Making it to the MIT India Initiative: V. Girish
The MIT India Initiative is a result of a not-for-profit effort of students and alumni from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to delve into pressing problems in novel, challenging contexts, and tackle these with technology and design. The Design, Technology, and Social Innovation workshop was held in Mumbai, facilitating participants to work on solutions that cut across boundaries of cultures, disciplines, and institutions. Girish Vaisyaraj, a third-year undergrad in the Department of Electronics and Communication Engineering, was one of those who were selected for this prestigious workshop. Team MM got in touch with him to know more about the workshop and his experience there.
Monday Morning (MM): How did you come to know of the MIT India Initiative? What is the principal aim of the initiative?
Girish Vaisyaraj (GV): I generally keep updating my LinkedIn profile and check my feed once in a while. I came across this MIT India Initiative advertisement, which introduced me to their website. I found out that MIT is getting down to a country like India for the first time. It was a collaborative project with Havard and Oxford University and students from all over the world to have a 5-day long Bootcamp, a conference-cum-workshop.
I applied through that. After the resume shortlisting, there were 7-8 tracks in which we were supposed to propose ideas related to the sectors that influenced the public directly. I gave 2-3 proposals, and they shortlisted me. Around 300 people were shortlisted in total. We were supposed to pay 5000INR within five days of confirmation. Since I didn't want to depend on my parents for the financial aspect, I applied for scholarships. I got a confirmation mail regarding 50% scholarships, and I paid only 2500INR, and everything was covered under that.
MM: What are the criteria of selection for the MIT India Initiative? Are there any pre-requisites for it?
GV: The conference was the first of its kind, so they focused on a sound resume of a person with expertise in any field, be it web design, architecture, AI, healthcare. They preferred people who have sufficient knowledge and who can collaborate. I collaborated with four architects, two MBA graduates, and one startup entrepreneur who were shortlisted from India. I opted for AI because I had done enough projects, and I knew what to apply and how to implement it. And I feel that was enough to secure a position there.
The themes that they included were:
- Fintech for Social Good
- Social Empowerment through Music
- Re-Imagining Education
- Public Spaces
- Health solution
- Investigation and Journalism: Telling Tangible Tales
- Housing and Energy
- Environmental Resilience
MM: How was your experience at the 5-day Design, Technology, and Social Innovation workshop held in Mumbai?
GV: The working environment was exceptionally favourable than that of ours. Everything was very unorganized, and no specific time limit was set for a particular set of work. I never had any ground-work experience or any field analysis. I was assigned one project, but I ended up with three complete projects.
Initially, we did a women safety project for which we went to Kamathipura, which is a red light area. The whole of our team went there, and we did a field analysis and talked to people and got to know about their problems. I was implementing what I was learning. As engineers, we don't think much; once we get a problem, we jump into solutions in a haste. At first, I was scared to collaborate with my teammates from other domains who had spent much time on ideation and did proper field analysis, which I hadn't done before.
I had this misconception, an engineer and an architect can never go together, but after five days I realized, that it was the best combination possible because an engineer always backtracks while an architect does the opposite.
MM: What was/were the theme(s) of the workshop? What did you learn and work on during the workshop?
GV: People had worked on 7-8 tracks, which included public spaces, healthcare, fintech for social good, energy conservation, and social empowerment through music. I worked on public spaces though I was interested in working on social empowerment through music initially, wherein I tried to generate rap using NLP. But we couldn't go ahead with it since I didn't have a GPU there and I had only my laptop. Since the organizers had come from MIT, they didn't have any lab facility in India as it was just a conference. So, then I changed my track to public spaces, wherein I first worked on the Chorbazar area. The area, whose name is a misnomer, actually houses many antique shops with the 18th and 19th-century antiquities captured in its streets. And it is now being replenished with the advent of e-commerce websites and growing interest in antiquities. We went to Chorbazar to know more about the people and their plight. We observed that they were very reluctant to redevelop and change because they felt that it would ruin the vintage aura that they had captured. We didn't want Chorbazar to resemble a New York avenue by removing everything and make everything organized to clear the traffic. We worked on a retractable 'canopy' which would capture the aura of the vintage street as well as digitize the area. On this canopy, sellers could project the objects they sell in their shops. As a user passes by it, he/she can see all the posters and information. I had worked on AI techniques wherein if a person stood in front of a shop, all the antiques or objects pop up on his/her phone. There would be a panorama of images so that the aura can be captured and shown to people. We also had QR code installations in case people want to know more. This is how we revamped the culture of Chorbazar.
MM: How do you think would the things you learned during the workshop be useful to you in the future?
GV: The most important thing I learned during the workshop was that as engineers, we need to spend some time doing field analysis, in knowing what a construct is, and defining the operation. Let us say, anger, which is a concept you want to measure. An engineer can easily measure acceleration, force, mass, etc. he can do it easily using formulae. But if you give an engineer some constructs, such as anger and happiness, how would he/she measure? These are called definition operations. You have to define an operation that has to measure the value. One needs to ideate and think and know what the constructs are.
As an engineer, I could earlier make things that I can do. But now I learned that the right way is to make things that are required.
Sometimes, we do some things or projects just because we can. For example, we make a robotic arm just because we know how to create one. But we should instead try to look at the problem and see what exactly we are addressing, think, ideate, the ergonomics of the product, and then you need to go for the engineering part. Another major thing I learned there was collaboration. The workshop didn't help me prepare for GATE or placements, but it did help me grow as a person professionally. I learned to collaborate with scientists, architects, and mass media people. I learned to voice products and present them.
MM: You had said that you've got an invitation to work at MIT. Tell us more about it.
GV: This was a completely unexpected and quite surprising turn of events. They had not assured anything of this sort. During the five days of the workshop, there were 2-3 mentors for every track, a total of 14-15 mentors. I had only talked to my mentor and with no one else. Groups were formed, and a workspace was allotted to us. I was the only AI guy there, and I can say that they were quite impressed with my profile. I had worked on 3 projects earlier- women safety, proximity sensor-based popups, and the third pertaining to music, which cannot be disclosed now. This led to them telling other mentors about my projects. All the mentors started coming to me. Just before I left the workspace, mentors used to come and ask me to show my works.
On the last day, I was presenting something when two scientists (I didn't know that they were) came to me. They were dressed casually, with half-pants with bags. They just stood there watching the project and observing it. Then they came closer and when I started to present my project to them, they said that they had learned enough of it to understand my project. They added that they wanted to see other works of mine, not just related to the track but everything we have done. I hesitated for a moment but then I thought that maybe they were some leaders who had come to the conference. Then I showed them all the projects I've worked upon. One of them was related to national security which I had sent to PMO and they have received it and I've got a response, that's all I can say. They had some program in March in which they would conduct a hackathon for a project for which they'd select 6-8 people from India.
They invited me to that hackathon and the project. Initially, I thought it would be a great opportunity, but then I realized that I'd have to miss academics. I had already missed 2 weeks due to the workshop and the GE Hackathon which was lined up just after it. Applying for a visa, going for immigration amongst other things, my semester would be hampered. I could get a sem-back or a year-back and my CG's already a matter of concern with it being below 7 as of 5th semester. I am not that good at academics, so I can't afford a sem-back or a year-back. They were disappointed that I couldn't join them this year. But, there was an Indian scientist among them who assured me that they wanted me to work with them at MIT. But since they wanted me to come this year for which I'd have to choose between my degree and that. There's no point in having a Master's degree without a Bachelor's degree. That's the reason I didn't accept the offer this year. But I'd certainly try next year. They have taken my contact details, and I have received theirs. They said they'd contact me when there's an opportunity.
I learned to do things and present them. I'd request the readers to get up and do something. People plan to do a lot of things but ultimately fail to do so because of one thing- procrastination. I am bad at procrastination and am overconfident instead! If I don't know how to do something, I'll jump into it and then I'll try to swim and survive. The workshop, too, was a kind of situation where I didn't know what to do, but I just went there. All of them were Master's students, and I was the only 21- year old guy amidst people who were 24 or above. But I survived somehow, and it turned out to be a great experience in the end. I thank TEQIP-3,NIT Rourkela and Alok kumar Anugulia( Assistant Collector, Koraput) for all their support.