenge that IITs and IITM are already starting to address. I am happy to see major strides made in that direction.
Do you see any changes in insti compared to the time you were a student here?
I think there is a lot of energy. I think there are many more things to do like clubs and sports. There’s excitement about entrepreneurship and there are all very positive things. By entrepreneurship, I don’t mean just starting a company its about getting the spirit. I think the students have many more distractions and demands on their time. I am thankful that I was not a student in the age of social media. It is very challenging to manage all these activities. Life was much more simpler for us. We didn’t have these things to do so we would really go in deep of our interest field.
Do you have any advice for students?
I don’t feel I am old enough to advise, but I will take a stand on it. One thing I would say is, whatever you pursue, pursue with passion. Time management is very important. Don’t try to be good at everything. a few people are like that. They don’t need to invest a lot of time. But most people, even the special ones who get into IIT, really can’t be good at too many things. Pick a few activities. It is important to have some activities outside studies, they give you a sense of balance and a perspective in life. I think it is important to be limited in those activities and pursue them with full passion and try to go as deep as possible. I think time management is the key.
There is generally a crowd following attitude. I didn’t deeply think about applying to graduate college. The seniors did so and I thought they would have figured out that this was the ideal way to go for IITians. But I think in today’s economy and scenario there are way more options. You don’t need to take the beaten path. I would advise more IITians to look at alternate paths, starting your own company is one such path, but you should also look at research, not only during your B. Tech or Dual Degrees but also staying back in research. There is a lot of impact you can have and a lot of intellectual satisfaction you get out of pushing the boundaries of knowledge. For the most for your study here, you are just consumers of knowledge, if you go out and work, you are going to apply only a small fraction of that knowledge. But contributing back to the body of knowledge, expanding the boundaries of what is known, that’s a totally different ball game. It is very challenging. It grows your mental abilities in a different way. There is a common perception that research is only for an academic career but that is not true. Most of the top multinational companies employ people in research. You can have an industry career, but research teaches you ways to think of undefined open-ended problems, and ways to deal with them. It gives you a certain skill set which is very useful. Research is a way of thinking, which is very useful in all careers. So, I would encourage IITians to take up research as a career option.
Authors: Renganathan S (BT-CH ’20) & Priyanka Joshi (DD-ED ’21)