A young man at IIT Madras was once cycling back to his hostel from the library when he heard someone behind him asking him to stop. Why not attend my off-credit course on programming, asked the older man, having spotted the computer science books the student had just borrowed.
“He was the Head of the Department of Computer Science at that point and definitely that did change my life,” says Kris Gopalakrishnan about Prof. H. N. Mahabala, over three decades later. In November last year, Kris endowed the first of the three chairs – each with an endowment of ₹10 crores – that will form the core of the new Centre for Computational Brain Research (CCBR) at IIT Madras, in the name of Prof. Mahabala.
“It’s my way of saying thank you,” says Kris, who, just four years after that incident, joined six others in founding Infosys.
“The whole IT industry came into being because we were right at the forefront of a developing, evolving, disruptive technology,” he says, referring to how he benefited from having had access to a mainframe system at IIT-M. “People like Prof. Mahabala ensured that students were trained and we were ready.”
The rapid rise of the IT industry generated employment and wealth. To be at the forefront of the next computing revolution, Kris believes India must invest in brain research – not just using computers to understand the brain, but also developing new paradigms of computing from the understanding that develops.
Research work at CCBR, therefore, would cover a range of computational approaches to brain research with the focus being on understanding what makes brains different from computers and also investigating disorders such as Alzheimer’s. The first occupant of the Prof. Mahabala Chair will be Prof. Partha Mitra of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.
Kris was an M.Sc. Physics student when he met Prof. Mahabala. He went on to do an M.Tech in Computer Science and had a job offer soon afterwards. And he immediately impressed his boss, N. R. Narayana Murthy. In April 2015, Kris endowed the second chair at CCBR in the name of his mentor and co-founder of Infosys. It will be occupied by Prof. Mriganka Sur of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) A third Chair will be endowed later this year.
The research work at CCBR would involve large-scale brain simulations and analysis of large data sets requiring a broad range of skills, meaning that students across disciplines will have the opportunity to do cutting-edge neuroscience under the guidance of these leading researchers and other faculty members they will be collaborating with. Already, two electrical engineering undergraduates will be spending the summer at Prof. Mitra’s research lab in New York.
“What we’re attempting, at the initiative of Kris, is something that is not just one instance but can become a model for leapfrogging in many, many areas,” says Prof. Bhaskar Ramamurthi, Director of IIT Madras.