Ten on Tech: Spotlight on Chandrakant Patel

Interview with HP’s chief engineer and senior fellow

17 April 2018

A new series by IEEE Technical Activities asks technical experts 10 questions about their life and emerging technology. 

IEEE Fellow Chandrakant Patel has been integral in HP Labs’ ability to deliver a host of innovations over the last three decades. He has made advances in chips, systems, data centers, storage, networking, print engines, and software platforms.

Patel is a pioneer in thermal and energy management in data centers, and in the application of IT for cities’ energy management. Moreover, he’s been granted 151 patents, published more than 150 papers, and has served as an adjunct faculty member at a number of universities throughout California.

In March he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and in 2014 was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame.

What are you currently reading?

Thirst for Power: Energy, Power and Human Survival by Michael Webber. This book is of interest to me because when growing up in India, my father exposed me and my siblings to infrastructure throughout the country, including wells, harvesting of rain water, and large-scale man-made reservoirs. He took us to hydroelectric dams to show us power-generation means and to waste water treatment plants to teach us how cities deal with waste water. I also observed that, in spite of the extensive supply-side infrastructure of water, challenges remained as many still trekked miles to available water. 

When I came to the United States, I took notice of large-scale water projects in the country, such as the California Aqueduct. I also observed the large amount of available energy that had to be used to distribute and treat water. This water-energy nexus is a salient message of the book, and hence my curiosity to learn more. 

What invention has inspired you the most?

Airplanes. The other day I saw a picture of a Boeing 747-400 test platform taking off with the newly developed GE9X engine mounted in the No. 2 location. I swelled with pride and got goosebumps. I am proud of the mechanical marvel created by the multidisciplinary cadre of engineers who built the GE9X and those who are building the 777X that will be fitted with these engines.

What are the books, movies, or plays that you have enjoyed the most in recent years?

The movie The Man Who Knew Infinity. It’s a biography of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan and was very touching. I also liked it because it put a focus on mathematics, and therefore is inspirational to our youth. It can inspire them to think of mathematics as being cool. Maybe they’d even consider carrying a fundamentals book in advanced mathematics being as cool as carrying the latest generation of the smartphone. It is high time we returned to fundamentals.

As a gripping book of adventure, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air left indelible images of the sites and challenges en route to the summit of Mount Everest.

What about current technology worries you?

My greatest worry about the cyber age is the oft-held belief that data will solve all problems, therefore leading to a rising defocus from hands-on fundamentals. The Internet created a giant abstraction layer which, while good for many applications, also created a nonchalant attitude toward internalizing the fundamentals of physical and digital systems. My concern stems from the rising socioeconomic and ecological megatrends that will need us to return to old-school fundamentals as described below.

The 19th century was the machine (physical) age. It was domain driven, where we focused on fundamentals to engineer products. The 20th century was the information (cyber) age, and the latter part of the century was the Internet age. The Internet age was data-driven, dominated by social media, and built on people data. The 21st century is the seamless integration of cyber and physical systems (CPS) and, thus, the cyber physical age.

The cyber physical systems of the 21st century will be data- and domain-driven and will be constructed to thwart the effects of massive social, economic, and ecological trends. We will see a precipitous rise of CPS in health care, manufacturing, transportation, power, and other key sectors in response to megatrends such as resource constraints, burden of negative externalities, shifting demography (aging population), and rapid urbanization. These will be value-driven innovations at the crossroads of people, profit, planet, and petabytes of data.

What in recent years has surprised you the most?

I am disappointed with the extrapolation of AI applications and belittling of the challenges we have ahead. As an example, when faced with traffic and physical infrastructure challenges, I often hear folks say, “Don’t worry, autonomous cars are here and they will solve all the problems.” Or, “Don’t worry about the lack of supply of subspecialized surgeons. Robotic surgery is here.” This cavalier extrapolation of AI, without any concern for domain understanding, worries me.

I also time and again observe the extrapolation of cyber age data driven approaches to physical systems, and this worries me. “Just give me data, I do not need to know about the internal workings of the physical system.” And, “I can use the data to gather insights and tell you when a physical system such as a bridge will fail.”  

What was the best advice anyone has given you?

Two salient pieces of advice from my first boss at HP that can be summed up as: Take a big-picture view and share and move on. Big-picture view drove me to take a holistic systemic view of solutions that are needed in light of the social, economic, and ecological challenges. Share and move on is about learning, garnering practitioner level depth in most cases, sharing with others to scale your work, and moving on to new subjects. In this context, my journey took me from disc drives to chips to computer systems to data centers to printers to city-scale resource management using IT and 3D printers.

What has been or is your favorite equation or concept in engineering, and why?

The second law of thermodynamics and exergy and its application in creating a sustainability framework and a sustainability strategy that is steeped in fundamentals.

While energy refers to the quantity of energy, exergy quantifies the useful portion (or “quality”) of energy. As an example, in a vehicle, the combustion of a given mass of fuel such as diesel results in propulsion of the vehicle (useful work done), dissipation of heat energy, and a waste stream of exhaust gases at a given temperature. From the first law of thermodynamics, the quantity of energy was conserved in the combustion process as the sum of the energy in the products equals that in the fuel. However, from the second law of thermodynamics, the usefulness of energy was destroyed since there is not much useful work that can be harnessed from the waste streams, such as exhaust gases.

One can also state that the combustion of fuel resulted in increase of entropy or disorder in the universe—going from a more ordered state in fuel to less ordered state in waste streams. As all processes result in increase in entropy, and consequent destruction of exergy due to entropy generation, minimizing the destruction of exergy is an important sustainability consideration.

From a holistic supply-demand point of view, one can say that we are drawing from a finite pool of available energy, and minimizing destruction of available energy is key for future generations to enjoy the same quality of life as the current generation.

With respect to making the most of available energy, it is also important to understand and avail opportunities in extracting available energy from waste streams.

What has been an important life lesson for you that you might be able to share with us?

Be clear about your values. In this context, I urge readers to read my LinkedIn post “Career Strategies: Creating a Visual CV.” 

What should IEEE be (more) involved in?

IEEE should focus on preparing the cadre of contributors for the 21st-century cyber physical age. These contributors are “T”-shaped scholars with depth in fundamentals and multidisciplinary breadth. As an example, this implies IEEE Signal Processing respects signal processing as we knew it in the 1980s and signal processing of today built on imaging applications of the cyber age—leverage the past with the present to create the future.

Success in the 21st-century cyber physical age also necessitates enthusiastic collaboration with colleagues from all walks of life, not just engineering. After all, operating at the crossroads of people, profit, planet, and petabytes of data goes beyond engineering. It also includes social scientists, economists, and artists.

How many unread emails are in your inbox?

Hundreds. Indeed, sometimes I wonder if I would have reached the level of depth I have today if I had the distractions of emails and other trappings of the Internet in the 1980s and 1990s. I built my depth with hands-on contributions, complete with laboratory notebooks, without any distraction of emails. I do not think I was less productive. Yet, the Internet has been a great platform. This has me puzzled. 

Therefore, I have concluded that we need to find a balanced perspective. In Hindi, derived from Sanskrit, the saying is madhyaksha drashti.

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