India is a net taker from the open source movement – Professor DB Phatak, IIT Bombay

by Prabhakar Deshpande, InformationWeek, August 18, 2014

Padmashri Professor DB Phatak's name needs no introduction. In an extensive interview, Prof Phatak shares his thoughts on the potential of open source, and how technology can transform healthcare and education

Albert Einsten said, “I want to know the mind of God, the rest are details.” Some technology analysts would say that in the area of Information and Communication Technology, it is important to know the mind of Professor Deepak Phatak, IIT Bombay - the rest are details.

Introducing Professor Deepak Phatak, IIT Bombay to Indian audience is akin to introducing Sachin Tendulkar to Indians, a sacrilege one would hazard at one’s own peril. Suffice it to remind that Professor Deepak Phatak, IIT Bombay is a recipient of the Padma Shri for his contribution to Science and Technology.

In an interview with Prabhakar Deshpande, Professor DB Phatak shares his perspective on the role of open source and how technology can transform healthcare and education.

Some edited excerpts:

Has open source failed to live up to its commercial potential?
Two types of activities happen in the open source world - volunteers who contribute to open source software and companies who take open source software; add value to it and create services out of it. I would say both are growing significantly. The word ‘failure’ is associated with expectation. I would not put that kind of value judgement on it. I would say that open source is an important movement and growing vibrantly in rest of the world, but perhaps not so well in India.

India is a net taker from the open source movement and not a net giver. Indian contribution to open source is less considering its IT competence. When India starts to contribute to open source, there would be greater availability of open source. Open source has not failed; perhaps it has not flourished; but it is growing steadily.

[INTEROP is honoring Professor DB Phatak with a Life Time Achievement Award on September 5th - a perfect day to honor one of the greatest teachers in India. To attend the felicitation and view the conference agenda, please visit Interop Mumbai ]


How has computing contributed to health care?
The first wave of computing has affected business processes. Information availability has significantly improved business and its ease of operations. Indeed without a web presence, it would be impossible to run a business. Computing has thus created disruptive innovation in business. The next wave of disruptive innovation is likely to happen in education and health care.

Computing is changing health care. For instance, consider personalised drug delivery where drugs can be administered in such a way that micro globules open up at different timings. These micro globules would burst, say at every five minutes. This would make available medicines at a uniform level at every instant.  The second is related to keeping records of patient’s medical history and improving treatment. Due to availability of digital records, doctors can provide more meaningful treatment. Computing has certainly improved management of hospitals.

Computing is also contributing to gene sequencing, which will help us know the probability of certain diseases occurring, say cancer. This will enable us to know likely mutation and help in providing better treatment. Of course these are early days, but in the next 30-40 years it will revolutionize health care.

Bioinformatics is a growing area. Currently Bioinformatics is an esoteric area, just as engineering was a few decades ago. But it is certainly a growing area. The way to judge how any field such as Bioinformatics is growing is by seeing the number of courses and number of students pursuing it a few years ago, and pursuing it now.
Yes, not much may have happened till date, but the next wave of disruption due to technology will certainly be in healthcare and education.

How is computing improving education?
Earlier it was necessary to attend a class room. Now, due to technology, it is possible to attend classrooms at home, and then come to classrooms for discussion. Usually students attend lectures in classroom and do homework. This can be opposite. It is flip class room, where students can attend a video recorded lecture at home. And then come to classroom for discussion. This improves learning outcomes significantly.
There is a huge amount of educational content that is available that can be preloaded on computers. This is possible through technology. The second factor is reach. Technology can extend reach of education to remote places.

Now we can have massive online courses, where it is not just the content, but the entire sequence – discussion, problem solving, exams, grading that can be done through technology. It is now possible to earn credit from different educational institutes for different courses and transfer credits to get a degree. This is possible only because of Information and Communication Technology.

Now it is possible to extend education to weaker sections of population. Technology can reduce cost of expensive education and not just extend its reach to remote places but also to weaker sections of population. Technology will revolutionize education in next 8-10 years.

Why has computing led productivity increase not led to reduced hours or increased incomes?
There is another way to measure productivity. That is by the output. Now due to computing, output has increased considerably. The society does not care about your income or hours you work; society cares about output.

 And it is not true that incomes have not increased. Incomes have increased significantly even in developing nations. And income is related to demand and supply and not output. Income is related to your position in organisation.

What should the government do to use technology to improve quality of life?
The quality of life depends upon education and healthcare. Government must encourage use of technology to improve education and health care. Education increases ability to generate wealth. Healthcare makes life easy. Added to that is e-governance. Government must make it easy to access government services through technology.

I wish to add another thing. As a society we lack social discipline. Whether it is jumping red light in traffic or any other area, we do not have discipline. Education, Health care and E-governance may improve quality of life for individual, but not for society. That requires social discipline.

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