Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Note on Prof R Narasimhan

Dipti Agarwal of EE Times (i. e. Electronic Engineering Times) had contacted me in Oct 07 for information and comments for an article she wanted to write on Prof R Narasimhan. The material below is what I sent her.

What had inspired Prof Narasimhan

Clearly, Homi Bhabha must have played a major role in persuading Narasimhan to return to India and to think big. Dr Bhabha was the Director, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), when he recruited Prof R Narasimhan (RN). RN would have been deeply interested in digital computers much before he returned to India in the late fifties. He had the right mix of electronics and mathematics backgrounds to realize the tremendous potential of this field.

RN met what I think must have been the full expectations of Dr Bhabha. The award of a “Padma Shri” to RN decades later signified national recognition of his contributions.

His works and achievements

A small number of engineers in every generation stand out because their interest and knowledge goes well beyond their own discipline. RN was deeply interested in pattern recognition, cognitive psychology, language behavior, hardware and software at a time when the word "software" was essentially unheard of. Apart from being the architect of one of world's earliest electronic digital computers, RN made several other contributions.

He was a pioneer in pattern recognition, dealing with visual perception; his paper on syntactic pattern recognition was a seminal one, showing how the regularities of structure that show up in the visual world could be used to create visual perception in a computer.

He was a pioneer not only in building a computer; he was a good observer of international developments and brought first class technology from the more advanced countries to India at a very early stage of India's entry into the computer world. Two major computers he imported served not only TIFR, but were used by scientists from over 200 institutions of higher learning and research from all over India. As a planner and administrator, he ran a project assisted by the United Nations Development Programme in an exemplary manner. This project, named the National Center for Software Development and Computing Techniques (NCSDCT), was aimed at serving the country in a variety of ways and was not limited to computer use for pure research. The project shared its know-how and resources with all groups in the country who were in the field, set an example of how national resources ought to be utilized.

He was the founding Chairman of the CMC Ltd, which he and Dr PP Gupta, the founding MD, developed into the finest technology company in the public sector. He was very much interested in national development and had a vision of what scientific Labs could do for it. He contributed to national policy making as an informal advisor to Prof MGK Menon who was the Chairman of the Electronics Commission at that time.

He was also the founding Chairman of the Computer Society of India. He was always willing to travel to be a Ph D examiner at institutes/universities and to encourage the computer scientists there in their research.

The machine he and his team built - TIFRAC

The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Automatic Computer (TIFRAC) was a digital computer using 2,700 vacuum tubes, mostly double triodes. It also used 1,700 “crystal” diodes! It provided for a working memory of 1024 locations, equivalent to what we now call 5 Kilobytes, and used 5-hole punched paper tape for I/O and a Teletype for printing. The power consumption was 18 Kilo Watts. It had a ferrite core working memory, which was very much a state-of-the-art memory in those early days of the technology. This memory was designed and built by hand at the TIFR. Prof PVS Rao who was doing a Ph D at that time, developing a CRT based terminal as an interactive device, was a member in the team that designed a fast adder. RN’s team later added India's first computer programmer, Kamlakar Kane, who designed and implemented an assembler that allowed programmers to use double operand instructions. This shows how the value of software was appreciated at such an early period.

His influence on my work

I came on the scene only in 1964 as a student of PVS Rao, when RN was abroad on a sabbatical at the University of Illinois. He returned in 1965 and it was very easy to identify a common interest with him – the possibility of natural language understanding and “intelligent” problem solving by computers. RN guided my work for a Ph D. Then I went to the Carnegie-Mellon University for two years, where I caught the computer network bug! The next fifteen years of my life went mostly into what I recognized as a valuable technology for India, computer networks. With colleagues like Sadanandan, Kesav Nori, Mudur and (Ms) Joglekar, I started working to create what was probably India’s first Post-Graduate Diploma Course in Software Technology. This was a big success, as twenty bright people competed for every seat we could offer. Later, with Narasimhan’s guidance, I worked with Sadanandan and Mudur to set up the National Centre for Software Technology (NCST) that became a reality in 1984/85. I was the founding director. The most satisfying work at NCST I did was to lead an effort to create an academic (computer) network for India. This project, named ERNET, brought Internet technology into India. NCST’s team, working with similar teams at the IITs and IISc, became the first ISP in 1988.

Opportunities and Challenges

Doing applied research at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research was a very challenging experience for RN, and of course, for me. We realized the great practical value of the technology we were dealing with. We were also highly stimulated and excited by the atmosphere of fundamental research at the institute. It was a rare learning experience that lasted two and a half decades for me, and the whole of his professional life for Narasimhan. There are only a few places on earth that give such a heady mixture of experiences. However, life was a bit complicated as we were “outsiders” to some extent in an institute that was primarily a fundamental research institute.

Changes in the Indian economy impacting our work

The years at TIFR I had seen (1964-1985) were years in which country was very short of foreign exchange, and self-reliance was a necessity. Import of computers was tightly controlled.

RN saw some of the inevitable changes coming, much before many others. He was the first person I know of who talked about the significance of the post-industrial revolution for a developing country like India. He gave a computer society talk, starting with a reference to Daniel Bell’s book on the post-industrial revolution, and went on to predict the rapid rise of the service sector in India. There was no sign of the explosive growth of the service sector in India at that time; this growth came in the decades that followed his talk. His vision was that of a growing service sector meeting the needs of the Indian domestic economy.

National policies started changing after 1985. The first impact on us was the tremendous demand for well-educated software professionals from the public and private sectors. This made our part-time post-graduate course a very highly valued one.

Later, imports became much easier, and nation-wide enterprises like financial institutions and petroleum companies needed computer networks designed and created for them. I was a consultant to many of them. We recognized the fact scientific progress does not alone grow an electronic or computer industry. It is the widespread use of a new technology all over the economy that enables the meteoric rise of a technology, by unleashing economic forces driving R & D and the use of the technology in industry and in the service sector.

RN was a very private person

RN seems to have been acutely embarrassed once by his pioneering team. On some occasion - it might have been one of his birthdays - the team had festooned the whole working area with colored paper streamers and balloons. Unfortunately, I was not there to watch it, but the team members chuckled over it for at least a decade. He seems to have systematically removed every bit of the stuff personally!

His other interests

Wide reading on a variety of subjects and mentoring people were what he enjoyed doing the most. In the sixties I had heard that he enjoyed Jazz music, but never heard of anything else. I have seen him enjoying carnatic music concerts that he organized during our international workshops/seminars.

His monastery

He was not religious; nor am I. Once I shared a thought with him, wondering why there should not be ashrams for scientifically minded people. We have as much a right to a good ashram as any religious person! He asked me “Don’t you think that Labs like this are our monasteries?” I was touched; he was so right.

Srinivasan Ramani Oct 24, 2007


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