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June - 2007 - issue > Cover Story
Of research and its allies
Aritra Bhattacharya
Thursday, May 31, 2007
Back in 1925, when the (U.S.) Federal government set a 10 percent cap on the profits AT&T could enjoy, the communications company decided to invest the over-and-above ten percent profit into pure research. Born was Bell Labs, its activities a harbinger to the technologies of the future.

Over the years, it has given the world, among other things, the Unix Operating System, C language, and the first single-chip digital signal processor. But the most significant among its contributions has been creation of ecology for research. Following its suit, IBM, HP, Xerox Parc and most recently Microsoft have set up dedicated research labs.

While Xerox Parc Research Labs invented the Mac, IBM Research came up with databases and natural languages for the first time ever in history. Look around and you will notice that none of the innovations, or inventions—if you choose to call them so—that emerged from these labs form, in any way, part of the parent company’s product line. This, since researchers in the labs were given a free rein, and funds to pursue research activities in whatever field they chose. When inventions came about, they were put in the public domain; the characteristic being to enunciate propositions and not architect products.

Years, or even decades later, companies would pick-up certain parts, of the whole of these inventions to create products that won consumers and raked in revenues. It worked well for all parties; researchers got to do what they loved, companies that productized ideas enjoyed the profits, and the Labs came to be famous for the technologies that helped architect those products.

Somewhere along the way, advanced product development got factored into pure research. The citadels of invention in these hugely successful companies started diluting the intensity of research, and focus more on more on innovating in the realms of the parent’s product line. Which was still good. In fact, very good.

Late in the 90s, after the Indian economy had opened up, and technology companies had made a strong imprint on the country’s economic ethos, research labs started coming. India was now happening, hot, her market waiting to be courted, cajoled and conquered.
‘But why India?’ was the question that fluttered around many minds. After all, research would require PhDs; a breed of which we had, and still continue to have, significantly lesser numbers than China, or even the U.S.

Says Dr. Daniel Dias, who heads the IBM India Research, “There is no denying the prowess of the Indian engineering brain; it has literally powered a major part of the Silicon Valley upsurge.” But then wouldn’t basing a research facility in the Valley, which has a sizeable chunk of the Indian brain, make more sense?

P. Anandan, who had played an instrumental role in establishing the Microsoft India research labs two years ago counters, “It is boom-time for the Indian economy, and getting into the arena at this juncture i.e. at the heel of the curve rather than at its height will allow research labs harness and grow talent.”
Besides, India has emerged as a test-bed for research into technologies for the emerging market, and being based out of here provides researchers, many of who fly down from foreign shores, get ‘into the field’. As Jonathan Donner from the U.S., now a part of Microsoft Research Labs India says, “Today, the data is right outside my front door, amid the exciting jumble that is Bangalore.”

To counter the lack of PhDs, most (tech) research labs take in B.Techs and M.Techs, and handhold them some way through. Therefore, a stint in these labs could be the apt grounding for post-graduates who have their minds set on a PhD.

Besides, these research labs provide lucrative, both monetarily and technologically, employment opportunities for those who have completed PhDs. Perhaps a part of the problem of having scant PhDs in India could be the lack of opportunities for their employment, and these labs could well, in the years to come, spawn the Indian doctoral upsurge. And also help fund-crunched academicians (researchers) in the Indian universities pursue their research queries more forthrightly and freely.

Whether this will come about, whether the research labs in India, more so the ones we have profiled in this issue, pursue pure research or just advanced product development is left to your august appraisal.

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