Navigating challenges in pioneering technologies: Prof Laxmidhar Behera, Director, IIT Mandi

Professor Laxmidhar Behera, Director, IIT Mandi discusses the current landscape of pioneering technologies, and India's position in the field

Supriya Rai
New Update
Professor Laxmidhar Behera, Director, IIT Mandi

Navigating challenges in pioneering technologies is a dynamic and intricate journey marked by constant evolution and innovation. As groundbreaking technologies emerge, the path forward is often riddled with complexities ranging from ethical considerations to technical limitations. Pioneers in the field must grapple with uncharted territories, unforeseen obstacles, and the imperative to balance rapid progress with responsible development. 


These challenges extend beyond the technical domain, encompassing societal, regulatory, and global dimensions. Successfully navigating this terrain requires a blend of adaptability, collaboration, and forward-thinking strategies to not only overcome hurdles but also to shape the trajectory of technological progress responsibly. In this landscape, a careful and strategic approach is essential to ensure that pioneering technologies contribute positively to society while mitigating potential risks.

In a candid conversation with Dataquest at the IIT Mandi iHub and HCI foundation HIVE conclave, Professor Laxmidhar Behera, Director, IIT Mandi discusses the current landscape of pioneering technologies, addressing the skepticism around India's position in the field. The dialogue explores measures to cultivate a culture that encourages students to take a pioneering role in emerging technologies, emphasizing the crucial need for building a robust Indian database. Profound insights and perspectives are shared on navigating challenges in the realm of generative AI, ensuring a candid and enlightening discussion.


DQ: How does the academic and research environment at IIT Mandi distinguish itself from other institutions, and what specific initiatives are being undertaken to promote interdisciplinary collaboration among scientific minds in the country?

Prof Laxmidhar Behera: Every IIT possesses its unique strengths, and IIT Mandi, being a relatively young institution, is strategically focusing its energy in specific directions. Currently, we have identified four key thematic areas. The first involves the establishment of a center in Human-Computer Interface (HCI), which includes ambitious projects such as developing artificial skin for digital touch, digital taste for bio-manufacturing customized food, digital smell, and air ambulance technology.

In the realm of AI and robotics, our center is dedicated to specific themes, including drone technology for disaster management and civil applications. Notably, we are actively working on creating a robotic nurse to provide care for patients while insulating doctors or caregivers from direct contact.


Additionally, our Center for Quantum Science and Technology collaborates with prestigious institutions such as the National Institute of Material Science in Japan and PRL Ahmedabad. This collaboration aims to advance quantum technology, with a bold plan to build a quantum computer within the next two years, aligning with India's focus on the quantum mission.

Recognizing the global challenge of mental health, the fourth interdisciplinary focus area is our Center for Indian Knowledge System and Mental Health Application. Drawing from the holistic understanding present in Indian traditions, including Ayurveda, Bhagavad Gita, and Upanishads, we aim to integrate this knowledge into scientific endeavors. Our goal is to develop products that address mental stress, anxiety, and various brain disorders such as autism and Alzheimer's disease.

In summary, these four interdisciplinary areas—Human-Computer Interface, AI and Robotics, Quantum Science and Technology, and Indian Knowledge System and Mental Health Application—represent IIT Mandi's commitment to advancing cutting-edge research and addressing critical challenges.


DQ: Can you provide more details about the industry partnerships forged by IIT Mandi and elucidate on their contributions to the broader scientific and research landscape in the country?

Prof Laxmidhar Behera: You can see that the industry plays a pivotal role, especially with my association with TCS. We are engaging TCS in the realm of human-computer interaction. Moreover, we have collaborated with TCS to enhance our entrepreneurship program within the academic curriculum. We're instituting a program where students can earn credits for entrepreneurial activities, subject to competitive selection. This initiative aims to identify and mentor students with a natural aptitude for entrepreneurship, with TCS and other partners contributing to the mentorship process. The focus is primarily on our undergraduate students, recognizing their potential to become successful entrepreneurs without the necessity of venturing to places like the Bay Area or Silicon Valley.

In the process, we are working on establishing a research park. Despite IIT Mandi's remote location, efforts are underway to foster innovation. We have a Section 8 company, IHAB, and SCI Foundation, along with a dynamic incubator called Catalyst. With over 20 crores invested in funding, our incubation efforts have already seen success, with one company having a profitable exit through acquisition by an American company. We anticipate more such exits, creating a pathway for startups to be acquired by larger entities. Currently, we have over 200 startups incubated at IIT Mandi, and to further enhance their reach and industrial connections, we've secured space in Bangalore through the IIT SEB forum. This strategic move allows our startups to have a broader impact and connect with industries in the thriving ecosystem of Bangalore.


DQ: Given the significant developments in generative AI and Sam Altman's perspective on Indian researchers, it's essential to approach this with a degree of skepticism. Currently, it seems that India is not at the forefront of pioneering technologies. In light of this, what measures can be implemented to cultivate a culture that encourages our students to take a pioneering role in emerging technologies and related fields?

Prof Laxmidhar Behera: This is the topic we've been addressing today—why AI technology hasn't been integrated into the Indian system, primarily due to the absence of an Indian database. Currently, our researchers rely on databases from institutions like MIT or Berkeley, which are predominantly American or European. It's crucial for us to recognize this reality and take proactive steps to create our own databases. While we do have a rich source in Indian languages, particularly Sanskrit, for databases, we lack application-specific data.

At IIT Mandi, I've emphasized to my faculty members the importance of focusing on generating Indian databases. AI fundamentally relies on data, and the absence of Indian databases across various fields such as medicine, education, and entertainment has been a significant drawback. It's imperative for us to acknowledge this deficiency and invest in creating databases tailored to the Indian context. Additionally, the diverse nature of regions in India poses another challenge. Each region, like Odisha or Himachal, has a unique data landscape, adding complexity to the task. Recognizing and addressing these challenges in acquiring and utilizing Indian data is key to developing India-centric AI.


DQ: You mentioned that sustainability is a key focus area in the research efforts of IIT Mandi. If we step back a bit, about a month ago, there was a viral video depicting the alarming situation of trees being washed away in Mandi, particularly. In the face of pressing global challenges like climate change and sustainability, I'm curious to know how IIT Mandi is actively engaging in research and developing solutions in this specific area. Could you provide some highlights on the institute's contributions and initiatives related to addressing these environmental concerns?

Prof Laxmidhar Behera: IIT Mandi is situated in a seismic zone prone to cloud bursts, landslides, and other natural challenges. Addressing these issues is a priority, and our faculty members have already developed a Landslide Monitoring System. However, it's essential to acknowledge that any system reliant on data takes time to become robust. Accumulating data over the years is crucial for the effectiveness of the landslide monitoring system. It undergoes variations and refinements based on data collected over at least five years. Implementing data-centric models requires patience, as they do not yield instantaneous results. Currently, we are collaborating with stakeholders, including the Ministry of Earth Science and DGRI, to develop a scientific understanding of landslides and implement effective mitigation and remedial measures. These efforts represent some of the key initiatives we are actively pursuing.

DQ: How do you envision the future growth and development of IIT Mandi?

Prof Laxmidhar Behera: At IIT Mandi, a notable strength lies in our vibrant and youthful faculty, characterized by enthusiasm and adaptability. Guiding them in a specific direction is relatively easy, and our approach emphasizes aligning their interests with focused interdisciplinary areas. While we respect and prioritize their individual interests, the goal is to channel these interests towards tangible deliverables. By establishing these focused interdisciplinary areas, we anticipate time-bound deliverables emerging from IIT Mandi, attracting a talented pool of students and faculty members. As mentioned earlier, our emphasis on entrepreneurship, innovation, and the practical implementation of technological advancements is a key focus. The aim is not only to foster technological innovation but also to translate these innovations into marketable products, creating a tangible impact on the ground. It would be gratifying to see IIT Mandi continue along this path of transformative research and innovation.