Friday, February 18, 2005

The silicon subcontinent

India special: The silicon subcontinent
New Scientist

TRAFFIC in Bangalore is now bumper-to-bumper just about everywhere and gridlock is a certainty during rush hour. A journey from the centre to the hub of the IT industry on the city's outskirts that took only 20 minutes a few years ago can now take two hours. Corporate limos jostle with autorickshaws, trucks, taxis and even vegetable vendors with pushcarts plying the day's produce. The city is choking under the influx of companies, both foreign and Indian, eager to partake of its seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap programmers.

And there's little respite in sight for Bangalore's creaking infrastructure. You'd think companies would be starting to have qualms about opening new offices in the city. Think again. Some of the biggest names in IT are heading towards Bangalore once more, and this time round it's not cheap labour they are looking for. They are hunting down the brightest, most inventive minds in India to populate a swathe of cutting-edge research facilities.

The work being done in these labs rivals any in the US and Europe. Ajay Gupta, director of Hewlett-Packard's research labs in Bangalore, says India is the place to be. "HP sees its India lab as being on an equal footing with our other research labs worldwide," he says.

Things have moved on a long way in the 20 years since US chip giant Texas Instruments opened an office in Bangalore to crank out software for testing and verifying TI's chip manufacturing processes. Take the $80 million multidisciplinary centre set up by General Electric to serve the US company's research needs. The centre is GE's first and largest R&D lab outside the US. It has 2300 employees, 60 per cent of whom have a master's or PhD degree in science. Anything is fair game here - from plastics to turbines to molecular modelling. "We are not here to serve the Indian market, but to serve [GE's] global research agenda," says Guillermo Wille, managing director of the company's lab in Bangalore and the only non-Indian on site. The products of research done at the labs are purely for export.

Using techniques such as numerical analysis and computational fluid dynamics, the GE researchers have significantly improved the efficiency of the company's wind turbines and its engine for Boeing's planned 7E7 airliner. The centre is renowned for its materials science division, which invented a resin co-polymer that has made possible self-destructing CDs and DVDs. The discs are sold in sealed pouches: break the seal and the polymer reacts with air, making the disc unreadable 48 hours later. More mundane but no less significant is a water-saving washing machine also invented there.

Another high-profile firm to set up shop in Bangalore is Google, the California-based company whose name has become synonymous with internet searching. Krishna Bharat, co-founder of Google Labs India and inventor of Google News, is looking for top PhD graduates from Indian universities to augment the dozen or so researchers working in Google's largely empty two-storey office in Bangalore, which opened last year. Bharat's team will research ways to improve internet searching in Indian languages and work on voice interfaces and other alternatives to the keyboard and mouse. Bharat expects his centre will soon contribute to Google's global research effort. Other high-tech giants that have opened research labs in Bangalore include Cisco, Intel, Sun Microsystems and Motorola.

While many of these companies' developments are intended for application worldwide, Hewlett-Packard's approach is different. Its Bangalore research centre, opened in 2002, has the express purpose of applying local brains to local problems. "The poorer people in countries like India aren't served by existing technology, so we need to find new technologies for them," Gupta says. His team is exploring new ways of making the internet accessible to non-English-speakers, and they have invented a Hindi language keyboard to cater to a majority of the non-English-speaking Indians. The lab has also developed a cheap touch-sensitive pad-based system to write emails. The text is digitised as you write and sent as an attachment to a normal email. "It opens up the possibility for people who are intimidated by keyboards to communicate via email," says Gupta.
“The biggest names in IT are hunting down the most inventive minds to populate their research labs”

Microsoft joined the party this year, with a research centre in Bangalore also intended to address the needs of India and other Asian markets, such as developing Indian-language versions of its software.

Companies are choosing Bangalore for one main reason: the availability of good computer-science professionals. "We weren't able to hire enough good-quality engineers in Silicon Valley," Bharat says. The concentration of high-tech companies in the city is unparalleled almost anywhere in the world. At last count, Bangalore had more than 150,000 software engineers - approaching the kind of numbers only Silicon Valley can boast.

As well as being a hotbed of computing expertise, Bangalore has significant scientific talent, especially in physics and materials science. It is this that companies such as GE have come to Bangalore for, along with Indian researchers' mathematical skills in analysis and modelling. "They spend as much time in front of the computer as they do in the wet lab," Wille says.
“At last count, Bangalore had more than 150,000 software engineers, the kind of numbers only Silicon Valley can boast”

Though Bangalore is the main focus for high-tech in India, it is not the only one. Other cities are vying for a piece of the research pie. IBM, for example, set up its labs on the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi in 1998, and now employs 100 researchers. Besides contributing to global projects such as the WebFountain web search engine, the centre invented a comprehensive voice-to-text recognition system that translates from Indian-accented English and Hindi into text in the respective language. "It's only on rare occasions like with the speech recognition system that our work has application only in India. Generally we try to build generic solutions that apply globally," says Ponani Gopalkrishnan, director of IBM's Delhi labs.

Though foreign multinationals have dominated the research agenda in India till now, a growing number of Indians who have worked abroad are returning home with cash, contacts and confidence to set up companies of their own. Mouli Raman, co-founder of Bangalore start-up OnMobile says, "For the first time, Indians who have been exposed to the world realise they can do something just as good. They believe they can be world-class."


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