iMahal Interview Series:
M. Vidyasagar
May 19, 2000

iMahal: Professor Vidyasagar, we are interested in your views on many topics but the primary purpose of this discussion with you is college education in the USA and India. We would also like to discuss your views on the opportunities for engineering graduates. We would certainly enjoy any personal stories and anecdotes that would illustrate your comments. Please include any advice that you feel might be useful to our audience.
Sagar: Please call me Sagar. I would like this to be as informal an interview as possible. I will try to answer your questions as candidly as "netiquette" would permit :-)

iMahal: Thanks Sagar. Tell us about your current position and what it entails, including but not limited to, research, and administration and consulting.
Sagar: A few weeks ago, I joined Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) as Executive Vice President (Advanced Technology). I might mention that TCS is Asia's largest Information and consultancy company, with nearly 14,000 engineers and consultants. The Chairman of TCS is Mr. Ratan Tata, and the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is Mr. S. Ramadorai. Under Mr. Ramadorai there are five EVP's, including myself. I feel privileged to step directly into such a senior position in India's largest and most profitable IT company. I will be working out of India's most "happening" city for IT, namely Hyderabad. My charter is to work in a dual mode. In the short-term, I will put together a team to address network security issues, which are of great importance in this era of e-commerce where web-enabled applications are the norm. My group will not only develop original solutions but also offer consultancy in all aspects of security. In about six months' time, I hope to begin assembling a team of highly-qualified professionals to carry out applied research and development in frontier areas of relevance to IT. To quote just one example, I am looking for persons to work in biometrics, which will increasingly replace traditional methods of identification such as passwords, and perhaps even digital certificates! Since I succeeded in nurturing a very well-known group of researchers in my previous job (see below) in spite of the constraints of working within the government, I feel confident that I can repeat my success in TCS. If any readers of iMahal want to join me, they are welcome!

iMahal: We hope that TCS has given you enough spare time to screen applicants for the positions you just advertised. With a pitch like that, please do not be surprised if you are innundated with resumes. It is interesting that you invite people joining you on this forum - education and careers are the two primary focus areas of iMahal. But enough self advertising on our part. You mentioned working for government, how long and in what capacity did you work for the Indian government?
Sagar: Between 1989 and April 2000, I was the Director of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR), which is a laboratory under the auspices of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Ministry of Defence, Government of India. In this capacity, I was overseeing the work of about 50 scientists plus 10 Technicians, and 25 administrative staff, or about 80 persons in all. The activities of CAIR are divided into five groups, namely (in alphabetical order):

  • Control Systems: Mainly work on the control of India's own Light Combat Aircraft (LCA).
  • Networks: Secure networking, including the design of firewalls, software for encrypted communication, secure fax, secure web access, packet-level encryption, etc.
  • Neural Networks: Foundational work on PAC learning theory, automatic feature selection, automatic rule extraction, and applications to scene matching, and ICR (Intelligent Character Recognition).
  • Robotics: Building customized robotic systems for industrial applications, including hazardous and high-precision tasks; societally relevant applications such as building low-cost robots for educational institutions, low-cost motorized wheelchairs for handicapped persons, etc.
  • Vision: All the standard vision application such as stereo vision, shape from shading, and so on; state of the art work in the emerging area of Virtual Reality (VR).
As Director of CAIR I was designated as "Distinguished Scientist" in DRDO parlance, and in the Government of India parlance it would be called "Special Secretary."

iMahal: This must have meant a good deal of involvement with ministry wide meetings. What were some of those committees and meetings in which you were involved?
Sagar: Because of my research record, I have been involved in several high-level committees appointed by the Government of India. I will mention only a few to give the flavour of what I did for Indian society outside DRDO.

I have been a member of the Science and Engineering Research Council, Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India since 1991. The DST is the main funding agency for academic researchers in India, comparable to the National Science Foundation in the U.S.A. SERC is the apex body of DST that makes policies and approves major project proposals. The members of SERC (roughly 15 in number) are appointed by the Prime Minister of India for a three-year term. Right now I am on my third term as a member of SERC. This in itself is quite unprecedented, as two terms are the usual maximum.

During 1995-1998, I was a member of the Governing Body, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). CSIR is the largest chain of publicly funded R&D laboratories in the world, with roughly 4,000 scientists employed in roughly 40 laboratories. The Governing Body of CSIR is chaired by the Prime Minister of India, and the Minister for Science & Technology is the Vice-Chair. Leaving aside ex-officio members, there are only five scientists appointed by the Prime Minister as members of the Governing Body for a three-year term. I was one of the five scientists between 1995 and 1998.

I was also the chairman of the Internet Security Committee (Inter-Ministerial) Until 1998, Internet connectivity was the monopoly of the government-owned telephone company VSNL (Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited). This monopoly played a major role in restricting the growth of the Internet in India. In view of this, the Government of India took an important policy decision in September 1998, namely that private Internet Service Providers (ISP's) would be able to set up their own Internet gateways, bypassing VSNL. A select inter-ministerial committee of about nine persons was set up to look into the security-related aspects of this liberalized policy, and I was the Chairman of this committee. In due course of time, the committee gave its unanimous report, and more than 50 private ISP's have now been given permission to set up their own gateways.

iMahal: Kudos to your committee for taking this giant step - I must say that it does affect iMahal's growth plans in India in a positive way. What has been the impact of this decision on the Internet front in India?
Sagar: Nothing short of astounding! The Internet connectivity of India has been growing by leaps and bounds. When the Government accepted our recommendation and implemented the new policy, the bandwidth was about 32 Mbps (for all of India!). Today VSNL has upgraded its own bandwidth to about 130 Mbps and plans to increase it to 500 Mbps in another six months. If all the proposed gateways of the private ISP's come into being, the total Internet access bandwidth of India will be over 3 Gbps in another six months' time, or a hundred-fold increase in just two years. The number if Internet users in India increased from 50,000 eighteen months ago to 1 million today, and I fully expect that it will increase to 10 million in another twelve to eighteen months. I can take satisfaction that I played a small role in fostering the spread of the Internet in India.



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