Aakash — The Low Cost Tablet

In an academic institute in the faraway corner of Western India live the minds who are striving for a social change. Very few know it. Fewer recognize their efforts.

“Aakash — the low cost tablet”, dubbed as the world’s cheapest tablet computer, was conceived by MHRD’s NMEICT team and planned at this place. You have not heard or read of the contribution and sacrifices its students and employees have made. No wonder! Despite all the hype the vendors, the businessmen, the people in the power have tried to create for their businesses to prosper, the institute has chosen to remain silent on its contribution towards realizing Aakash. Let us take a little journey down the memory lane to hear this little story.

The MHRD had a vision to enable all students of India with the enormous amount of Information available on the WWW and the high-quality education content created by several IITs with IIT Madras (Chennai) as the coordination agency through Information Technology. The cheapest computers available in the market at that time costed around Rs. 20,000/- (US$450). This country boasts of a student population of about 200 million. Simple arithmetic tells that the students to take advantage of the Information superhighway would spend around US$90 billion. Pragmatically speaking, this country cannot afford such an amount only on the access/computing devices! (Theoretically, it may do so. I mean the country where the scams cost at the magnitude of US$ 50 billion, anything is possible.) For us who have a large majority to which food and good education is a dream, an extremely cheap device had the potential to write an entirely new script.

The script had already started taking shape. Sometime in 2009, a student of VIT thought of a social change. He realized a low cost computing device with his B. Tech. project guides. He sought the advice of an IIT Kanpur professor (at that time) for engineering at the PCB level. The cost of the product he came up with at that time was estimated at approximately US$50. It was argued that if a computing platform better than that initial prototype was to produced in large numbers, the costs could be brought down to around US$35 (sub-40 US$). When such estimates were shared with the public by the honourable minister of HRD, everybody ridiculed the idea! Yes, everybody, except two. One of those two was a senior IAS officer and the other the same IIT Kanpur professor.

The events thereafter turned out such that the professor became the director of that unknown (newly founded) academic institute in Western India. In August 2010, he handed over the task to two misfits. The team of these three along with that IAS officer set out to realize the dream. The team studied several technologies, platforms, processors, software stacks in order to match the price figure maintaining the satisfactory usability. They worked relentlessly to try several permutations and combinations. The rest of the academic staff, administrative staff and the students of the institute joined them in their efforts. All the efforts put in engineering brought the good news. The team ensured that such a thing was possible, and worked reference designs, as proof of concept. Thanks to corporations like Google (for Android) and organizations like FSF, OSDL and Linux Foundation (for GNU/Linux), there were no software costs.

Once the price point and satisfactory performance were arrived at, there was a dilemma on how to go about it. A government funded academic organization cannot take up the task of bringing out a product in huge numbers. It was agreed that a tendering process would be put in place. The first tender to this effect came out in November 2010. But there was still a problem: even though the proof of concept was there, the institute could not force the bidders of the tender to use the components used in the proof of concept. So the tender turned out be an ‘Invitation to Innovate’, and the participants were allowed to come up with their own designs. The participation in the first tendering process was surprising to the misfits! Some of the largest corporations of the world and India participated, but it was won by a small start up of Bangalore.

All was not sweet now onward. The winning bidder could not meet the strict rules of purchase set by Government of India. If that were not the case, we’d have seen ‘Aakash’ in January 2011 instead of October 2011. After the cancellation of the tendering process, everything had to be started afresh. A new tender was brought out and once again, the response to it was amazing. A firm started in UK by an NRI won it this time. A California based chip manufacturer was to supply the platform to meet the specs.

The role of that unknown institute was not over. It turned out that the inhabitants of this institute would spend many more nights sleepless. The originators of the idea were assigned another task. They were to verify the platform (both hardware and software), correct if there were any shortcomings. There were shortcomings! That team worked relentlessly, day and night, to ensure that the platform was satisfactory on functional requirements, to write any software, if it was not available, to meet the functionality, and to coordinate with hundreds of students of the academic institutes nationwide. They were (are) to collect feedback and incorporate modifications to the design based on the feedback. Something that is to be produced at the scale of hundreds of millions, even the smallest glitch has far-reaching consequences. That team is involved in those tasks right now.

At the time of this writing, the same team consisting of 170 students (inhabitants), several hundred students spread across the entire nation, a few faculty members, residents or from other academic organization and 20 odd technical staff have engineered the version that can be produced at large scale and may get wide acceptance all across the country and the world. The feedback is still pouring in, some encouraging, some critical. The team welcomes critical feedback more than the appreciating one, so that the next versions are far better and glitch-free.

They have not stopped there! They are constantly evolving the device with futuristic technologies, all researched in house, ranging from the design of the very first commercial grade ‘India Processor’ for consumer electronics and computing and ‘India SoC’ to reducing costs of display technologies like touch walls and surfaces to 3D projection displays and projected virtual input devices that can be controlled just by hand gestures. They are also working to reduce the cost of this very device further to go down to US$20 with the capacities that of a US$300 tablets and solar charging within two years, however outlandish that may sound. Their claim is that given three years, the ideas like ‘printable electronics’ on fabrics and glass panels would be realizable extremely efficiently and reliably and computing at the consumer end would be cheap and efficiently recyclable. One of the students in the team exclaims enthusiastically that the day when governments will realize ICT to be a necessity as food, water and electricity and not a luxury is not far.

In all of its endeavours, the small institute avoids publicity at all costs. Some of the media coverage has talked of the institute, despite its best efforts to curb publicity. It believes that any kind of publicity will be a distraction to its efforts.

How does the industry respond to all this? Highly encouraging and appreciative! The team members are highly appreciative of the enormous support they have got from all walks of life. They think that it would not have been possible without the ARMs, the Intels, the Googles, the FreeScales, the ST Microelectronics, the TIs, the Microsofts, the Conexants of this world. If there is any bit of success of the efforts made so far, it must be attributed to every single, large or small, contribution made by the industry and the government. Failures?! Well, the team thinks that it might fail, but it has this strange “who cares?” attitude. It’ll keep on with its efforts to, as M. S. Dhoni would say, “change the game!

The Problem of Mathematics Education in India

This coming from someone who has had his entire education in India and loves the subject may sound a bit alarming. But this is how I find it. Please note that it is just a personal opinion formed based on the random incoherent surveys conducted over the years and discussions within close groups of friends, always–well… almost always–when they were drunk or stoned.

If you ask, majority of the pre-college going students–in their Senior Secondary years, just prior to the college, that is–in India will tell you that they like mathematics. A big chunk of that number belongs to what the Economists call “the great Indian middle class”. Well, that is true from one perspective. They like mathematics because studying pre-college mathematics is a must in India to get into Engineering. Engineering for the Indian middle-class is “a big thing”. You get the picture.

But if you ask me, the other perspective, the way mathematics is taught in most Indian pre-college institutions can never make it a likable subject. Most of you must have seen the Mathematics textbooks in your school days. And then in college days. And then in your kids’ school/pre-college days… I request you to give it another look and then decide if you or your kid can really like it or not. The way the books are written and the way the subject is taught is to program a human-being. You open a book, you’ll see  text that is nothing but a collection of symbols, and algorithms that are to be read and run on a machine. There is hardly any description of the historical importance and the original author’s insight, his fight and vision in reaching the result. The student never feels the sense of discovery the discoverer might have sensed when his/her thought came into the form called “Theorem”.

To be ignorant of the lives of the most celebrated men of  antiquity is to continue in a state of childhood all our days.

The best mathematics books in terms of developing a student’s liking and insight into the subject are never taught when they are needed the most. I have been very fortunate in that regard that when interest in mathematics started waning, I had access to those. But, in India, such books have been inaccessible to most of the students studying mathematics. It is way past the time when those books should have been made the part of curriculum.

The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled. –Plutarch

But then, a set curriculum ruins the whole purpose of the book for what it is written for, because most teachers at that level never studied those books themselves.

Sometimes, I tend to think that the books at that level, at present, are written by some computer programmers in order to program a child just like a computer is programmed. And we are very good at getting programmed! Due to socio-economic factors mentioned previously, our entire future depends on how well we were programmed. For example, most of the Indian students, at least those who studied a little mathematics at the pre-college level, are good at finding anti-derivatives (which is taught in the name of `Integration’) of some functions. Very few have insight on what really `Integration’ is. They can find surface areas of arcane surfaces and areas under most complex of the curves brooding on the x-y plane using crammed formulae, but they can hardly ever tell you why they needed it or that it is called Riemann Integral. Infinity is another number for them to “produce results” of the questions posed in the exams. They are never taught the profound thought in imaging it in simpler terms. Infinity for them is nothing but some number “out of bounds”–just like a computer–used in simplifying calculations. In short, what we are producing in India in the name of mathematical talent is “human calculating devices.” It is no wonder that India produces so many “skilled” workers in the IT industry.

One of the major forces behind a successful mathematician is his/her teacher who is expected to develop the insight of the subject. The problem with teachers and schools in India, again, is influenced by the changing paradigms in socio-economic scenario. A parent, now-a-days wants the ward to “excel” every aspect of life, be it arts, sports, science, any damn thing. The race of producing sub-standard know-it-all machines has never been so invigorated. The present day teenager is the center of its parents’ hopes. They want it to achieve everything what they could achieve and what they could not, and even more. They want it to get a high-paying position in some multinational, right from the day the kid has entered the school. To heck with the interests or aesthetics! To heck with appreciating ideas. In this rat-race, a teacher is left behind with his values. What should (s)he do? Produce more rats to participate in the race in which no one rat wins the cheese, but several end up biting a little piece and left unsatisfied.

I have observed many examples: kids and teenagers who wanted to study mathematics–or something else for that matter–for their lives, but there will was crushed by the might of the ambition of the great Indian middle-class to reach the top… the economic top.

Probably that’s why we see many brilliant students in India, but not many achieving the heights what Russians, French and Germans do. Probably that’s why a Fields Medal has eluded India despite it being the mother of mathematical thought and its thousands of years’ history of mathematics.

But that is changing. Or, at least I hope that is changing…

EDIT (Friday, May 29 2009): More discussions reveal more problems. Another major problem is the language. You know what I mean!

Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists in India

The Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists Project –by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College, Hartford Connecticut— is aimed at conducting a series of surveys in countries with differing cultures, in order to learn who today’s scientists are and to compare their thinking about a range of contemporary social, economic, cultural, moral and ethical issues. Under this project, first survey was conducted among Indian scientists. According to the project website, India was the first country chosen mainly because of its growing global importance in science and technology and in the education of scientific, medical and technology professionals. Among the 7,500 contacted science and technology majors, about 1,100 (~15%) from 119 institutions responded. Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur had the largest number (58) of participants.

The survey resulted in some very interesting trends. For example, a majority thinks that they studied sciences for personal interest and curiosity, something which, for some socioeconomic reasons in India, is hard to fathom. A majority thinks that India today does not fulfill its constitutional duty (viz, “to develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”). I belong to that majority. A majority had faith in current economic policy in India, that of a mixed economy. Majority also believed that there are less women in science due to the cultural influence. I would like to see the response from US or European scientists to the question whether they endorse Evolutionary theory or not, for I think, in India, 88% concurring with the theory is too less for scientists. The most surprising response (to me) was to the question whether there is any efficacy in alternative curative and diagnostic techniques! I was surprised and somewhat embarrassed to see that half the scientists in India believe that Homeopathy is effective, and close to half believe that prayer is effective! Moreover, 44% approve astrology. There was a very interesting question in the survey, viz, “In 2005, space scientists went to Tirupati to seek the blessing of (some) lord before a launch. Do you approve the decision?” The response was shocking! 41% approved that action!

Needless to say, majority among the respondents (66%) said they were Hindus. Only 10% were in Atheists/Agnostics/No Religion category. 26% believed strongly in God and its existence. 28% believed that God does miracles. Majority of scientists were spiritual.

Most of the respondents were practising scientists. I’d also like to see such a survey conducted among students, not just in sciences, in India.