A veteran of robotics-artificial intelligence and someone who has been practicing spirituality since his childhood days, Prof. Laxmidhar Behera, Director of IIT Mandi, talks to Education Post’s Tanay Kumar about the balance of science and conscience in life.
Being a learned person in technology, you are also a regular practitioner of Adhyatma (spirituality). We would like to know whether you have got a spiritual inclination from your family, and please tell us about your parents and early education.
Yes, it surely is the influence of my parents and family that I practice and study spirituality. Every day, before going to work, my father, Sri Kailsah Chandra Behera used to read me one chapter of Shrimad Bhagvadgita. I was born in a district of northern Odisha, Balasore. My father used to work at a public health center and after a year he was transferred to southern Odisha. Electricity used to be a big problem in those days. My father had read me many Holy Scriptures like Ramayana, Mahabharata and many others. After my school time at 5 pm, I used to spend time reading these books and it left a strong impression upon me.
During the Navratris, my mother Smt. Kamalini used to wake me up early in the morning and we used to prepare everything for the rituals and other activities. Another good thing I remember is that every morning, my parents used to tune into All India Radio Cuttack. I remember an incident when I was in the fourth standard, an ascetic visited our locality and because of his sermons and lectures, many people got inclined towards spirituality and they started reading our Holy Scriptures. It also further influenced me towards spirituality. One ascetic explained me the entire Shrimad Bhagavad Gita. It was probably 1993 when I met a professor of IIT Delhi, who is also devotee of Lord Krishna, and several conversations on adhyatm further influenced me.
You have taught for almost two decades at IIT Kanpur, one of the first-generation IITs, and now you’re leading IIT Mandi, which is a second-generation IIT. Please tell us about the differences and challenges of these two roles at two IITs of different generations.
I joined IIT Kanpur in 2001 when it used to be the number one among all IITs. At that time, I was doing my post-doctoral study in Germany. Many of the professors, who are teaching at second-generation IITs, have taught at the first generation IITs. And since their establishment, first-generation IITs have been attracting the brightest minds of the country.
So, in my view, the first challenge is that second-generation IITs are competing with the first generation ones, and a healthy competition is always good. Whereas, the first generation IITs have many professors and mentors, second-generation IITs are in continuous process to get good faculties and it is a gradual process as no institution is built within a month or even only a year.
One thing that the second generation IITs enjoy more than first-generation ones is, having younger generation of mentors and professors. So, the energy level is always high at the second generation IITs as every subject wants to enhance the level of their newly established institutions. Further, since they are younger, so both the professors and students can be trained better according to the latest science and technology.
IIT Mandi is in the state of Himachal Pradesh. What are the advantages that a technology institute from mountain areas offers that one in plain areas can’t?
The first and foremost advantage at IIT Mandi or any educational institute in the hilly areas is that everyone enjoys fresh air. Ask anyone from the metro cities about the importance of fresh breathing air. Professors and students at IIT Mandi frequently go for a walk in the evening, and I must emphasize here that these are undisturbed walks. Research scholars take undisturbed strolls and keep pondering over solutions, papers, proposals and ideas for their research.
Second, students and professors at IIT Mandi cordially interact with the local people. IIT Mandi has developed an algorithm to cater to the problem of landslides in the hilly areas. Research scholars of the institute placed landslide monitoring systems at many places in Mandi and Kangra districts and we are constantly evolving this system. A normal landslide cuts off many villages in the hilly areas and since our scholars are evolving this solution, they enjoy great engagement with the local people.
Last but not the least, hilly areas like Himachal are eminent centers of extreme sports like trekking, hiking, paragliding, camping, etc. So, setting an educational institute in hilly areas easily offers these sports which nowadays are getting popular among youth. IIT Mandi is also working with the Himachal Tourism department about how we can enhance its tourism operations.
IIT Mandi is one of the few institutions that publish their annual reports in the official language of the state, i.e. Hindi, and recently regulatory authorities like UGC, are promoting to teach technical and scientific subjects in other Indian languages, along with English. What are your thoughts on this?
It is a fact that when it comes to higher education, we have been taught in the English language. It is fine for those students who have been dwelling in cities. On the other hand, it is really beneficial for those who have studied till their secondary education in local languages. Students from villages and small cities have a tendency to think in their local language, which is a very common scenario in India.
Due to too much emphasis on English, we have lost some heritage of the local language. During evaluation, I keep coming across mistakes that many of the first-year students make in their answers and they do the same in their local language as well. Language is a medium to exchange ideas and thoughts.
The government of India has taken an initiative to provide education material in the languages of our nation. In Germany, I saw that most of their laboratory professionals know English, while they talk and discuss ideas in German. So, we can learn from other parts of the world as well.
People are talking about the infusion of artificial intelligence in every sector, and along with robotics, this has also been your area of expertise. According to you, do the 12th-standard students need to know any coding or programing before choosing core branches of engineering?
I worked as an editor of a research journal at the University of Ulster from 2007 to 2009. One might be surprised to know that in 2007, all schools in Britain were teaching artificial intelligence in their 11-12th standards. So, in the future, AI might take a good segment of the job market. After I came to IIT Mandi, I have been trying to familiarize this domain among students to prepare them for future jobs. Last year, we started a program called PRAYAAS 1.0 (Promoting and Accelerating Young and Aspiring innovators and Startups) in which 100 students from state’s schools were taught basic robotics, how to build one from scratch, its programing and controlling. We facilitated them to stay at the institute’s campus for a full month during that training.
In the second development of this program, 200 students from Uttar Pradesh are at the IIT Mandi campus for PRAYAAS 2.0. In fact, this year our institute has invited schools’ teachers as well. Teachers will train their students further when they will be acquainted with this technology.
So, every country is developing their human resource according to this future technology. We are moving with our developments. So, for the future, we’ll have to keep training our secondary students for this science as it is surely going to be infused in every other technology sector.
The institute has partnered with some prestigious colleges in countries like Germany and Norway. Are there some criteria that must be fulfilled if an Indian institute wants to partner with these globally recognized colleges?
There is only one criteria that there should be a win-win situation for the partnering institutions. Recently, IIT Mandi completed a student exchange program with the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (USA) in which 20 WPI students stayed at IIT Mandi for three months and they worked with our students. All of them worked on socially relevant projects.
It shouldn’t be like a one-way street that only Indian students go abroad and study. In September, IIT Mandi is going to have another student exchange program with a German university in which 15 German professors will also visit our campus and will work on a variety of projects.
Whenever we sign an MoU with any global institute, both parties try to mutually benefit each other, in terms of academics, projects, research and several other things. For example, we have also signed an MoU with another global institution to set up a branch named Bachelor in General Engineering.
Introduction to Consciousness and Wellbeing is a course offered by IKSMHA center ( Indian Knowledge System and Mental Health Applications) of IIT Mandi. How do students benefit by this course?
Lots of people often think that one has to perform many rituals in order to learn spirituality. On the other hand, it’s eventually a cumulative study of body, mind, and consciousness. And, it’s our treasure that it has existed in India for centuries. Crisis of mental health had already been a kind of epidemic in the world and it evidently exacerbated after the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that one in eight people around the world are having a mental disorder, among them anxiety and depressive disorders being on the top. So, if the world’s current population stands around eight billion, then staggeringly, a billion people of the world are having mental health issues and I don’t need to further state that how big this number is.
So, being cognizant of this clear plight of the world, we decided that the institute will introduce a course, Introduction to Consciousness, because students must get clarity, logic and conscience in life as these are the qualities that solve problems. Let me put it like this, if any study needs observations and data, then the observers with fine mental health should also be its priority.
In this course, students are taught basics of meditation and they regularly practice it in class and every weekend, a batch of some students go for nature camping and trekking. They are also trained for their physical health also as due to a kind of fast-paced lifestyle some students often feel drowsy and a bit lethargic. They are given a band to track their sleep, locomotion and other physical activities and that data is collected to help them and their consciousness.
Stuart Hameroff, Co-founder and the director of Center for Consciousness Studies, Arizona State University in the US, really contributed to collect data of students’ mental health, efficiency and their holistic well-being. And after that, we worked to introduce this course and it significantly improved their mental well-being. If I say it in one line, to help the efficiency of students and youth, we’ll have to work and help them in their mental and conscious well-being, along with providing them all the teaching-learning resources.