Articles and Commentaries |
September 6, 2021

Interview with Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar, Vice-Chancellor, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Written By: Apurv Mishra

Apurv Mishra: There is a view amongst policymakers, academics and business leaders that we are living through what they call a fourth industrial revolution, which is the result of a fusion of several technologies that are blurring the lines between our physical, digital and biological world. Do you agree with this assessment?

Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar: The evolution of technologies from the Industrial Revolution, began with using steam, then moved to electricity, and then to electronics and communication engineering. There was a distinct separation between these technologies. The foundations of the present industrial revolution is off course based on the earlier technologies, but the shift from Industry 3.0 to Industry 4.0 has happened at a much faster rate. The rapidity of change is such that human societies may actually find it difficult to absorb those technologies. There is thus a need to focus not just on specific technologies, but also on their impact on human life, and on how we interact with each other and with the environment around us. Greater awareness is required among the users of this technology so that they are prepared for change. That is why there is a lot of discussion on the impact of industry 4.0 on human societies.

Apurv Mishra: What is your assessment of the disruption that these emerging technologies will bring upon the Indian economy and society, given that we are a developing country that is trying to showcase its leadership in the field of technology.

Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar: We need to look at the challenges that our country is facing today. One of course is security. Today we talk about not only the physical security at our borders but also cyber security. So, the physical and cyber domains need to be secured. It is also important to take care of our health system in the country. So, can we develop technologies that will make the health systems more affordable and more accessible to our population across the country? In agriculture, water usage is very heavy and consumes nearly 70 percent of the available fresh water. We need to innovate and produce high yield varieties of food grains, with reduced water consumption. Education is another important area, where we face the challenge of how to reach out to young 300 million students and meet their aspirations in universities and other learning institutions. If we build our universities and educational institutes at whatever rate that is physically possible for us then it may take another 100 years to meet everybody’s aspirations. That is why we need to look at alternate ways of reaching out to people by making our education more holistic and more flexible. Digital platforms could provide an answer. The new national education policy talks about various additional knowledge, which will be integrated and featured on these platforms, so that education becomes affordable and accessible to all. Another important area is the environment and the impact of climate change. Put together, security, health, agriculture, education and environment are prime concerns and these form the acronym SHAPE. So, if you want to shape the future of our country, these are the five areas where we need to do really innovative research.

Apurv Mishra: How well equipped are we to deal with these challenges. I am reminded of a 2015 quotation by Mr. Narayan Murthy where he said at the convocation ceremony of IAC Bangalore that “There has not been a single invention from India in the last 60 years that has become a household name globally, nor any idea that led to the earth-shaking invention to delight global citizens. Our youngsters have not done much impactful research work despite being equal to their counterparts in intellect and energy in western universities.” How do you assess the contribution of Indian universities to the field of science and technology since independence?

Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar: I would rather prefer the term, Life Transforming Technologies, than some imaginary earth-shaking inventions. Over the last 50 years, there have been several life-transforming technologies developed in our country. The simplest example is the dairy cooperative societies that was started in Gujarat. All along we were thinking that only cow milk is suitable for producing milk powder. Dr Kurien and his team developed the technology for using buffalo milk to produce milk powder. That’s a life-transforming technology which has helped many farmers. Other examples abound, such as the development of highly efficient and pest-resistant seeds to help our farmers, which gave us the green revolution. There have been several formal and informal innovations that have been taking place in our country and I do not see our country lagging behind in terms of entrepreneurship. Today, India is rated as having the third largest entrepreneurial ecosystem. Many individuals in India are focused on becoming entrepreneurs, instead of taking up a job. There is a great future in terms of developing new technologies and becoming a leader in the world, but I also would like to state that the days of a scientist, sitting alone in a lab, looking through the microscope, and then coming up with a kind of eureka kind of invention, are over. Today, for scientists to come up with innovative ideas, they should be able to work in teams and with unlike minds. That is the only way we can come up with innovations. In India, we have taken several steps to encourage this kind of multi-disciplinary research in several universities. I would like to see more life-transforming technologies being developed in our country, which will positively impact the lives of the people down to the last person in the village. Many such things are happening and we need to be optimistic and hopeful, rather than being pessimistic.

Apurv Mishra: Let me now talk to you about some specific technologies that are on the verge of disrupting societies and economies around the world and let me start with your own subject area which is nanotechnology. Scholars, typically when they look at the lifecycle of technologies, use a four-phase framework where each technology goes to an R&D phase, an ascent phase a maturity phase and then eventually moves towards obsolescence. Where do you place developments in nanotechnology in this framework and which application of nanotechnology, do you think has the greatest potential to change our world in the coming years.

Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar: You are absolutely right. Any new technology that is being developed has these four cycles. In the case of nanotechnology, actually, there was too much hype. But fortunately, over a period of time, the technology matured. And now we know there are certain segments which can be developed at a rapid pace using nanotechnology. All of us are familiar with semiconductor technology which has advanced rapidly, is affordable and which has revolutionised communication technologies, affecting the lifestyle of everybody in the country. But there are other areas where nanotechnology can be a very futuristic opportunity for us. One is quantum computing, which is going to be a real necessity for us in future, especially with the collection and the storage of data. In today’s time, to process the data, we need extremely fast computers and only quantum computing can do that. Now, in quantum computing, there are several things that we need to do. One is, of course, using nanotechnology to develop these qubits and then the next challenge for us is how do you connect these cubits using interconnects. Today, in semiconductor technology, we are already facing a brick wall in terms of the speed of the processors, primarily because of the interconnect delays.  So tomorrow, if we want to develop extremely efficient quantum computers then how are we going to connect these qubits, is going to be another technological challenge. And the third most important thing is developing efficient algorithms because there will be qubit errors that will be generated when the data is transferred across the qubits, so you need efficient algorithms. It is a multidisciplinary approach, requiring electrical engineers, material scientists, physicists and computer scientists amongst others. In the last budget, INR 8000 crore was allotted for developing quantum computing in our country. Another area where nanotechnology will play a very disruptive role is in the pharmaceutical industry, in developing vaccines and drugs and in understanding the molecular structure of drugs. All this can be done using nanotechnology. In agriculture, nanotechnology will bring a revolution in terms of developing plants, which are pest resistant and which consume low quantities of water. So, there are many exciting possibilities with nanotechnology.

Apurv Mishra: Another technology that is generating a lot of hype is a new gene-editing technology called CRISPR whose pioneers got the Nobel Prize for Chemistry last year. This technology, in fact, got a lot of attention from mainstream media in 2018, when a Chinese scientist in Shanghai used CRISPR to create two gene-edited babies who were resistant to HIV. How do you assess the risks and rewards of the widespread use of gene editing?

Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar: In gene editing, we identify a targeted part of DNA, remove it from the DNA and replace it with the other material there.  The work of the Chinese researchers in 2018 led to the birth of two girls, but there was huge consternation across the world. The outcry was not against the technology, but on the potential for its misuse. While research is important and should be encouraged, the ethical standpoint should also be kept in mind. If we develop proper ethical standards on how we use the outcome of the research, then we should promote our efforts to do innovative research in all areas.

Apurv Mishra: There is an American biologist, Mr. Edward Wilson, who famously said that the real problem of humanity is that we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. When you look at the terrific potential of some of these emerging technologies like gene editing, experiments with viruses in government labs, the creation of artificial intelligence, development of unmanned aerial and terrestrial vehicles, then, is there a case to be made for drawing red lines on scientific research by governments. Are their certain kinds of experiments that governments should not allow scientists to work on, or are these expectations of imposing moral limits on technology, wrong?

Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar: Our human mind is always in search of free-thinking. It always likes freedom. It doesn’t like curbs and that is how human societies have evolved. I think all areas of scientific research should be encouraged. Doing research is exploring our free minds. There should not be any curb on that but regulation is required when we want to use the product of this scientific research and we need a clear and ethical framework to decide on that. I will give you one simple example. When 30 or 40 years ago, scientists invented the cochlear implant for deaf persons, they thought they invented a great device. However, many deaf people approached them and questioned them on the need for such a device, stating that they were happy in their own world! Obviously, there was a disconnect, which should be avoided. When we do research, the stakeholders also need to be involved. Currently, what happens is that scientists sit in their labs and develop some great technologies, which they think is great for society. This process needs to be democratised by involving the stakeholders. In my view, I think any government regulation, which will affect the basic research itself may not be a good idea, but there should be regulations on how this technology will be used for human welfare.

Apurv Mishra: Given that you are describing the scientific process, we have today, multidisciplinary teams, sometimes working across geographies, on a particular research area. Is there a case to be made that it is even futile to expect governments to regulate scientific developments and experiments?


Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar: Human nature is to explore. Human nature doesn’t like to be bounded. So, therefore, any measures that we take, if it goes against human nature, will not be able to build any happy harmonious human societies.

Apurv Mishra: While talking about the role of governments in developing technological capabilities, two of India’s biggest success stories in this field are India’s space program and nuclear program, both of which were led by our government institutions. What are the lessons that we can learn from the success of these two programs to develop our technological capabilities in other critical areas?

Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar: One clear lesson is that you can start from ground zero and become leaders in a specific technology. The other lessons that we had to learn from this experiment is that simply duplicating these experiments is not enough, because both the situation and the eco-system have changed. Take for example space technology, in which we are so successful. The components of successful Space Technology relate to good and very efficient propellers, small weight, high-efficiency fuels, heat resistant materials to make heat resistant shields for the rockets or for the vehicles which are re-entering into our atmosphere and so on. This is the greatest opportunity for us to involve other industries which can actually work on these areas. Therefore, besides government organisations, we need to encourage several other industries, the peripheral industries but central to the operation of the space program, to develop their technologies. The government must now act more like a catalyst to build and develop an ecosystem and not a similar kind of organisation. Once we develop the ecosystem, then several such industries will sprout and become big trees, strengthening our industrial ecosystem.

Apurv Mishra: There are two other technologies that are getting a lot of mainstream attention from the media these days. You spoke about the initial hype associated with nanotechnology. Gartner is a sort of firm which comes out with this annual hype cycle for emerging technologies to discern hype, from what’s commercially viable as far as technology is concerned. Can you share your views on the expectations that we should have from blockchain which is a technology that is getting a lot of attention from media these days? Do you think that it will fulfil the potential that people are talking about in transforming our lives?

Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar: Our minds are conditioned to the existing technologies so when new technologies are developed then some technologies may create some kind of fear in our minds that it may disrupt our existing systems. So, we have only two options. One option is to keep away from data and technology. The other way is to master the technology so that it can be effectively used. Therefore, Blockchain is something that we cannot keep away from and especially when we have a globally interconnected world. We cannot remain as an isolated entity without getting affected. So, my feeling is that we need to get into blockchain technology and see how effectively we can use and integrate ourselves with the rest of the world. Who knows in future what new technologies will sprout on the horizon. If you want to deliver vaccines to some remote place then you can use unmanned vehicles and or if you want to secure your border or if you want to monitor the movement of any enemy troops, then we will have to develop our own technologies. There could be some time lag in terms of developing the technologies, as in the past we missed the semiconductor technology bus. But today, semiconductor technology has become so centralised. In fact, more than 60% of the chips are produced only from some of the Asian countries so they have become highly centralised and penetrating that may become a challenging task. Today we are talking about electronic waste. Where do you dump all these mobile phones and microprocessors because you use inorganic semiconductors in which we use a lot of plastic and the metals in these chips. So people are now looking to use organic semiconductors which are biodegradable, to make our electronic systems. We need to look around for such futuristic technologies and start early, so that we become leaders in those technologies in the world.

Apurv Mishra: The IPCC’s 4000-page report on climate change has made dire predictions about our medium to long-term future as a species, unless an immediate course correction is brought about. What role can technology play in mitigating global warming, and what is India’s role in developing these technologies for a more sustainable way of life?

Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar: One of the reasons why climate change is happening is how we are leading our own lives. Today, we have come to believe that more consumption means more development, and we need to move away from that kind of attitude. We need to preserve our resources and use them as little as possible through reuse, recycle, kind of means. And we also need to think about our future generations and the world we are leaving behind for them. This is where some technologies can play a significant role. For example, we need to look at alternate ways to generate energy. Today, our focus is on renewable energy resources, such as solar power, wind power etc. Towards that end, we are now producing over a quarter of our requirement of energy using renewable energy resources. If we continue on the same path, India may actually become a role model for the rest of the world on how to generate energy using environmentally friendly means. So, there are several such technologies that we need to develop in order to control climate change. In India, we are also emphasising the use of electric vehicles. So, in the next 10-20 or 30 years, as we will see more electric vehicles moving on our roads, cutting down all the smoke that comes out of these vehicles. But here, there is another opportunity for us as a country. If you use electric vehicles, if you use solar power, you also require efficient batteries, and there is a lot of work that needs to be done. If we look at the last 150 years, the advancements that are taking place in battery technologies are not comparable to similar advances that have taken place in semiconductor technology or the pharmaceutical industry and so on. The materials that are required for making these batteries also is another challenge for us. Today we talk about lithium batteries, and there are only three or four countries that have huge deposits of lithium. So, instead of following the same path and in developing lithium ion-based batteries, we need to look at simple but efficient technologies like sodium batteries as sodium is abundantly available. And if we use sodium air batteries, their volume and weight also will come down. There are many such opportunities for us to develop new technologies in order to minimise or slow down the impact of climate change,

Apurv Mishra: The role of rare earth metals in the semiconductor industry has resulted in almost a global race between countries to acquire mines where these rare earth materials and minerals are produced. So, I want to ask you a larger philosophical question on the relationship between technology and society and its impact on individuals. In his seminal work, Future Shock, the futurist Alvin Toffler, predicted that the anxieties of a world are upended by rapidly emerging technologies. He spoke about how the root cause of most social problems in the times to come, would be the result of an accelerated rate of technological and social change that could leave people disconnected and suffering from what he called ‘shattering stress and disorientation’. How have his predictions about social paralysis, disorientation induced by rapid technological change held up?

Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar: 100 or 200 years ago, if you look at the lifestyle of the people you know then they met the requirements for their family and themselves. If there was some surplus, it was shared with neighbours and that helped us in developing better relations with each other. But today, we have moved from such a situation of abundance to scarcity. Once that happens, there is so much competition among ourselves to access these scarce resources. The role of technology, therefore, should be to create that abundance so that human values such as compassion, sharing and loving each other, come to the fore. New technologies should not force us to lead a life of anxiety and mindless competition; rather, we should focus on improving not just the standard of living, but the quality of living. Also, we should focus on the importance of the diversity that we have, instead of indulging in identity politics. So, technology alone will not be able to provide the desired results for building human societies. We also have to look at the very nature of human beings, and then integrate these two in an effective manner. People need to understand the meaning of values and ethics. So, these values have to be instilled right from childhood, so that when they become adults, they become productive human beings in whatever work they do.

Apurv Mishra: What role do you think our civilisational values have in creating a society like this and in minimising the impact of “Future Shock on individuals and societies”?

Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar: We need to focus on spiritual values. Sometimes it is also important for us to become philosophical, We do have a long civilisational continuity in our country. In addition to developing physically and materialistically, we must also give equal importance to the spiritual aspects of our life. In order to do that, it is important that we expose our students to the basic elements of philosophy in their school years. Philosophical issues will shape how we interact with each other. So, that is the reason why I strongly feel that both in the teacher training programs and right from childhood, elements of philosophy need to be taught to everybody.

Apurv Mishra: Thank You

Brief Bio:

Prof. Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar is an Academician, Administrator and Author who is currently the Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at IIT Delhi. And Mr Apurv Mishra is Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation.

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