Thursday, July 18, 2024

“Music Is An Integral Part Of My Life, And I Cannot Imagine My Life Without It”

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Prof. V. Kamakoti, the esteemed Director of IIT Madras and the visionary pioneer behind India’s groundbreaking indigenous computer microprocessor ‘Shakti,’ graciously shares his extraordinary journey. From his deep commitment to education and innovation to his passion for music and rural education, Prof. Kamakoti offers insights and shares his experiences in conversation with Sudeshna Das, Consulting Editor of the EFY Group

Prof. V. Kamakoti Director, IIT Madras

I was born in Chennai in 1968. My father, a professor of Sanskrit at the University of Madras, hailed from a family of academicians, while my mother was a homemaker. Both my paternal and maternal grandparents resided in villages. My father held a strong belief in the cultural richness of rural India, and as a result, he was determined that I spend my early years in the village rather than the city. This belief in the essence of Indian culture residing in rural areas significantly influenced my life’s journey and shaped my personality.” Prof. Kamakoti’s life story commences with this intriguing anecdote, a tale that profoundly impacted his path and character.

Nurturing roots and happiness

Prof. Kamakoti’s early childhood was primarily spent in the villages of Mudikondan and Vishnupuram, located in southern Tamil Nadu, where he resided with his grandparents. He gained firsthand knowledge of the challenges associated with farming and agricultural practices, gaining a deep understanding of the hardships of rural life. Moreover, he imbibed a valuable lesson about the importance of local flora and fauna.

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At legendry M.S. Subbulakshmi’s residence—around 1992-1996

“In our villages, farmers are regarded as the cornerstone of society, as they provide sustenance for everyone. If the farmers were to cease their food production, regardless of how much wealth one possesses, it would all become meaningless. This was one of the insightful lessons I learned during my formative years in the village. I believe that my father’s decision to immerse me in village life during my early years was a profound one.”

Upon returning to Chennai, the young Kamakoti commenced his preschool education. During this period, he was a timid and introverted boy, quite unlike the person he has become today, as he humorously mentions. His school years, from preschool to the 10th standard, were marked with enjoyment and a lack of inclination towards becoming an academic overachiever.

His life as a school cricket team’s opening batsman was progressing well until an incident in the middle of the seventh grade. A bouncer struck his spectacles with a cricket ball, prompting his father to worry that he might eventually suffer a head injury. In response, his father took his cricket bat and threw it into a well, declaring that he could pursue anything except cricket. Kamakoti did not accept this decision easily and protested for two months. Nonetheless, he soon discovered another passion that would become a lifelong companion—the violin. He found an excellent violin teacher living just across the street from his home and began learning to play the violin, quickly developing a deep passion for the instrument.

“As a director, when I see students who are stressed or depressed, I recognise that societal and family pressure are often the root cause. Fortunately, except for the cricket debacle, my parents did not impose anything on me. This was a significant contribution to my life.”

The 10th grade marked a turning point in his life. His grandfather, an astrologer, predicted that he would excel in academia in the future. This prediction motivated Kamakoti to intensify his studies.

Prof. Kamakoti playing violin

Driven by the aspiration to excel academically, Kamakoti secured admission to the prestigious PS Senior Secondary School in Mylapore, located in the heart of Chennai. However, shortly after joining the new school, he fractured his hand. As a result, his performance in the first quarterly examination was dismal, with a score of 25 out of 100 in mathematics. Nevertheless, after receiving counselling from the school principal, his academic performance improved. In the subsequent quarterly examination, he achieved a score of 50 out of 100, and in the final exam, he earned a perfect 100 in mathematics and 90 in physics, although chemistry posed a challenge. He reminisces about securing his position as a top 2% scorer in mathematics in the CBSE 12th board exams. However, he emphasises that numbers and scores don’t define a person’s worth. What truly matters is the support and opportunities one receives, just as his parents provided him with a window to explore and succeed.

Pledging an India-centric academic path

Reflecting on his college days, Prof. Kamakoti recalls, “I was unable to clear the IIT entrance examination, so I joined Sri Venkateswara College of Engineering. The college was situated in a remote area, nearly 40 kilometres away from my home, with limited bus transportation. I was fortunate to have exceptional professors like Prof. S.D. Nigam, Prof. Venkatesha Nayak Sujeer, Prof. Raja Raja Verma, Prof. Thirumalpad, and Prof. N. Venkateswaran, who were from renowned educational institutions, who provided me with valuable guidance in subjects like computer architecture, physics, chemistry, and electronics.”

It was during his engineering college years that Prof. Kamakoti was introduced to the field of Computer Science & Electronics. He elaborates, “In my college days, computer science was a subset of electronics. We studied some programming languages like BASIC and COBOL, but our curriculum primarily focused on digital and analogue circuits, and computer architecture courses. Additionally, I began exploring advanced concepts related to hardware implementation of reconfigurable computing during my engineering days. At that time, FPGAs were not as prevalent as they are today, and I worked with something known as a programmable array of adders. These hexagonal elements were like the FPGAs we have today, and I was involved in developing a self-reconfiguring, fault-tolerant programmable array. We designed logic, lookup tables, and defined the data path and control paths. This work led to the creation of a logic block observer called built-in logic block observer (BILBO).” Notably, this was a time before the internet, so all his research and work relied heavily on extensive library access.

Reflecting on his college years, he also shares a profound commitment and vow he made during this period. “During my college days, I had the privilege of being in the presence of my Guruji, the Acharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam Sri Chandrashekarendra Saraswati. He advised me to stay in India and contribute to the country through my work. I took a solemn vow that I would not travel abroad, obtain a passport, nor leave India. I resolved to stay in India and dedicate myself to serving the nation. Hence, I continued my PhD here, and to this day, I do not possess a passport.”

Prof. Kamakoti with wife and kid

Art-integrated learning

During his school and college years, Prof. Kamakoti began experimenting extensively with Carnatic music and the violin. He even developed a unique approach to memorising complex mathematical equations using musical rhythms. He recalls, “I remember struggling with certain intricate organic chemistry formulas. At that time, I transformed them into equations resembling music with mathematics and memorised them with the help of musical rhythms. Looking back, this creative memorisation method was quite effective. Find what you love in whatever you do, and you will automatically love and get deeply involved in your action.”

Prof. Kamakoti also had the privilege of forming a close relationship with the legendary singer and Bharat Ratna award recipient Late M.S. Subbulakshmi, a renowned singer whom he held in great affection.

As his father was assisting M.S. Subbulakshmi in Sanskrit, Prof. Kamakoti had the opportunity to participate in many of her recordings, including the Balaji Pancharatna and several others.

With his students on the day of completing a course

These experiences shaped him in various ways. The ability to rebound from setbacks is a valuable skill, both in art and life. Performing arts, like music and sports, instil this resilience and elegance in the face of challenges. “Art-integrated learning has been instrumental in my journey, offering valuable life lessons and creativity,” he agrees.

Stepping into the professional arena

Following his BTech, Prof. Kamakoti performed exceptionally well in the GATE examination, securing admission offers from both IIT Kanpur and IIT Madras. Driven by his passion for research and a desire to contribute to the field, he chose to remain in Chennai and continued his academic journey with an MS (by research) and PhD at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, IIT Madras. In 1994, he was awarded a PhD degree. His specialisations include graph theory, computational geometry, computer architecture, information security, and VLSI design.

Before joining the faculty at his alma mater, Prof. Kamakoti completed two post-doctoral assignments—one at the Supercomputer Education and Research Center, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and the other at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. He fondly remembers this period, saying, “During this time, I had the opportunity to interact with accomplished individuals, thanks to my father, who was a highly respected Indian logician, Vedantic scholar, and philosopher. He served as a professor and headed the Department of Sanskrit at the University of Madras, and his extensive network included prominent teachers and thought leaders.

He got married in 1997. His wife, who came from a family with a strong educational background, shared his commitment to education. Her family had founded a school in 1960 that catered to around 600 rural children, while Prof. Kamakoti’s great-grandfather established a school in 1914 that had over 1200 students. Today, their family continues to mentor schools that provide education to thousands of children below the poverty line, a mission they are deeply committed to.

The marriage between Prof. Kamakoti and his wife was not just a union of two individuals but a fusion of their families’ legacies in education. This shared commitment to education became even more significant in the years that followed when Prof. Kamakoti took on the role of director at the school. He aimed to provide high-quality education to children from rural backgrounds without compromising on admission standards, a mission he continues to pursue.

Prof. Kamakoti greeting former President, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam

In 1998, Prof. Kamakoti and his wife welcomed their daughter into the world on Saraswati Puja day, and they named her Bharathi, another name of Saraswati—the Hindu Goddess of knowledge, wisdom, music, arts, and learning.

Prof. Kamakoti’s professional journey continued to evolve. He moved back to Chennai to be closer to his parents and took up a postdoctoral position at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc). During this time, he was engaged in theoretical computer science research, publishing extensively, and gaining valuable insights. He also set up a small supercomputer cluster at IMSc, which provided him with practical experience in building and maintaining such systems.

This period marked a transition in his career when he received a job offer from ATI Technologies, a Silicon Valley company setting up an office in Chennai. He recalls, “Initially, they offered me a 10x increase from my previous salary. It was a generous package.”

After joining the company, he was responsible for forming a group of pre- and post- silicon processor verification and testing. Setting up the company’s office in Chennai was not without its challenges, including administrative and logistical issues. However, with his Chennai roots and connections, the team managed to overcome these hurdles.

Exploring the path of an academician

At this point, Prof. Kamakoti received offers from both the Indian Institute of Science and IIT Madras. Ultimately, he decided to join IIT Madras. It was a difficult decision for him as he shares, “On one side was my current job, paying around `200,000 per month, and on the other, an assistant professor position offering `21,000 a month. During this period, my Guruji was not present, but his teachings had instilled in me a sense of clarity and purpose. I am grateful for my wife’s support. She managed our household with my reduced salary. This mutual understanding was crucial and turned our house into a home. These moments became pivotal in my life.”

From 2001 to 2009, before assuming the role of a professor, he worked on noteworthy projects involving hardware verification and development, collaborating with companies such as Intel and Xilinx on various projects. He also facilitated the placement of numerous students, with companies such as Open-Silicon and Intel hiring several of their graduates.

After joining IIT Madras, he embarked on a journey into VLSI. He was eager to work in an area that was underrepresented in the department. Prof. Kamakoti initiated a campaign to highlight VLSI as a field which has tremendous potential. He revived the CAD for the VLSI subject, which had previously been handled by someone else in his department but had come to a halt. The CS 6230 course, which he initiated in 2001, received significant interest, with 70 registrations.

However, he soon realised the need for commercial tools to support the course and create job opportunities. He remembers, “This is where Naveed Sherwani, Satya Gupta, and Chitra Hariharan, the co-founders of Open-Silicon, played a crucial role. We acquired essential tools for teaching, including licenses from Magma. With a humble beginning and under $10,000 from Open-Silicon and commercial EDA tools from Magma, with help from Anand Anandkumar, who was heading Magma India at that time. This marked the inception of my journey with VLSI at IIT Madras.”

IIT Madras alumni support was instrumental, with a funding of around $60,000. Subsequently, another batch of alumni from 1986 and 1982 contributed a substantial amount. This funding allowed him to expand the VLSI endeavours and further support doctoral students. “With this modest beginning, I embarked on my VLSI journey at IIT Madras, where we took on large-scale designs and even attempted to clone the x86 architecture given my knowledge in x86 instruction set architecture. This turned out to be a challenging task due to the complexity. In those days, the decoder, responsible for finding instruction boundaries in the fast-changing x86 instructions, was a significant accomplishment.

Around 2003, he got involved and led the Special Manpower Development Program initiated by the Ministry of Electronics, Government of India. Prof. Kamakoti, along with other members, formed the Reconfigurable Intelligence Systems Engineering (RISE) group, with a vision of engineering intelligent systems. He used to believe that systems would evolve to be more intelligent, and looking back, the name RISE stands apt today.

In 2009, when he assumed the role of a professor, it marked a turning point. He remembers, “I also became the vice-chairman of the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) committee at IIT Madras, which was an interesting experience, although I earlier failed in that examination. A poignant memory during this period was when a distressed student approached me after failing an examination. She had come all the way from Andhra Pradesh, and her dream was shattered. I could only offer her solace by sharing that I had faced similar setbacks in my academic journey. I assured her that she could still achieve great things, which, fortunately, she found reassuring.”

In 2011, he organised India’s premier VLSI Design conference at IIT Madras, strengthening his ties with the VLSI community. Around 2012, he began pondering the question of what significant contribution he could make to his country. “I felt that we needed to move beyond academic pursuits and look for real-world, transformative projects. Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s vision for India in 2020 resonated with me. He urged us to work on concrete solutions rather than abstract concepts, inspiring my journey towards a significant project for the country,” he explains.

At that time, the proliferation of mobile devices and surveillance cameras caught his attention. Processors were in high demand. So, he decided to explore the possibility of creating an indigenous processor for the nation. “However, developing a processor wasn’t just about designing the hardware. We needed a robust software stack and a market for our processor. These challenges led us to explore open instruction set architectures,” he narrates.

Few favourite things of Prof. Kamakoti
Music genre: Indian classical music including Carnatic music and Hindustani music
Music director: Ilayaraja
Actor: M.G. Ramachandran
Actress: Padmini
Singer: M.S. Subbulakshmi
Movie(s): Nadodi Mannan, Oppenheimer, Sholay
Comics character: Tintin
Comics book: The Castafiore Emerald
Food: Lady’s finger/Okra fry

Initially, Prof. Kamakoti and his team members considered IBM Power, which was an open instruction set architecture. However, joining the Open Power Consortium also came with financial constraints that didn’t align with their budget. Therefore, they also evaluated SPARC, but its legacy and learning curve were impractical for the academic environment. The need for a comprehensive software stack was paramount.

In 2013, they came across RISC-V, a clean-slate open instruction set architecture project led by UC Berkeley. This development sparked their interest, as it promised a serious, well-supported initiative with a complete software stack. Late one night, they decided to switch their focus to RISC-V and renamed the project Shakti, meaning ‘power’ in Sanskrit.

Between 2013 and 2017, they tirelessly worked on raising awareness and convincing funding agencies of the importance of their project. Many were unfamiliar with RISC-V, and some doubted its feasibility. However, they persevered, determined to see their vision through. During this time, they developed a basic five-stage pipeline processor as part of a student project, which gave them a solid foundation to build upon.

Rising as a thought leader

In 2017, Prof. Kamakoti’s team reached a stage where significant progress was evident. During this period, another significant development occurred with the introduction of BlueSpec, a hardware description language. BlueSpec stood out as a rule-oriented programming language designed to identify common design flaws early in the design cycle, dramatically enhancing productivity. The team started using BlueSpec in 2017 when the license cost was close to a million dollars. Fortunately, they received 250 licenses free of charge and, subsequently, BlueSpec became open source.

This shift to BlueSpec marked a pivotal moment in their Shakti project, an initiative focused on developing indigenous computer microprocessors in India. The aim of the project was to design and create microprocessors that are built in India, reducing dependence on foreign-made microprocessors, and promoting self-reliance in the field of semiconductor technology.

Subsequently, they secured funding of close to a million and a half dollars from the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology, Government of India. That allowed them to develop two processors in phase one of the project. One of them, fabricated at 180 nanometres, was manufactured at the Semiconductor Laboratory (SCL), Chandigarh. This significant achievement showcased that India possessed the capability to produce functional chips. Their journey continued with another chip fabricated at 22 nanometres in collaboration with Intel’s Oregon fabs.

Prof. Kamakoti at DRDO Awards function

These two chips reinforced their position in the game. Subsequently, they produced two more chips at SCL, further establishing their presence.

In the second phase, they shifted their focus to security and hypervisor mode. Simultaneously, they identified the need for startup companies to build an ecosystem in the country.

As a visionary academician, Prof. Kamakoti’s mission went beyond creating processors; it involved empowering students and contributing to the nation’s growth. He became closely associated with the National Security Advisory Board, where he had the privilege of working alongside Ajit Doval, the National Security Advisor (NSA) to the Prime Minister of India and P.S. Raghavan, the Chairman of National Security Advisory Board of India. These experiences provided invaluable insights into the workings of a large democracy and the responsibility that came with it.

Furthermore, Prof. Kamakoti was involved with various financial institutions, serving on committees and boards, such as the Technology Standing Committee for the National Stock Exchange and the board of City Union Bank. Financial insights proved instrumental in his role as Director of IIT Madras.

“I am immensely grateful to the Ministry of Education for entrusting me with the responsibility of the Director of IIT Madras. This institution, as a premier academic entity, had a significant role to play in shaping the future of education in India. They were committed to the cause and had embraced the goals set forth in the National Education Policy 2020.”

A major focus area for Prof. Kamakoti’s team is to improve the Gross Enrolment Ratio in higher education, which currently stands at 26.2%. Their aim is to raise it to 50% within the next decade. To achieve this, they have initiated rural interaction centres, bridging the gap between urban and rural students. These centres are equipped with large screens and internet connectivity, allowing students from remote areas to interact with educators and receive academic support. They have established nearly 100 such centres in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, offering support and motivation to students in remote areas. Their aspirations extend to setting up 100,000 such centres, and they are actively seeking corporate social responsibility (CSR) support for this noble initiative.

Another noteworthy endeavour is creating IIT Madras’s presence in Zanzibar, Tanzania, where they are committed to knowledge sharing without expecting any financial returns. Their goal is to nurture intellectual growth in every corner of the globe.

Prof. Kamakoti’s journey has been guided by a deep sense of responsibility towards education, innovation, and contributing to the well-being of the nation. As director of IIT Madras, he and his team have accomplished a lot, including the opening of a medical school, establishing a campus in Tanzania, and launching another BS program in Medical Science and Engineering at IIT Madras campus. While discussing his involvement to ensure the progress of the institute, he acknowledges the need to delegate some responsibilities to free up more time for broader strategic thinking and planning, which is essential for taking their initiatives and country to the next level.

“I always believe that I should not procrastinate things administratively. I also feel that nowadays I do not find enough time to think about the future of the Institute as the administrative load is so high. Therefore, I must figure out a way to create 12 more hours for thinking about the future of the institute.”


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