Your professional ambition and personal mission could be on completely different tracks, but still create a strong impact in their own way !
Indradeep Ghosh (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Senior Director of Research at Fujitsu Research of America, works on algorithms pertaining to complex real world optimization problems with the aim to minimize computing resources or time taken.
Indradeep talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being profoundly influenced by the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore and embarking on a decade long personal quest to build technological solutions to reduce residential greenhouse gas emissions.
For students, there are various ways to make an impact in the world you live in. Your work or profession is just one part of the equation, look beyond and you will see several opportunities to contribute ! Check out Indradeep’s sustainability journey at Yellow Tin .
Indradeep, can you tell us a little bit our yourself and where you grew up?
I grew up in the city of Kolkata (it was called Calcutta then). For my grade school I went to St. Mary’s Orphanage and Day School, which was an English medium school run by the Christian Brothers organization. I transferred to Calcutta Boys School for the 2 years of high school where I studied in the science stream. My father is an electrical engineer. He was the first graduate in our family and he worked for the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation, the company that still provides electricity to the city of Kolkata. My mother was a homemaker taking care of me and my younger sister. We were a middle class family – not struggling but not very affluent either. Both of our grandparents stayed with us. It was a bit cramped in a smallish 3-bedroom apartment. There was a lot of foot traffic and hustle and bustle in a small space which I learned to tune out during my studies.
From my childhood, I had an engineering bent of mind and had created numerous electronics projects as my hobby, sometimes to be admonished by my parents as they did involve spending some money to get parts etc. My interest in electrical and electronics was further honed by interacting with my father and learning about his daily work in the technicalities of providing a big city like Kolkata with reliable power.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
I obtained my B.Tech. degree from Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur in Computer Science and Engineering. I went on to pursue a Masters and PhD degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Princeton University, New Jersey, USA. I graduated with a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering in 1998.
What were the key influences that led you on such an offbeat, unconventional and unique path?
Since my father was an electrical engineer, I had a role model in him which inspired me to become an engineer. Also, from my school days I could feel that I had acquired some of his aptitude in Mathematics and Science which was a good fit for engineering studies. Coupled with it was my aversion and fright for blood, which ruled out a medical career. I was fascinated by electronic circuits and created many models of radio/intercom/wireless sets as a hobby.
During my high school days, I had my first interaction with a rudimentary personal computer – the BBC micro which one of my friends had brought from the UK. It fascinated me. So I made up my mind to pursue engineering and the best choice of a college to study were the IITs. Hence, I started preparing for the exam and once I qualified, I was in two minds whether to choose traditional Electronics engineering or Computer Science and Engineering.
At that time Computers were an upcoming and booming field – a field that still keeps growing to this day. It was obvious to me that this technology will pervade all aspects of our daily life in the decades to come. Also, I understood that the Bachelor’s degree won’t be enough and I wanted to pursue higher studies in the field. At that time, research money was pouring into the nascent field in the US and abroad where I wanted to do my graduate studies. By questioning my seniors I could see the prospects of studying abroad were best in Computer Science and Engineering. So I decided to choose that field for my undergrad.
Tell us about your journey that led you to where you are today?
During my undergrad I developed a special affinity towards design and analysis of computer hardware which probably stemmed from my love for electronic circuits. So after graduating I applied abroad for a PhD program in some computer hardware related field. I got accepted with full scholarship into the Computer Engineering PhD program at Princeton University where I pursued research in computer hardware testing.
During two of the summers while I was doing my PhD I did internships at nearby industrial research laboratories. The first internship was at Lucent Bell Laboratories where I devised a new testing scheme for hardware circuits and published a paper on the work in an international conference. The second internship was at NEC research laboratories where we invented a new built-in testing scheme for core-based integrated circuit chips. This was also published in an IEEE Journal. These internships gave me the relevant experience to embark on a career in industrial research.
After graduating with a PhD, I interviewed at Fujitsu Laboratories of America in California for a researcher position to carry out industrial R&D on computer design automation whereby software design tools were created to design better and more powerful hardware. I was offered the position and that is how I embarked on my career in computer hardware research at one of the largest multinational companies in the world.
I was also offered positions at Lucent Bell Laboratories and NEC laboratories where I did my internships in New Jersey, but I decided to move to Silicon Valley where I felt was the center of innovation in computing hardware and this is true to some extent even now after 23 years.
How did you get your first break?
The interview opportunity at Fujitsu was created due to an IIT batch mate of mine who had already graduated at that time and accepted a researcher position in the company.
Other interview opportunities arose due to the summer internships that I did. However, I did not accept those offers.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Building on my research experience on testing of computer hardware, my first project was efficient testing and verification schemes of computer hardware which were written in high level hardware description languages like VHDL or Verilog. I continued this work for 5 years which resulted in multiple patents and publications in international Journals and conferences. Parts of those results were incorporated into a hardware verification tool that Fujitsu went on to license to engineering design automation company, Cadence. Also the concepts were utilized in testing of the first of its kind Gigabit Ethernet switch. I was part of the verification team when that networking switch was being designed in Fujitsu.
Other than my primary line of work, I became involved in some personal challenges which I work on the side. After watching the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore in the early part of this century, I became very involved in sustainability and climate change. Reducing and eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from daily life became a dream and passion. So I embarked on a decade-long quest of technological solutions to reduce residential greenhouse gas emissions which culminated in the design and implementation of my net energy positive household which I have named the “Energy+ house”. The household has been running with surplus solar energy for ten years now. To disseminate this knowledge and solutions among the general public, I joined the company YellowTin as one of the founding members. The company aims to decarbonize the residential sector with zero carbon energy solutions. I contribute to this company in a secondary capacity during my free time.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
At Fujitsu Research of America I currently manage a team of researchers working on various aspects of software and algorithm design. One of the teams works on algorithms pertaining to combinatorial optimizations. These problems occur in daily life everywhere and the challenge is to solve the problem so that minimum amount of resources or time is taken. For large real-life optimization problems that occur in fields like drug discovery, logistics and manufacturing even the fastest supercomputer will run out of steam rapidly. To remedy this, Fujitsu designed a special purpose chip called the digital annealer. This chip can be used with a lot of software and algorithmic tricks to tackle real life optimization problems. Our task is to design those algorithms and software and customizing them to tackle one type of industrial optimization problem at a time.
Other than this, we also have started work on Quantum Computing algorithms. Quantum computers are future computing machines which will be viable in a decade or so. Instead of classical electronic circuits they utilize the quantum effects that are prevalent in particle physics. Such types of computers can achieve huge performance gains over classical computers in solving certain types of problems. We are devising algorithms and software in parallel that can work on these computers when they become available in the future.
In order to do such cutting edge research you need to have a PhD degree in an associated field like Computer Science or Mathematics. Good programming skills are required to test out solutions and hypotheses. Finally, good presentation skills are required to concisely publish such research results in papers and patents and then to present them effectively in front of an audience.
A typical day consists of multiple meetings with team members to take stock of work progress and also to brainstorm on new research ideas. There are also a few meetings with management to update them on progress and broach new topics for research funding and also to present successful research results. A lot of time is spent reading relevant research papers on the topics we are working on. Sometimes I also attend industrial conferences and trade-shows to keep up to date with the latest developments in the area. During my free time I often have meetings with members of YellowTin to work on my side project. I also contribute to the content of the YellowTin website through a design specification document that I created in collaboration with the technical team.
I like this job as it is related to engineering which has always been my passion and because it lets you innovate and gives you an opportunity where you can see your ideas come to fruition in an industrial setting. There is scope of taking an idea from the eureka moment to an industrial product that generates revenue and creates value for society. Very few jobs can provide such a wide perspective. Also presenting research results and intermingling with great minds in Conferences and Trade shows is an added bonus.
How does your work benefit society?
The results of good fundamental research in computing or software finally finds its way into commercial or open source software that people use to make businesses and lives easier, more efficient, and to reduce costs. It makes communications, transactions, and creation more efficient and easy. For example, the optimization algorithms that we develop on top of Fujitsu’s chip help create better drugs, makes commodity delivery cheaper by calculating optimal delivery van routes, and help in discovering new compounds and polymers that can be used to create better consumer products.
The sustainability and residential decarbonization work I do on the side help in reducing greenhouse gas emissions that in turn aids in the fight against climate change which is one of the major challenges facing humans in the current century.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Even though I have done multiple projects in software, hardware and algorithms in my primary line of work at Fujitsu, which has resulted in publications and patents, I felt that this line of work is a bit removed from the day to day lives of normal humans and the impact takes time and is a bit indirect. During the early part of this century I watched the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” that showed the perils of continued greenhouse gas emissions in human society leading to climate change.
So I started thinking about how to go about reducing greenhouse gas emissions in daily life. The solution that I hit upon was to electrify the entire energy consumption in the household including transportation and then generating all the energy through solar panels in the house. It meant converting gas consuming appliances used for cooking, space heating, and water heating to equivalent electrical appliances and making the house more efficient from an energy consumption point of view. It also meant replacing the gasoline consuming cars with electric vehicles and then putting up a giant solar array on the roof to generate all that energy free from greenhouse gases.
I set about doing this project on my house in 2010 and finally finished it in 2011. I was not sure whether the solar array on the roof would be able to generate all the energy I needed and some people even called me crazy for trying to do this; but after one year of running I could get proof from my electric company that I was successful. I had generated more solar energy throughout the year than what I consumed in my house and cars – a situation now termed net energy positive. As a result I have not directly paid for energy for eleven years now. I do not have an electricity bill, LPG bill or gasoline bill. It is all free after the initial investment.
The local newspaper ran an article on the project which was a completely new concept at that time and I gave numerous talks on the project at various forums and held open houses where people came to see the solution. Now it is a generally accepted concept that electrification and renewable electricity generation is the key solution to mitigating climate change. There are now hundreds of houses in California and the US that have embraced such a solution and the Govt. is drafting various laws to accelerate its adoption.
Later, with a few of my peers, I became a founding member of the company YellowTin which aims to make residential electrification and solar generation easier for everyone. I contribute to this company in my free time.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
As you can see from the above example there are various ways to make an impact in the world you live in. If you are not satisfied with the impact that you are making in your primary line of work you can take up a secondary line of work in your free time – something that you are passionate about. It will be ideal if it becomes your primary work but even if it does not, there is no need to despair. Sometimes opportunities in that line may not arise immediately but can happen after a few years’ work. So never give up on your passion. Be practical with your daily life. Maybe going all out on a passion project entails too much risk. Then this is a way to keep it alive and burning and create an opportune moment to transition into it later.
As described above, my house is now running net energy positive for 11 years with all energy in the household generated by solar panels. However, it requires a scheme from the electric company called net energy metering (NEM). In this scheme I sell excess solar energy that I generate to the electric company at some time – say during the day or summer and then I draw from the grid at night or during winter when the solar is deficient. If the excess generation is more than the electricity drawn at the end of a year, then there is no electricity bill to be paid. Though this solution works, it still relies on the grid and the electric company for proper operation. In future I would like to be more self-reliant in my house and store that excess energy in a battery for later consumption – a situation termed off-grid. It is not an easy task as during winter sometimes solar generation can be hampered due to storms for days. It will require multiple engineering tricks to make the solution work reliably. Currently I am creating the plan and design for such an off-grid house which I plan to construct within the next five years. If successful it will create a paradigm shift in the way we consume energy. It will make house owners their own energy providers eliminating the need for a centralized grid and many electric utility companies, gas companies, and oil companies.