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Plugging in the Indian brain

Plugging in the Indian brain
From a country that has produced the Vedas and Upanishads, made strides in mathematics and philosophy since ancient times, one would naturally expect intellectual capital of the highest order. However, in modern history, India has not shone brilliantly as the West, with their gunpowder and sophisticated warfare technology ruled the continents of the earth.

The Indian Brains Trust
The glimmering of the Indian brain is shining through in our modern era and, once again, the Indian brain is whizzing wonders and drawing applause from the four corners of the globe. Indians have been at work in the topmost universities internationally and are part of numerous think tanks that look into micro and macro minutiae of human, technological, political, scientific and legal affairs of mankind. Thirty six per cent of scientists at NASA are Indians. Indians also dominate Silicon Valley’s immigrant entrepreneur scene. Neesha Bapat, Lead Researcher for America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs – Then and Now at Stanford University published her findings, stating: “If you visited Silicon Valley in the ‘50s and ‘60s the only Indians you would meet were a few low-level engineers who came to the US to study and ended up staying.  Indians were stereotyped as beggars and snake charmers, and finding them in leadership positions in the technology industry was unimaginable.”
She goes on to say that, “Then in the ‘70s and ‘80s, waves of IIT graduates migrated to the Valley because they felt stifled by India’s socialist regime (IIT’s are India’s top engineering
colleges). One by one, they mastered the Valley’s unwritten rules of engagement and shattered its glass ceiling.”

Finally she concludes with her astonishment at the figures of Indian immigrants doing well for themselves in the highest velocity rat race: “But the biggest surprise – or should I say shock – is that Indians are dominating immigrant entrepreneurship. Nationwide, Indians founded eight per cent of all technology and engineering startups and yet still comprise less than one per cent of the US population. Our research has shown that Indians now outnumber the next seven immigrant groups combined and start 33.2 per cent of all immigrant-founded startups in the US. The proportion of all immigrant founded companies has fallen in Silicon Valley, but Indians have resisted this downward trend.  In fact, the proportion of all Silicon Valley companies founded by Indians has slightly increased from 13.4 per cent to 14 per cent since 2007.”

Tapping the huge potential
That the Indian brain could be plugged into existing thinking constructs and be made to reap rich dividends was proved by the famous ‘Hole In The Wall’ experiment of the Chief Scientist at NIIT, Dr. Saugata Mitra. In his dream of ‘minimally invasive education’ he turned the exercise of learning on its head and showed the world what slum children, with no knowledge of computers can teach themselves if a computer was made available to them. This unsupervised learning, which was experimented with first in 1999, in Kalkaji, New Delhi, and then in two villages in Madhya Pradesh and in Uttar Pradesh. It was proved beyond doubt that, in Dr. Mitra’s own words, “The acquisition of basic computing skills by any set of children can be achieved through incidental learning provided the learners are given access to a suitable computing facility, with entertaining and motivating content and some minimal (human) guidance.”

At the other end of the spectrum, with Indians who have had a start in life we have the figures for the enterprise and ingenuity they have shown in the New World of opportunity in the report of Neesha Bapat, again, who has been quoted before: “It’s not just Silicon Valley. We found that Indians start more companies than any other immigrant group in California (26 per cent), Massachusetts (28 per cent), Texas (17 per cent), Florida (17 per cent), New York (27 per cent), and New Jersey  (57 per cent).

This is amazing, especially since Indians only represent between 0.7 per cent and 3.4 per cent of the populations of these states. Indians also lead all immigrant groups in the number of companies founded in the following industries: biosciences (35 per cent), computers/communications (28 per cent), innovation/manufacturing-related services (29 per cent), semiconductors (32 per cent), software (33 per cent), environmental (39 per cent), and defence/aerospace (29 per cent).

Accolades from Everywhere

Recognition of Indian brainpower has come in from the highest places. The White House Science Fair this year, focussed specifically on diversity and included more than 100 students from 30 states of the US, comprising more than 40 science competitions and organisations. Thirty-five teams showcased their projects and President Barrack Obama came in person to view 12 of the exhibits. Among the budding teenage scientists there were a number of Indian entrants. Anvita Gupta, aged 17, from Scottsdale, Arizona, won Third Place Distinction for Global Good. In her project she used an algorithm to help identify possible new drugs to treat Ebola, cancer and tuberculosis. Of her project President Obama said, “Anvita used artificial intelligence and biochemistry to identify potential treatments for cancer, tuberculosis, Ebola. What she’s done is she’s developed an algorithm that could potentially significantly speed up the process of finding drugs that might work against these diseases. Anvita’s algorithm has the potential of speeding up pathways to discovering what drugs would work on what diseases, and is consistent with some of the work that we announced around precision medicine that we are funding at a significant pace here at the White House.” Among the other contestants that caught the eye there was Trisha Prabhu with her computer programme ‘Rethink’ that alerts users when an outgoing message contains language that is potentially abusive and hurtful.

Another Indian-American youngster, Sahil Doshi, displayed the his innovative carbon-dioxide powered battery called PolluCell. Nikhil Behari from Pennsylvania exhibited his easy-to-use security system developed totally independently which is versatile and effective in protecting online data. Obama remembered Nikhil in his remarks saying, “He’s a freshman in high school, interested in how we can better protect ourselves against hackers and data thieves online. So scientists are already using biometrics to prove that each of us walk in our own distinct ways”.

San Jose resident, Ruchi Pandya, brought to the exhibition the one-square centimetre carbon nanofibre electrode-based biosensor that has the potential to improve cardiac health diagnostics for patients around the world. The President said that Ruchi had found a way to use a single drop of blood to test a person’s heart function much like a person with diabetes tests their blood sugar.
In his concluding remarks, the US President remarked, “Now, I should point out that, like several of the young people here, Anvita and Ruchi are first-generation Americans. Their parents came here, in part, so their kids could develop their talents and make a difference in the world. And we’re really glad they did.” Of the quality of work and commitment he witnessed, the President said, “ They teach us how to question assumptions, to wonder why something is the way it is, and how we can make it better. They remind us that there’s always something more to learn, and to try, and to discover, and to imagine – and that it’s never too early, or too late to create or discover something new. It’s a mindset that says we that can use reason and logic and honest inquiry to reach new conclusions and solve big problems. And that’s what we are celebrating here today with these amazing young people.”

Prestigious appointees from both genders on the top of the Learning Curve
People from India have been gracing the highest positions in corporations, institutions and government bodies all over the world. This distinction has been afforded to high achieving Indian women as well. There are many examples but to take up one, of recent note, who had visited India a few weeks ago, we could share the climb to fame and regard of 52-year old Paula Gangopadhyay who was hand-picked by President Obama, three years ago, to serve on the National Museum and Library Services Board. She is also the Chief Learning Officer for the Henry Ford Museums. Her Innovation Learning Accelerator initiative was lauded by President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2013. Apart from this she has picked up a clutch of American national awards on the way through an illustrious career.

Paula Gangopadhyay has five pointers for teachers to encourage their wards to innovate:

1)      Allow the kids to ask questions – because the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ are important.
2)      Develop divergent thinkers rather than convergent thinkers – because that is what today’s workforce demands.
3)      Don’t be boring and ponderous, but be a facilitator of learning – that would make learning fun and encourage creativity.
4)      Vale different learning styles for different pupils, and different pace of learning as well.
5)      Make room for creativity in the curriculum in spite of shackling tests and standards.

With these well meaning words, we can all hope that the future of India, as a brain box at the service of the nation and of the larger cause of humanity would be ensured. And may this future last us forever!

Paula Gangopadhyay has five pointers for teachers to encourage their wards to innovate:

*Allow the kids to ask questions – because the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ are important.

*Develop divergent thinkers rather than convergent thinkers – because that is what today’s workplace demands.

*Don’t be boring and ponderous, but be a facilitator of learning – that would make learning fun and encourage creativity.

*Value different learning styles for different pupils, and different pace of learning as well.

*Make room for creativity in the curriculum in spite of shackling tests and standards.

It'S NOT
just Silicon Valley. We found that Indians start more companies than any other immigrant group in California (26 per cent), Massachusetts (28 per cent), Texas (17 per cent), Florida (17 per cent), New York (27 per cent), and New Jersey  (57 per cent). This is amazing, especially since Indians only represent between 0.7 per cent and 3.4 per cent of the populations of these states.

Indians also lead all immigrant groups in the number of companies founded in the following industries: biosciences (35 per cent), computers/communications (28 per cent), innovation/manufacturing-related services (29 per cent), semiconductors (32 per cent), software 33 per cent), environmental (39 per cent), and defence/aerospace (29)

The author is a writer and documentary film-maker who lives both in New Delhi and in Calcutta
Ankur Roy Chowdhury

Ankur Roy Chowdhury

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