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Convocation Lecture

Full text: Narayana Murthy questions the contribution of IITs and IISc in the last 60 years

Is there one invention, one technology, one idea produced by them that has helped make the society and the world a better place, asks the Chairman Emeritus of Infosys.

The full text of the 2015 Convocation Lecture delivered at the Indian Institute of Science by NR Narayana Murthy, Chairman Emeritus, Infosys Ltd, titled:  How can you, the graduates of IISc, contribute towards a better India and a better world?

Dr Kasturirangan, Prof Rama Rao, Prof Anurag Kumar, my friends – Prof Balaram and Prof Ramasesha – Deans, faculty staff, guests, students, parents of the graduating student and, most Importantly, the graduating students, thank you very much for your kindness in inviting me to be part of this wonderful occasion. I am truly honoured. Congratulations to the graduating students. This is your day and have a great time. Today, I will speak to you about a subject that is very dear to me. That is, how the students and former students of premier higher educational institutions like IISc can play an important role in making India and the world a better place. I will use he to denote both male and female.

Science ls about unravelling nature and engineering is about using those discoveries and inventions to make life better for human beings. IISc ls at the forefront of scientific and engineering research in the country. IISc has produced students who have gone on to earn laurels in the most competitive places in the world. Your research is well cited Therefore, IISc deserves to lead in the transformation of India by using the power of science and engineering.

Ideas and inventions

I was presented a book called – From Ideas to inventions: 101 gifts from MIT to the world – when I was in Cambridge Massachusetts a couple of months ago. This booklet lists the various Inventions that MIT students, alumni, faculty and former faculty have been able to make and transform this world. Let me list out at least 10 major inventions that MIT has created in the last 50 years.

1. Ivan Getting and Brad Parkinson – Global Positioning System
2. Hugh Herr – Bionic Prostheses
3. Robert Noyce – Microchip
4. Ray Tomlinson – E-mail
5. Robert Langer – Slow drug delivery and polymer scaffolds for human tissues
6. Ronald Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adelma  – RSA encryption
7. Ray Kurzweil – Text/Speech Recognition
8. Shiintaro Asano – Fax Machine
9. Andrew Viterbi – Viterbi Algorithm
10. Norbert Weiner – Cybernetics

These are just the 10 I have selected. These invention happened because students and faculty at MIT walked the untrodden path, asked the unasked questions, used their intellectual prowess to take huge leaps, and demonstrate unusual courage to achieve the plausibly-impossible. The story is similar at many other western institutions of higher education. It is appropriate to recall that almost all invention like cars, electric bulb, radio, television, computers, internet Hifi, music players, MRI, ultrasound scanners, refrigerators, lasers, robots and many other gadgets and technology happened, thanks to the research by Western universities. These Inventions have made our lives more comfortable, have given us better health, made our lives more productive and brought us pleasure.

One invention, one technology, one idea...

On the other hand, let us pause and ask what the contributions of Indian institutions of higher learning particularly IISc and IITs, have been over the last 60-plus years to make our society and the world a better place. Is there one invention from India that has become a household name in the globe? Is there one technology that has transformed the productivity of global corporations? Is there one idea that has led to an earth-shaking invention to delight global citizens? Folks, the reality is that there is no such contribution from India in the last 60 years. The only two ideas that have transformed the productivity of global corporations – The Global Delivery Model and The 24-hour workday – came from a company called Infosys.

Yet, let us look at the problems that surround us here in India. We have the largest mass of illiterates in the world. We have the largest number of children with malnutrition. We have the poorest public health service in the world. We have the dirtiest rivers in the world. Our vehicles produce he highest carbon per vehicle in the world. We have the lowest per-capita usable water in the world. Our primary education is one of the lowest quality in the world. I can go on and on. The important thing is to recognise that this country has no shortage of problems to be solved urgently.

What is our hope? Our best hopes are youngsters like you. I do not find any difference in intellect, enthusiasm, energy and confidence between the young students at Western universities and here at IISc. Yet, when our students leave the portals of these institutions, there ls not much impactful work they have accomplished in research here. What is worse is that there ls not much that they accomplish when they go into the real world here in India. This is an issue that the elders of our society – academicians, politicians, bureaucrats and corporate leaders – must debate deeply, and act urgently if we have to leave a better world for our children and grandchildren.

Recreate the magic

This issue has not received the attention of our Prime Ministers since the time of Nehru. During his visit to the US in 1962, he exhorted the about-to-finish PhDs to come back to India and play a major role in creating an India that the rounding fathers of this nation wanted – an India where the poorest child in the remotest village had access to decent education, healthcare, nutrition, and shelter. The result: Green revolution, white revolution, advances in atomic energy and the space program. Folks, we have to recreate the magic of the sixties

How do we recreate that magic? For that we have to recreate an environment of utmost respect for scholarship and for our Directors and faculty in the corridors of the government among bureaucrats, politicians and in our society. We have to become more open-minded in welcoming foreign intellectuals and students. We have to create opportunities for our students and faculty to spend time at well-known universities abroad. There must be free flow of ideas between our intellectuals and foreign scholars. The younger faculty must have full freedom to pursue their line of research without any hindrance.

No higher educational institution can succeed unless it has good focus on research. Research thrives in an environment of curiosity, daring, teamwork and a desire to solve problem around us. Ability to define problems independently by students is an important input. It is a good idea to expose our undergraduates to research. Interactions and benchmarking with global researchers, and attending and holding international conferences would enhance the research mindset.

Next, let me come to what you, the passing out students, can do to enhance the glory of IISc, become useful engineers and scientists, and make this a better country.

The first requirement is to develop an independent, inquisitive and problem solving mindset. Such minds create new ideas. Focus on learning concepts. What is learning? To me, it is the ability to extract generic inferences from specific instances, and use them to solve new and unstructured problems. After all, education is about learning to learn. You have to relate the concepts you learn in the class to understand Ideas, real life events and phenomena around you. Remember that every new problem you solve independently is a small, new discovery for you. They enhance your confidence to solve bigger problems.

Second, democratisation of education is a necessary step in development and I congratulate IISc on its commitment to it. However, it is important that IISc does not lose the interest and zeal of the top ranking students in each class. Many US universities have a good system of doing this. For example in such places, the top 10% to 15% students in Compute Science are allowed to take the Honours version of basic subjects like Operating Systems, Algorithms and Data structures, Automata Theory, Databases and AI. About two to three times the syllabus of the normal version is covered in the class in the Honour versions and the examinations are set at a very high standard.

You should continue the habit of reading technical books and journals even after your graduation. I have created a library of books like George Polya's How To Solve It, VJ Arnold's Mathematical Understanding of Nature: Essay on Amazing Physical Phenomena and Their Understanding by Mathematicians, the three volumes of Feynman, and Donald Knuth's four volumes on Programming. Please create a library, read at least a few pages every day, conduct thought experiments, and apply that learning to solve problem around you.

While examinations are important to benchmark your level of understanding of a subject, extreme focus on examination tends to reduce the deeper and long-term benefits of any earning. In my interactions with youngsters In India, I have noticed that they tend to forget even basics of any subject once the examinations are over. Basic concepts will have to stay with you throughout your life. You should apply them as often as you can, update them with contemporary advances, and use them in your work to understand new ideas and solve new problems.

Any worthwhile contribution to the nation is only possible if you combine your competence with professionalism. A professional is one who is dedicated to his or her profession and lives by its rules and ethics. He does not let personal relations interfere with his professional dealings. He is fair and is unbiased. He makes objective decisions based on the analysis of data. Everyone in the organisation, no matte how high or low in the hierarchy, is confident and enthusiastic in dealing with him, He works hard and makes all sacrifice necessary to make the lives of the next generation of the society better.

He has high aspirations. He believes in the adage: A plausible impossibility is better than a convincing possibility. His most powerful resources are his intellect, his knowledge and his value system. He keeps his intellect sharp, constantly acquires new knowledge and conforms to his value system.

While he excels as an individual, he also works in full synergy with his team. To me, the best example of teamwork is a symphony orchestra where several accomplished musician work in harmony under the direction of the conductor to produce divine music. This is particularly crucial in today's world where large, complex projects have to be executed through outstanding teamwork.

Just remember that every one of you can be successful. Success is the ability to bring smile on to the face of people when you enter a room. People smile not because you are intelligent, powerful or wealthy but because you care for them and you will use all of your competencies to make their lives better.

Have fun and be happy because only a happy mind can make a positive contribution to the society.

Finally, lead a life that your great alma mater will be proud of. Please show gratitude to your parents and your teacher who have carried you on their shoulders and brought you this far. God bless you all.

Thank you.

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