Talk time: A Wknd interview with Marconi Prize winner Hari Balakrishnan

ByK Narayanan
Mar 24, 2023 02:55 PM IST

The Indian professor at MIT has won for his work in communications. This includes congestion-control codes for the internet, remote-sensing solutions for drones. His most significant invention: a program called CarTel that helps track traffic, driving, and the state of the roads.

For Hari Balakrishnan, science was the family business. His grandfather KS Venkataraman was a scientist who worked with the legendary physicist CV Raman (they co-authored a paper on the determination of the piezo-optic coefficients of liquids; and no, there’s no way to simplify that).

‘We just thought that if this could work, wouldn’t it be so cool?’ Balakrishnan says, of working on mobile and wireless computing in the mid-1990s. PREMIUM
‘We just thought that if this could work, wouldn’t it be so cool?’ Balakrishnan says, of working on mobile and wireless computing in the mid-1990s.

Balakrishnan’s father V Balakrishnan is a professor of physics at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Madras and his mother Radha Balakrishnan is a theoretical physicist too. His maternal uncle, V Rajaraman framed India’s first computer-science undergraduate program, at IIT-Kanpur, and also set up the supercomputing research centre at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. His sister Hamsa Balakrishnan is the William E Leonhard professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As for Hari Balakrishnan, he’s the Fujitsu professor of computer science and artificial intelligence with the department of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.

He is also the most recent winner of the prestigious Marconi Prize, a $100,000 honorarium awarded for pathbreaking contributions to the field of communications.

“Both my sister and I were pretty privileged . We’ve always had access to books and information and all of that. It was a wonderful childhood,” says Balakrishnan, 51. “After school, I would go and sit in my father’s office. And this long line of students would come through talking about all sorts of things… He was well-loved and still is. I didn’t understand most of what they were talking about initially, but as I got into high school, I was following along and I was inspired. I also wanted to go into learning and so that’s what happened.”

There’s a disarming enthusiasm about Balakrishnan, as if he retains something of the boy in his father’s office. There’s regret when he talks about the social conditions in 1970s India, where his brilliant mother was denied opportunities to pursue a research career because of her gender. “Even though she had a PhD, she was publishing papers while sitting at home. It was so difficult for qualified women to enter research, or even professional roles.”

He describes his time at IIT-Madras as “probably the best four years of my life in India… because you have freedom for the first time and because of the peer group of friends you meet.”

Balakrishnan moved to the US for a PhD, in 1993. The University of California, Berkeley, was a place of excitement, innovation and discovery, he says. “The internet had been around for over 20 years, but it had been a curiosity, used only by researchers and academics. The web, as a protocol, had been around only a few years. And then the Mosaic browser (the first with in-line images) was released, and it changed everything.”

Balakrishnan remembers walking into the office of his future advisor, professor Randy Katz, and seeing an early laptop computer on his desk. It was a sign, because Balakrishnan’s next few years would revolve around his PhD in mobile computing and wireless networking. “It was a field that didn’t exist at the time,” he says. He remembers working with early wireless LANs, using cards that would fit into the laptop slots, which connected to antennae to form networks. He also worked on InfoPad, an early version of a tablet computer. “It would essentially offload computation to servers — today that’s called cloud computing. And it would use wireless networking to get information and video, do video conferencing, etc, from this tablet. And this was in the mid-1990s. It was an exciting time. We just thought that if this could work, wouldn’t it be so cool? We were just doing it because it was so engaging and interesting.”

He pauses. “I got lucky and I’ve generally been lucky through my career, in identifying opportunities where one could be the first or among the first to get into a new subfield. Sometimes you make your own luck, getting to work with terrific students and collaborators. And sometimes you get lucky.” He laughs. “This was one of those times.”


Sam Madden, Balakrishnan, and Bill Powers, co-founders of Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which uses such mobile sensing technology to assist motorists, car owners and insurers across 25 countries.
Sam Madden, Balakrishnan, and Bill Powers, co-founders of Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which uses such mobile sensing technology to assist motorists, car owners and insurers across 25 countries.

In 1998, at 26, Balakrishnan moved to MIT, and started work on an indoor GPS system called Cricket. It used the difference in the speed of radio waves and sound waves for accurate indoor location identification. In 2005, he, along with fellow MIT professor Sam Madden, decided to use mobile technology to measure why commute times were getting longer. The result was CarTel, a project where Balakrishnan put sensors in his car to measure how long it took him to traverse any given segment of road. Soon CarTel had tie-ups with taxi companies in Boston. A significant innovation in the CarTel project was the development of Pothole Patrol, which used sensors in taxis to measure vibrations and automatically determine road-surface quality and identify potholes that needed to be fixed.

“This project got a lot of publicity. It got written about in The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal,” Balakrishnan says. The coverage got him thinking of ways in which the technology could be commercialised, and he, Madden and a third partner, Bill Powers, started a company, Cambridge Mobile Telematics (CMT), which uses such mobile sensing technology to measure and improve driving quality, detect crashes that need real-time roadside assistance, and automate insurance-claims processing. Today CMT is the world’s largest telematics provider, serving millions across 25 countries and working with leading insurers, rideshare companies and automakers.

These days, Balakrishnan researches mobile sensing for drones, congestion-control algorithms for the internet, and ways to build better digital maps. He still maintains links with IIT-Madras and, asked what advice he would give young engineering students, says they need “to not only have a strong mathematics background, but pay more attention to the humanities, including history and geography, and to read a lot more than they seem to be doing these days – short stories, novels, and non-fiction books”. The ability to communicate well in writing and speech is critical, he adds, as is the ability to read and understand complex material quickly. “The humanities provide good training in these valuable skills and teach new ways of thinking about the world. They encourage one to think about the ‘why’ behind any given work, in addition to the ‘how’.”

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