Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Pan IIT 2011 Global Conference in New York City

Registering for the Pan IIT 2011 Global Conference in New York City gets you a jute bag with the conference schedule and a bunch of goodies.  One of these goodies is a sticker backed “radiation protector” for use on laptops that will “improve the Pulse rate and other health parameters of users”.  After examining this, I spend a few hours listening to a first rate discussion on education from a well balanced trio of speakers: a business school dean from Harvard, the president of NYU, and Narayana Murthy--the charismatic founder of Infosys.  The first two speak eloquently-- on US education and its global outreach in the changing world, sticking to the high road, often taking philosophical turns, but sidestepping discussion of the commercial forces that can also influence such outreach.  Narayana Murthy, a no-nonsense man, discusses the importance of higher education and research in the IITs, and offers a recipe for bootstrapping the IITs into world class research institutes.  The night closes with dinner and a thumping Bollywood style dance performance, with a moderator who at times describes the dancers as “girls” to a largely middle aged, male crowd.  These three events highlight the discordant bandwidth of this conference, an odd mix of diamonds in a swirl of mud. 

The speaker list was impressive, commandeered by an alumni corps with hefty amounts of influence and wealth.  In the end it was a sober list, including Chuck Schumer and Sam Pitroda, though it appeared at one time to include filmstars and social circuit talking heads, names culled when wiser heads prevailed. The core of the meeting was about business and the art of making money.  The coverage on science and technology was underwhelming, notwithstanding a session on energy that turned out to be soft and inadequate.  This was a pity given the enormous changes that are today imminent in computers, energy, communications, and sensors; and a missed opportunity to resonate with these exciting times.  This was a time to not just make a business case, but to extend the purview to a broader vision that could have been fundamentally and intellectually satisfying. Given the business minded focus of the conference, it was understandable that many IITians—particularly the ones not associated with the business end of things, stayed away.  In the end, the purported theme, “Solutions for a better world”, remained as ill defined and murky as the phrase itself.

It has been pointed out that at times IITians can be preoccupied with their self-importance, this narcissism even progressing to part time mania since CBS’ 60 Minutes featured the IITs in 2003, describing them as “Harvard, MIT and Princeton put together”.  That hubris was certainly on display, on the aisles, and by the captains of industry on the dais, who spoke in absolutes.  Yet, at dinner, there was almost an hour set aside for a humbling set of presentations by alumni from non-governmental organizations who spoke of nurturing the gifted within India’s vast underbelly of poverty, or of bringing solar lanterns to remote villages in India that lacked electrification.   This latter example, described by a charismatic individual, Mr. Yatendra Agrawal of Ecosolutions in Mumbai, opened my eyes to the speed at which technology can propagate today. 

Mr. Agrawal delivers solar lanterns, built in China to a US design, that use gallium nitride white light emitting diodes, a crystalline silicon solar cell and a lithium battery.  The devices deliver state-of-the-art performance and price points.  The lithium iron phosphate batteries were based on a 1996 discovery at the University of Texas—they are a relatively new product even for the western world, yet deployed in parts of the globe that has escaped technology so far. The longer lives of the batteries mean fewer trips to deliver replacements.  It is a textbook example of how quickly technology becomes available across the world today, stimulated by a vast network of criss-crossed, interbred, internationally savvy expertise.

I spoke with Mr. Agrawal in hushed whispers later that evening, while the Bollywood dancers swayed to Sheila ki Jawani.  Even in this dim, pulsating hall where colored spotlights skimmed over the dancers, his enthusiasm was infectious.  I asked whether he feared for his safety when he travelled the remote corners of North-East India, across Assam, often into Arunachal, where insurgency can be an issue, and where I come from.  He waved them off—he had never felt intimidated, and he loved the North-East.  

It was a humbling, context setting experience for someone used to examining these electronic devices in the impersonal settings of a conference room or laboratory--to be made aware of their lifestyle altering influence in tribal villages that were beyond remote, where the smoke and hazards of a hut illuminated by burning pine wood or kerosene could now be eliminated with solar powered lighting.

Humbling further, were the descriptions of bright children born to families below the poverty line, of magnet schools chartered nationwide to identify these kids and offer them a free education, of children of day laborers and farmers who through a network of altruistic support systems successfully competed and enrolled at the IITs. It was unclear how accessible this outreach is today, but it is a step that did not exist when I went to Kharagpur in the early eighties.  Had the playing field been more level at that time, I surely would not have made it through the entrance exams. 

The night wore on, and the dancers expertly brought in the audience that by evening’s end formed an amorphous, swaying mass on the floor.  The halls had thinned, the bars were full at the Hilton, and the drippy rain of Manhattan showed no intention of abatement.  One of the attractions of such alumni meetings is the coterie of old friends that assemble as a result.  It was time to move on with them, get a drink, and catch up.

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