Life Deals a Set of Cards and You Have to Decide How to Play

Dr. Srinivasan Ramani, Research Director, HP Labs India, located in Bangalore.

It’s been 25 years since India connected to the Internet. It is therefore apt to be speaking with the person who propelled the engine which eventually brought Internet connectivity to India and foresaw revolutions in data communications that would change the lives of the Indian industry, as well as the common man. He was a pioneer who foresaw the utility of satellite communications, especially the LEO Satcom, in connecting the remote parts of a developing country. Within a decade of his visionary paper, he saw his ideas being implemented. He later worked with ISRO, helping them build a data communication infrastructure into their APPLE satellite. He also planned and oversaw the rollout of the first countrywide data network, based on TCP/IP, which connected to the Internet and put India on the digital world map.

Well, dear readers, we are talking about Dr. Srinivasan Ramani – the only Indian who has been inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame by the Internet Society. Dr. Ramani also started the first ever post-graduate computer science course for young engineers to skill up on the much-required software. Excerpts of an interview by Prashanth Hebbar.

Dr. Ramani: Perhaps to give me more credit, you said that I was the person who made it all happen. I disagree with that. Nothing is ever done by one person. I look upon life as a series of revolutions. In 1947, when India became independent, people’s life expectancy was wanting. They did not live beyond approximately 45 years or so; life was very short. But then, the good revolution, that is the health revolution, occurred in India. Now, we live about double the time of what we used to live in the old days. Green Revolution, White Revolution, we have seen so many. Without some of them, we would not be alive today. The Internet Revolution was also one of them.

The communications revolution I should say. It is not just the Internet, but also the fiber optic cables and the satellites. Technology for the telephone exchanges. Every one of them has been a revolution. Young engineers today are enjoying the solar power revolution. And we will very soon enjoy the electric car revolution. Now if you look at any one these revolutions, probably tens of thousands of engineers have worked on each one of them.

So, I should say that the telecom revolution without the fiber optics would not be here today. The Internet would not be what it is. Satellites were great, but the fiber optics give you a bandwidth which is far more amazing as compared to the satellites. So lots of things have happened. And in my work, I was just one of the 8 coordinators from 8 institutions. In the 1980s, there was the Department of Electronics and the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, the IITs, IISc, TIFR and my institute which was the National Center for Software Technology. Now we are part of CDAC (Center for Development of Advanced Computing).In all these eight institutions, there were coordinators. I was one of them.

We had an advantage. We belonged to Computer Science Departments which had been around 10 years before the Internet revolution came, so we had the right computer and the right software in the most important city of [Bombay] Mumbai. The City of [Bombay] Mumbai had excellent connectivity with the world, so we could connect with others easily. There are hundreds of people who shared all this work with me. Therefore, let me be modest. I’m not the one who made it all happen. We enjoyed the benefit of working with 100 colleagues, about 10 colleagues in my institution, and about 100 colleagues in all the 80s, and so that is the whole story.

PH: Wonderful! It’s always nice to be corrected by you. So thank you. Let us go down memory lane and look at your early days. I have read that you loved tinkering with electronics as a school student. Can you take us back and tell us about the kind of times and what was it like in Chennai back then as a school student and doing these things?

Dr. Ramani: Yes, that’s great for me personally. But it also gives you a glimpse of the times then. I passed out of SSE in 1954. By the time I got involved with Electronics, it was probably 1951 and I was in the 8th or 9th standard. There was a friend of mine called Mahadevan. He and I had a fascination for Electronics. Mahadevan introduced me to the World Book shops where we could buy magazines for Rs 8. I could buy a copy of the scientific magazine Popular Science. We used to buy Popular Science issues and learn how to build a crystal radio and go to the boat market and buy a pair of headphones for Rs 5 – Second World War surplus phones, crystals and all that. I think I bought the crystal diodes, Germanium and crystals. So, for five or six rupees we would build ourselves a radio. And then we got ambitious and set up a radio. Our radio would receive very weak signals, so we could only listen to Radio Ceylon. Then in those days for Rs 6 we bought an NIC valve and built a radio. It was great fun.

PH: Did you always think that you would get into Electronics Engineering? Or that you would get into software? In those days, nobody could even imagine software or computers. So what was your thought process like when you were getting into engineering?

Dr. Ramani: I think I was fortunate enough to recognize that life is very uncertain. What you want to do in life and what you end up doing, are quite different. Therefore, I decided very early that I could not afford to freeze myself into one thought. Like for instance, when I went to the engineering college, they told me that I could not do Electronics because it was not available in the college. Electronics was available only in Chennai. I was studying in Coimbatore, so my college told me that I had to do electrical engineering. That I would never be without a job if I did. The electricity board would always have a job for me and if I wanted, I could study Electronics for my post-graduation.

In those days, my sister was told that girls were not eligible for studying science. There was a woman’s college. The seats there had to be filled up first, so she had to study there – any subject that she could. She did exactly that – she studied Home Science. She later got to enjoy the subject and became a professor of Nutrition. But the fact that your college was telling you that you could not study what you liked? Particularly because you were a woman and had to study in a women’s college! It was shocking! However, the new education policy talks about freedom for the student and that is a big and welcome change.

What I realized while studying, was that I enjoyed learning about technology, particularly the cutting edge of technology. I was interested in Astronomy, Space Science, inter-planetary travel and all kinds of things like that. Computers were hard and there were no books available. My college library did not have a computer book. My friend, Rajgopal, borrowed one from the British Council Library. The British Council Library had one book on computers and you were not supposed to take it out of town. He brought the book, read it and then lent it to me to read. That is how we got into computers. And as a matter of fact, it is the electrical engineering background that made it easier for me to do the Internet related work. And when I completed my studies, I said I will either work with computers or I will join ISRO and  work with space technology or aeronautics. So, I had options of two or three things which I was keen on doing.

I’m mentioning this specially to bring out the fact that one has to be flexible in life. Life deals you cards and it’s not for you to choose what kind of cards are dealt to you; you play with what you get. How you play is what matters. I was prepared to deal with the cards that life was dealing me. For instance, I went to [Bombay] Mumbai because I wanted to do my Masters in Electronics. The Registrar said, ‘Sorry, you cannot sit for the test for Electronics because you have done only one paper in Electronics for graduation.’ I didn’t know what to do. I said, ”Please allow me to go to the committee and I will ask them for permission.” I went to the committee. The committee said, ”But you have done very little electronics,” and I said, ”Sir, ask me questions in Electronics. If I answer them well, you must give me a chance to study the subject.”

The committee actually was an Electrical Engineering Committee, but it consisted of very broad-minded people. Professor Bedford, who was the chairman, said it was okay and wanted to test me in Electronics. He asked me a few questions and I answered them. Then he said OK and he went to the electronics committee. He told them, ”This guy doesn’t want to study with us. You check him out in Electronics,” This is how I got a chance. You never know what happens in life. The committee of Electronics found me suitable for the department. They gave me admission. Such was life. It is nice to remember those days now.

PH: So, if you had not thought of meeting with the committee, you probably wouldn’t have done Electronics, right? And there is something about the younger generation that they don’t come up and ask questions. They don’t go beyond what has been set as the rule book. Is that something that you’re seeing more and more?

Dr. Ramani: In answer to your first question, it didn’t require too much [courage] because I had nothing to lose. You want Electronics and you tell them.

Dr Ramani with Aloknath De, CTO, Samsung India

Coming to your second question, no, I won’t blame the younger generation. The truth is, it is the job of a teacher. The most important thing in education is making learning fun. I don’t think anything else is more important than that. I am 81 years old and why am I learning things and teaching myself something? Because the biggest pleasure in life is learning. Learn. Enjoy. That is what matters. Getting an award is not important. What is important is that you look forward to learning something throughout your life that you are able to enjoy. I think it is the job of the teacher to instil this culture in us. I’ve been fortunate in having great teachers all my life.

PH: You are a teacher yourself too, we will come to that a little later. So, you did your Masters in Electronics. How did you land up learning computers in those times?

Dr. Ramani: You might give me credit for being a bit bored. In my student years I had a peculiar habit. The first summer in my engineering college, I did not want to waste my time, so I wanted to take up an internship. In those days nobody talked about internships. I went to Oliver Trent asking voluntarily if could work somewhere, do something, learn something? I went to PSG Industries in Coimbatore and learnt very interesting things. The first week I spent learning painting. I think their primary product was water pumps and I spent one week painting water pumps. In the next holidays, I wanted to work in an army workshop. I managed to get into the Army base workshop in Bangalore. There I learnt driving. Once I went to [Bombay] Mumbai and I went around to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research which had India’s first computer. I went there and asked if I could work there in the summer as an intern. They said I was welcome and I started working there, building an electronic device. And really, the device was useful and it worked and then it went places. So, it was a great pleasure for me to learn about computers.

There was a gentleman called Mr. Connie, who taught me some programming. I learned a little from him. That’s how I got into computers and learnt programming. I did my academic project in their lab. I could use as many transistors as I wanted to build devices. They had plenty and were glad I used them. Eventually, TIFR offered me a job.

PH: How did you get interested in data communication? Where did that come from?

Dr. Ramani: The Popular Science that I was reading, taught me not only how to build radio receivers, it also taught me how to build a radio transmitter. I never built a radio transmitter, but the dream was always to build one and be an amateur radio operator. The whole idea was exciting. Amateur radio was the classical thing that took a technology and some imagination and put them together and gave people strange, exciting experiences. I’m going to tell you about the experience of a friend of mine, older than me and a very well-known electronics entrepreneur in India.

Colonel B. K. Rai one day came to the National Center for Software Technology where we were setting up the Internet. And he came as a member of a committee to review our work. I had set up an arrangement whereby an Indian student in the United States would be available on the Internet to talk on the terminal, doing what we call chat nowadays. So this guy was waiting, sitting up awake at 2 a.m. so that he could talk to the committee member who was going to review our work. I told the Colonel that this guy in New Jersey was going to talk to him and started typing. He saw that and put his hand on my shoulder. He said, ”I know how you feel.” Then he told me his story.

He had studied at Benaras Hindu University as a student. And he was a radio enthusiast. He had built a radio transmitter. In his dormitory there was no table. The radio transmitter was sitting on the floor next to his bed and he would sit on his bed and talk to other people elsewhere in the world. One day he connected with this guy called Louis and he said, ”Louis, your signal strength is much higher. How did that happen? Did you get a new transmitter?”And Louis replied, ”No, I have moved to Delhi. I used to be in Colombo.” Delhi is much closer to Banaras. So the Colonel said, ”You are in Delhi? It will be nice if we can meet sometime.” Louis said, ”Yes, I’m going to come to Banaras next month and I will drop in. I would like to see you and show you my transmitter. You can build one for yourself.” The Colonel said he would wait for that day to come.

Then, suddenly about 10 days before the event of Louis’s arrival, all hell broke loose. The Principal’s Office summoned him. ”What have you been doing? You have a radio transmitter in your room.” The Colonel acknowledged that he indeed had one. He was told that  a gentleman was waiting for him and he was the commissioner of the city. ”Your bedroom is not the right place for the transmitter. Bring it to the Physics lab,” he was told. The Colonel slowly came to understand that their visitor was actually Lord Louis Mountbatten.

You know they say that on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. You can be anybody, whatever. All are equal. So it was in amateur radio.

That is the kind of excitement that amateur radio gave us. When computers made it possible to talk, you know, in the amateur radio days, there must have been a 100 devices in India. I am particularly talking about the British rule days. Not too many people would have had an amateur radio license. But today on the Internet, all of us are chatting or emailing each other. So it was a very smooth transition from excitement with amateur radio to excitement with telecommunications.

PH: How were your early days in TIFR?

Dr. Ramani: It was 1963 when I went as a student intern. One year later, I joined as a employee, a research assistant. I had big dreams. The dream was about artificial intelligence. I was mostly interested in questions like: How do you understand language? How do you think? How do you solve problems? I was also very interested in how we learn and so on. I wanted to pursue this field. I found the professor in artificial intelligence, Professor R. Narasimhan. He was RN for all of us. He was India’s first student of artificial intelligence. He went to the University of Illinois in the U.S. and came back in 1965 and built India’s first digital computer.

Now, one should look at the value system of these people. RN built this computer to learn about them, but more so because he wanted hundreds of people to learn about computers and use it in designing buildings, bridges, analyzing their structure and the like. Soon the TIFRAC (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Automatic Calculator) became a buzzing computer utility center open to all.

RN heard that I would like to do what he was learning– Artificial Intelligence.He enrolled me as his Ph.D. student and I loved the entire experience. In 1969, I finished my Ph.D. and I was sent to Carnegie Mellon University, as the tradition then was to do a Post Doc. research in a lab of choice. I chose Carnegie Mellon because it had one of the world’s leading and legendary researchers in Artificial Intelligence at that time –Allan Newell. I was fortunate to work with him. Coincidentally, Allan Newell was interested in problem solving – general problem solving. He looked at questions like: How do people think about problems? How do they solve the problems? He was doing fundamental research in that area.

As an engineer, my job was to do things that are useful to people, right? And I enjoyed learning about intelligence, the mystery of how we think and how we learn. Here I was at a leading Artificial Intelligence lab in the world, at a time when back home there were people who couldn’t even have their daily roti. So, I thought it was time for me to give back to society and decided to work in the field of applying Artificial Intelligence to education.

But there was a problem. The problem was that the fundamental research in Artificial Intelligence going on at that time was to lay the foundation from great advances but it was moving rather slowly. I was a bit worried. It might be 30 years before I was able to do something useful with AI.

A big discovery was the ARPANET (precursor to Internet). In Carnegie Mellon, from the first day, all of us sat at the terminal and typed away on the computer. One of the great applications was to ask somebody for a paper of theirs. You sent an email saying could I have a reprint of your paper and through the ARPA it would come in a single day. So, there was a new form of communication – email. I got to know a lot of researchers around the US from whom I could ask for a copy of their paper.

Being an electrical engineer, I looked at the electrical engineering part of the networking. I could understand it. I could build it. And I thought maybe when I go back [to India], though I will primarily work in the area of Artificial Intelligence, I may also build a computer network.

I was torn between the two subjects. Was it right for me to get excited about two different things? I didn’t know and I didn’t worry. There was nothing like ‘right’ back then. So I was introduced to the passions of my life: computer networks, applications of Artificial Intelligence and education. In general, use of technology in education and most importantly, trying to communicate to students the pleasure of learning and having fun.

PH: When you went there and started learning about AI, you had scholars like Allan Newall, Marvin Minsky and others. It was more predicate logic based, whereas today’s AI has more of a statistical approach. Where do you think this is headed?

Dr. Ramani: I would like to defend Artificial Intelligence, the AI researchers and what they’re doing today. About 10 years ago, I was visiting a university in India and asked, ”Who is the faculty member who works with AI?” And my friend told me, ”Nobody. AI is not popular. No student wants to take it. No professor wants to teach it.” However, in the last decade or so there have been so many advances in the field like face recognition, speech recognition and so on.

The original students of AI are most excited about the fundamental questions: How do we understand? How do we solve problems? How do we pick up language skills? I will tell you what the progress is in understanding language today, even though I’m very excited about the more fundamental things.

I write three blogs, one of them is in Hindi. It is about school science, technology and Mathematics in Hindi and STEM subjects in Hindi. One bad thing in India is people like you and me do not talk in Hindi or our local languages when we talk on social media, YouTube or any public channels. Not on these subjects. Whereas 85% of Indians read and speak in their mother tongue. How can we then abandon our mother tongue when it comes to STEM subjects?

I could have written in any other language or my own mother tongue which is Tamil. I chose Hindi because that’s the language most widely understood, spoken and read in India. But I do not know Hindi that well. So, I started writing in English and used Google Translate to translate it to Hindi. I then sat with the Hindi text and made corrections. I requested one of my colleagues who used to write my speeches in Hindi while I was in NCST, to check the final Hindi version, to ensure that I had not made mistakes. I read the Hindi text and if I felt that some changes were required, then I made the changes in English and converted it to Hindi. I repeated this until it sounded right to me. Then my colleague stepped in.

Why am I saying this? Because this pushed me into learning Hindi in a more serious way. I realized that to acquire a good vocabulary in Hindi, I had to read Hindi books. While reading was difficult, technology came to my rescue. If I didn’t understand a word, I selected the word on my Kindle and I got the translation. I could copy and paste the translation in Google Translate and got to see what Kindle interpreted the word as and how Google saw the same word. I was now using one technology for the other ‘s implementation, when all along I was the one who was learning.

And then I used Input Tools to write Hindi. I got to type in Roman letters and it would transcribe that very smoothly into Hindi words. Or I could go to the inscript keyboard and type in Hindi script and so on. Would you call it AI?

If I wanted something and said, “Hey, Siri.” The device assistant in my phone answered. “Can you find a translation?“I asked. Siri came back to say, ”I found this on the Web,” and so on. Would you call that Artificial Intelligence? Actually AI has this problem where if you can do something, then it’s not Intelligence.

Today, we have done a fair amount of work in AI. The fact that the cellphone can understand my voice, can help me and can use the Internet to get me answers or point out where to search on the Internet – are all advances. But you may say that though there is deeper fundamental advance, where is the theory of problem solving? Don’t worry, we’re making progress. It won’t be very long before we do that among the many revolutions we are enjoying.

PH: I’m starting to appreciate your line of thought. And how you got from A to B to C in your journey. Can you tell us how you got into data communication?

Dr. Ramani: I came back to India in 1973 and my computer group was expanding rapidly. Professor M.G.K. Menon had laid the foundation for further development of the group. He wanted to create a national center for software technology. ”I want the group to grow into a National Center and one day that group will become an institute of its own,” he said. That was his vision. When I came back, there was a brand new USD 2,000,000 computer. I had seen it in the U.S. and now it was here and we were supposed to work on software. Prof. Menon had understood that software was going to become a very important technology. And so there was a group dealing with software. As a researcher coming back, I said I would like to work with communication software and create software for Indian-made computers and build a computer network. So we did all this.

PH: Did you ever think that you would get involved in building ARPA kind of networks?

Dr. Ramani:I knew I wanted to work with networks; exactly in what formal way I would be able to contribute, was not clear. So, it was one of the dreams to work with computer networks. There were exciting things happening in the world around us. One of them was the notion of Open Access. Open software and public domain software. And there were some people who have encouraged it a lot, like the Americans. The Americans got a lot out of public domain software. The University of California, particularly, was involved in this activity. They had Berkeley Unix, the public domain version of Unix software. In those days, Operating Systems were very expensive. I remember an Operating System for which we received a quote at the time for USD 600,000. And we couldn’t afford it, but the University of California was playing a different game. They were giving away their Unix software free. This version of Unix had been paid for by the U.S. government and was built by university students. The American law has a very interesting principle. When the U.S. government pays for research and a U.S. university develops it, the work is in the public domain. And if you put it in the public domain, it is available very cheap. It is also available under American law to anybody in the world. So we wanted to play with Unix. I asked how much it would cost me to get a copy. It was available for a princely sum of under USD 10 excluding shipping.

That’s how we got ourselves BSD Unix and started running it on our new computer. It had the complete version of ARPA network. We had the source code(not just the running code), so we could recompile it and run it on our computer. We could make whatever changes we wanted. We got into communication software of the variety that the Internet used, which is TCP IP software at almost zero cost. I was working with Unix and realized that we were already at an advantageous position as we had all this technology under our belt; we had understood, learned and used it. We had India’s biggest computer which was running Unix.

In hindsight, by the time we wrote our proposal in 1983 to the government to build an India network which connects to the world, we already had 10 years of experience with building networks.

PH: You designed what can be called the first professional course for software developers way back in 1970s. Can you tell us something about it?

Dr. Ramani: Our group which became the National Center for Software Technology, did many things, like starting software education in a big way. We offered a post graduate developer course, probably the first postgraduate diploma course in computer software.

We didn’t care for the background of the candidates. You didn’t have to be a 17-year old having passed JEE. You could be a 35-year old statistician. You could come and join our part-time course. We had an amazing variety of students. In our first course, we divided the batch into two, with 60 students each and we asked each group to build an Airline Reservation System. I wanted two Project Managers and I asked the students to volunteer. One person immediately raised his hand. I asked him what experience he had in managing people. He said 4000 people reported to him. I asked him what he does and he said he was the Income Tax commissioner for the city. So, that’s the kind of people who joined the course. There were brilliant people from All India Services, from the Indian Railways and yes, academics too.

PH: How did you think of the Education Research Network (ERNet)?

Dr. Ramani: In those days we were doing many things. Along with software education, we were also building networks. One thing we realized was that we had everything to build anything we could dream of. For our software course, we built our own network, linking TIFR with Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute where the classes were held. We wanted to use Indian-made computers to build the network. So we ordered computers from ECIL in Hyderabad. We leased a telephone line from the department of Posts and Telegraphs and ran our network over TCP/IP, despite warnings that the link might not support it. Here we were happily running the network and then realized that we can actually build a network linking all educational institutions. As researchers, we knew that research groups loved communication. If you need the best paper written in your field, you could just reach out to the person who wrote it and it would arrive at your inbox the next day. I had seen this happening while at C.M.U. in the U.S. So, we proposed to the government that we wanted to build such a network connecting all educational institutions and that this network would be equally owned by all the participating institutions, just like the model U.S. had. Our proposal was accepted and soon the IITs joined and then, leading universities, research groups and social groups joined the network.

PH: Let’s step back a bit to your days when you were connecting VJTI and TIFR. How many people were involved in this?

Dr. Ramani: Of course, I was there as the person heading the project. There were two other people. One of them was Anant Joshi and the other one was Vinod Kumar. They were handling programming. In addition to programming, they also handled a number of other things, like setting up demos. So we were only three and we were building a network between [Bombay] Mumbai and Delhi for the Indian Railways. Once, a senior communications person from the Indian Railways came to visit us. He asked us, “How big is your team?” I said, “You know, there is Vinod Kumar and Anant Joshi. “We had another person whose name I took and told him that we were a full four-member team. He was aghast, ”What are you telling me,” he said, ”I have 4000 people reporting to me.” Then he said, ”I spend one-third of my time sitting in disciplinary proceedings.” Actually, just a few dedicated people can build powerful networks.

PH: When you started the ERNet, how much of handholding did you have to do with participating institutions? Did you have to prepare computers, load software and send them?

Dr. Ramani: Most of the researchers at the eight participating labs did their own work. We just had to take care of the central equipment. They did research and published a lot of data and all of us went through a fair amount of education due to that. Initially, IIT Delhi and Indian Institute of Science developed terrific capability and others joined forces. So it was a distributed network right from day one.

PH: Around the same time, you proposed that Low Earth orbit satellite communication should be leveraged for data communication. How did that come about?

Dr. Ramani: It’s a very interesting story. Particularly for communication engineers who are interested in history. The fiber optics revolution had not completely had its effect by 1980. It did not have the kind of impact that it did later. At that time, satellite communication was attractive to places where fiber optics could not be made available. Many of us thought of satellite communication as a very important thing for developing countries.

Though fibre optics in recent years has become more easily available and less expensive, and satellite communication lost a little ground, the latter has not completely lost its relevance. Even today, satellite communication has a lot of significance in many respects. We read in the newspaper about villages and children climbing hills in order to access mobile networks. Satellite communication could be of great value even now in places where good infrastructure is not available. This was the situation more or less everywhere in India in 1980s when I was visualizing the applications of satellite communication.

I visualized that within 5-10 years we would have a method of getting communication through your cell phone fairly easily in places where infrastructure was poor. Straight from satellite downloads. What was applicable to India at that time would also be applicable to developing countries in general.

Then there was another angle which was centralized control. A traditional network was controlled by, for instance, a big company. That would cost a fair amount of money for a developing country. So people were working on solving this problem. They wanted to connect remote healthcare centers or remote schools. They wanted to see if there were any modern technologies like the HAM Radio that they could use. Since I was working on similar problems in India, I thought satellite communication was a great answer to their problems.

There was a conference by IDRC (International Development Research Centre), a government funded organization, in Canada. The Canadian parliament had given them grants and they were concerned by the definition. IDRC was concerned about developing countries. Communication was becoming an important idea to worry about, especially developing country communication. They called an international conference and I attended it – it was a workshop. It appeared to me that they were talking about communication problems in many developing countries around the world. They were willing to spend some of their money to solve these problems and they were looking for a solution. I had fresh experience in building 3 city satellite-based networks in India. With that background, I talked about it more and more in the two or three days of the workshop. I came up with the idea that a special kind of satellite for electronic mail and related things would solve the problem. I talked about this with an American scientist, Dr. Robert Miller. I started talking to Dr. Miller and we agreed to work together on this and develop the idea further. We presented a draft paper to IDRC’s communications group and they liked it. They said, ”We’re willing to put in some money. Why don’t you develop the paper and publish it at a major international conference?” We agreed and wrote a paper for the annual conference of the International Council for Computer Communication in London, six weeks later.

A lot of people got interested, but the idea remained small. For instance, the amateur radio people got quite excited because they used amateur radio equipment to communicate with the satellite and were also interested in building satellites. So, they said they would go ahead and build it. There was some excitement about this.

PH: Do you still hold out hope that satellite communication as you envisaged it, will make it commercially and improve connectivity?

Dr. Ramani: The technology has to advance to the extent that your cell phone will be able to adapt to satellite communication. And that is not far away. There are small companies around the world working on that, so we do expect yet another wave of interest.

There have been satellite phones, but typically such forms of communication are tightly controlled, because it could be a problem in the hands of a terrorist. As a result, people don’t like to encourage too many satellite-based phones.

Direct satellite-based forms are not commercially viable. However, the truth is, we can work in technology in such a way that the phone you carry in your pocket, with appropriate validation and monitoring, can use satellite communication to connect. When this happens, the cellphone connects to only the nearest cellphone exchange, but uses satcom, and ensures that the call originates and terminates within established boundaries where they can be effectively monitored, thus satisfying the security concerns.

PH: One of the early efforts in satellite communication and cellphone was Motorola’s Iridium. Some say that they ran issues as they couldn’t drum up enough resources to put up 66 satellites and keep refreshing the satellites at short intervals. Apart from that, did you see any technical issues there?

Dr. Ramani: The world of communication is always concerned with regulation, and monitoring. It also had to make sense in the commercial world. Even commercial interests are significant now. Iridium, for a variety of reasons, did not work. Many satellite telephone operators have bought Iridium satellites and are using them now. What is likely to happen in the future is that there will be attempts to make it a part of the commercial cellphone infrastructure and they will worry about regulation, monitoring and similar things. The technology will become more easily available.

PH: What were your thought processes between 90 and 95? How did you think the Internet would evolve in India?

Dr. Ramani: One of the most exciting things that happened to the Internet in India was the role of the distributor. Mr. N. Vittal became the Secretary of the Department of Electronics. The governance was largely handled by a senior officer named Rama Krishnan in the Department of Electronics. Rama Krishnan was an IIT Madras graduate and he was given the bulk of the administrative responsibilities. He brought in technically capable people.

We got calls from people who were interested … very senior people from within the government and outside, saying, ”Give me an email account.” The software industry, for instance, wanted it badly. One company comes to my mind– Persistence -whose founder was Mr. Deshpande. One day, he came to our office and asked us if he could have an email account. We gave him an email address. Since we could not give one company an email ID and deny the other, we also gave emails to software companies that approached us. But we did not know whether it was legal or illegal.

So, we went to Mr. Vittal and told him that we have government money being spent on education and research. However, there is the budding industry called the software industry and they badly need this technology more than anybody else, and we have already been informally giving connections. Mr. Vittal said, ”Don’t worry about this. Give the Indian software industry email accounts. We have no problem with that. If anybody bothers you tomorrow, I will go to the cabinet committee and tell them that the Indian software industry cannot operate without this technology.” This gave us enormous strength.

Later, Mr. Vittal became the Chairman of the Telecom Commission and he did some amazing things. He said he would set up a company called Software Technology Parks of India which would have to buy special equipment such as satellite equipment and had international connectivity. They would give connectivity to our software industry. The STPI would work in multiple cities.

PH: You were primarily concerned with building infrastructure. Can you tell us more about your experience of building networks in India?

Dr. Ramani: We knew how India needed tens of thousands of software engineers and many of them had to understand losing networks, so we put a lot of energy and effort in their education. We trained people from various industries and with different backgrounds. Soon, I was getting invited by banks to tell them how they could set up a network. And they also started asking us to be consultants. We told them it was important. We were not going to be individual consultants. We were going to be consultants on behalf of NCST. This allowed us to earn some money for the organization instead of depending upon the government money completely. We did a fair amount of work for the Indian financial industry, several banks and stock exchanges.

For instance, The Reserve Bank of India had two committees – one of which was the Rangarajan committee. They were responsible for the computer revolution that came into the banking industry. Similarly, the oil industry told us that they wanted to set up their own network. So, we acted as consultants to the oil industry. Taking out the technology to the industry, making the industry aware of the possibilities, giving them a helping hand and training their managers – these were things we were doing in addition to our mainstream education.

PH: You did a fair amount of work with CMC and its founder Prem Prakash Gupta. P.P. Gupta was a passionate technocrat and his exploits are legendary in India’s computerization journey. How was it working with P.P. Gupta and CMC?

Dr. Ramani: P.P. Gupta had a Ph.D. from London- I think it was the Imperial College of Technology. He came to India as a country manager for CDC. We got to know him fairly early and he was a half-academic because of his Ph.D. degree. He was very development oriented and his philosophy itself was pretty different. On one occasion, he told me something I will never forget. We were talking about computers and what they could do in India. He said, ”Look, we might have computer on the some of the floors of the Air India building or some oil company printing salary sheets. I have no objection to that, but that is not my dream. My dream is different. Last Sunday I had gone to the railway station VT. My sister wanted to go to Hyderabad. I had to stand for three hours to buy a ticket. And I don’t want that to happen. Why can’t we have railway tickets issued by the system so that people can quickly get their ticket while at work?” It was such a beautiful idea. He said, ”The goal of computerization in India must change the quality of life and it must serve the common man.” P.P. Gupta had this kind of a philosophy. It was very easy to work for him.

Eventually, we built the Passenger Reservation System for the Indian Railways. Then Union minister, Madhavrao Scindia, championed the cause. Though he promised that it would be ready in a few months, we had to struggle to finish it on time. During his time, P.P. Gupta turned Computer Maintenance Corporation into a software development company.

P.P. Gupta went on to become the Secretary to the Government of India. It was a revolution that the Electronics Department was created. He was first appointed as the chairman of the Electronics Commission. There he put in a lot of effort and achieved a lot. This was in 1980-84. It’s so amazing how people come together, you know, people with different philosophies.

PH: From the public sector, you joined the private sector. What was your experience like? Why did you join HP labs?

Dr. Ramani: The real reason why I left the NCST team was that I felt I would have greater freedom to pursue researchin a private lab. There were other pressures, but I did enjoy my time in HP Labs as much as I enjoyed my time in the public sector.

PH: If you want to set up a lab now, what kind of a lab would you set up and what problems would you solve?

Dr. Ramani: Combining education and research is always great. The lab should ideally have a strong connection with the University because the best research worker is very often a graduate student. The credit goes to the graduate student for an invention. It is not just the salary that you give the graduate student, but the whole credit. It is his thesis. You give him the importance and you make him your equal. So, the incentives in university research are very strong.

PH: And what kind of problems fascinate you now?

Dr. Ramani: That is a very important question. When I was telling you about the technologies that I was interested in as a graduate student, and the kind of thinking that went on in my mind, I forgot to mention one -atomic energy. My virtual training was in Physics, I came to study engineering after a degree in Physics. So, this was natural. Physics is close to my heart. At that time, I had already done a fair amount of work on my own in nuclear technology. Therefore one of my three areas of work was Electronics and computers. OK, but you see how things change in the world.

To answer your question about what interests me today…that depends. There is a revolution every 10 years. Sometimes even faster. I always go with the flow of the revolution. Should I improve electric cars? Should I better automatically piloted vehicles, automatically driven vehicles? Or should I spend money on Artificial Intelligence? I would like to have the freedom to decide what I research on next. Whatever is promising at the time, I will pick it up and hope that I have the guts to be multidisciplinary.

PH: Wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Dr. Ramani: Thank you! You know, I enjoy talking about technology and its possibilities. It inspires me even today.