Q: What is the most important thing that's happened in computing in the past 10 years?
A: Many things have happened in the area of computing. The key idea of computing is the information processing view of the world around us. Communication and computing are seen as the two sides of the same coin of information processing. This convergence has resulted in the interdisciplinary field of information and communication technology (ICT). What is most surprising is the fact that many processes in nature, and in particular, biology and chemistry, turn out to be computational processes. Some processes are based on classical physics and others are based on quantum physics. Learning from nature and building things useful for engineering ICT applications in diverse areas is a fundamental achievement. We have made significant progress in ICT. Two areas need special mention: quantum computing and synthetic biology. Due to the convergence of different fields, we now have the field of executable biology (or programming biology) where we have an opportunity to write programs to construct a desired species. Gene-editing systems such as CRISPR are new and disruptive technologies in this area. I believe this is the most important thing that has happened in the last few years.
The growth of the Internet and mobile phones has resulted in a connected global society, which is a perfect playground for the Internet of Things (IoT), with its connected global devices. We have big data generated by these devices, and artificial intelligence-based algorithms to find the underlying computational processes to solve societal and business problems. I think this is also an important area. Network science is another area that contributes in an important way to the big data problem. The development of GPUs and data visualization tools is also important work.
Q: By the end of your career, where do you think computer science will have taken us? What are you working on that might contribute to that?
A: This is a very interesting question. Earlier this month, scientists detected gravitational waves. An interdisciplinary information processing and computing view will give us new insights into our universe. Quantum biology will be an especially important area to help us understand many things around us. Big data and sophisticated algorithms, together with the power of high-performance computing, will enable us to predict many things before they happen, such as crimes or accidents. Biological and chemical computing will become common in cases of health problems. One day, doctors will be able to inject a nanoscale robot or biocomputer to search for—and fix—a disease in your body. With the advancement of -omics data and genome editing tools, we will be able to do things that are now mostly considered science fiction.
My training is in error-control codes (coding theory: the art of data reliability). As Von Neumann mentioned, errors are bound to happen whenever there is information processing. Thus, my role is very important in all kinds of information processing (sending data from now to then, or from here to there). Recently, we have made several contributions in the art of data storage. One is in the area of cloud data storage and another is in synthetic DNA-based data storage systems. One gram of DNA can store 455 exabytes of data. We have developed algorithms and software (DNA Cloud) that can achieve that order of storage. In fact, this is one of the hot areas in synthetic biology since DNA is quite dense and robust; in today's world, we are generating huge amounts of data (due to social media and the Internet of Things) and soon we will run out of space. The convergence of life and computation will give rise to many new fields, tools, and technologies.
Q: Who is your favorite historical figure? Why?
A: There are many historical figures I like because of my interdisciplinary interests, so it is difficult for me to list them all. Two of my favorites are Thomas Alva Edison and Richard W. Hamming. Interestingly, I also share my birthdate with them (day and month). I would say that both did remarkable work in their lifetimes in communication and computing. Many mathematicians also shaped my thought processes, including Ramanujan, Gauss, Gödel, Euler, Hilbert, Poincaré, Riemann, Shannon, Galois, Abel, and Lagrange. I also like many physicists, including Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, for deciphering the secrets of our universe. In biology, I like Charles Darwin for his idea of evolution. I also like Neil Sloane for his work on developing the “Google of mathematics,” the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences (OEIS); Gregory John Chaitin for his remarkable ideas on algorithmic information theory; Eric Lander for his work on the human genome; Stephen Wolfram for his work on mathematics and entrepreneurship; and Seth Lloyd for his work on quantum computing and his information processing view of the world. Finally, I would like to mention two more: Dhirubhai Ambani and Steve Jobs for their entrepreneurial skills and vision.
Q: If you weren't working in the computer science field, what would you be doing instead?
A: There is an old shloka:
As are the crests on the heads of peacocks,
As are the gems on the hoods of the cobras,
So is the mathematics, at the top of all sciences.
--The Yajurveda, circa 600 BC
After reading this, I was drawn to mathematics at the age of 17; as you know, it is still at the root of computer science and communication. I think I am still doing mathematics of information processing with wide varieties of applications; computer science is one of them, including biology and chemistry. In fact, in the unified approach, all of these things are connected. As a result of supporting DNA nanotechnology, our group has developed open-source software; at the heart, it is all mathematics. When I was finishing my PhD in mathematics, I found that many mathematicians lack funding, so I developed an interest in business and entrepreneurship. This interest resulted in my involvement in startups. Many business ideas provide beautiful mathematical problems to work on. I am not sure what I would be doing if not this—it is the most exciting thing to do.
Q: What is your favorite type of music?
A: Music has always supported my thinking process, and I love all kinds of music. The type of music I listen to depends upon the kind of work I am doing. For example, if I have to write, I like to listen to classical music and ghazal (a poetic form) to help me concentrate. On the other hand, if I am awake late at night or several nights in a row and reading something, then I prefer to listen to fast (Western) music. Sometimes, I also prefer listening to spiritual music for hours.