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INNOVATION VS INSULARITY, AT SCHOOLS NEAR YOU

Published: 
Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Listening to Prof Patrick Hosein’s professorial lecture last Thursday night at UWI, St Augustine, I found myself alternating between irrational exuberance and cynical disgust. First the good news: Prof Hosein, a MIT-trained mathematician and computer scientist, and a laureate of the ANSA Caribbean Awards (with which august institution I am affiliated), seems to have a means to transform the economy. The bad news: it ain’t going to happen.

Frustrated by the cavalier way in which local institutions treat smart people and research, Prof Hosein launched a think tank called TTLab two years ago, using his own funds. He took promising students, gave them time, money, and guidance, and they performed brilliantly.

In 2016 they published 16 papers, and filed a patent.

TTLAB worked on things as mundane as optimising the selection of journals to which the UWI library should subscribe and an app to prioritise meetings, to a smart grid product which could save T&TEC money (but which T&TEC won’t use) and analysing social media relationships for advertising impact. (Articles on Prof Hosein and TTLAB were published in the T&T Guardian in the last year. See https://goo.gl/1ZSV8C.)

Since formation, TTLAB has collaborated with and been commissioned by private industry locally and abroad.

Clients include Massy, the Ministry of National Security, Guavus (a Silicon Valley company), KISTI of Korea, and Radial—a US-based music streaming app which streams calypso and soca music.

So it appears TTLAB is a success. But to what avail? Last Thursday Prof Hosein, speaking to a less-than half-full room in the Engineering block, answered a few obvious questions about it:

• What’s stopping such initiatives from spreading across the university and society?

• Why are people like him so rare? (His biography is truly remarkable–five degrees from MIT, work with pioneers of the Internet and cellular and computing firms (ATT, Bell Labs, Ericsson, Hua Wei, Bose), with 40 patents filed and 42 patents pending.)

• How to get initiatives like TT Lab to gain traction across the society?

As to the first issue, Prof Hosein’s talk was peppered with gilded references to the UWI’s culture. He spoke of “obstacles” and conflicts with “certain professors,” which sometimes make it difficult to perform research.

“It’s a sacrifice for me to be here, but I stay for the students,” he said. UWI Principal, Prof Brian Copeland, sat a few feet away.

The overall situation has led to UWI’s being behind the technology curve.

To compensate, Prof Hosein has introduced new MA and PhD programmes in Data Science and Computer Technology, in mobile and cloud computing. But it’s more than the degrees.

Also important (he said) are atmosphere and environment to produce the ideal student—curious, with multidisciplinary leanings, independent and self-motivated.

Unfortunately, he said, the fate of returning scholarship students show that these qualities are not appreciated locally, as they are put to do menial tasks at the university and in the ministries to which they are assigned.

(A letter to the editor on April 1, 2010, in the Express, written by a returning scholar was headlined “Mentors frustrate returning scholars”.

The scholar wrote: “I have yet to wake up from the nightmare that is my first working experience,” where “returning scholars are discriminated against, incriminated and the work we do is plagiarised by our ‘mentors’.”)

The second question, about why people like Prof Hosein are so rare, has a simple answer. According to him, they’re not. This is disputable but, he said, many talented Trinidadians who have done exceptional things would like to come back, but won’t.

The reasons are obvious: crime and personal safety. The general brutishness of the society which revels in being anti-intellectual, as it embraces new technology, probably doesn’t help.

But the final question is the most crucial: can TTLAB and similar initiatives be replicated?

The answer was not encouraging. The math and science skills are simply not there, he said, and this begins from the primary and secondary school systems.

A member of a government department who was present said a visitor from Google had run a workshop for 30 tertiary-level students locally, and found only five of them had the necessary skills to be considered competent by Google’s standards.

The introduction of GATE and the education free-for-all of the last decade were blamed for this.

But Prof Hosein also had something to say about the preparation of students—when he was a student at MIT he was forced to do courses in the humanities, in music, literature and art. These courses helped him despite his initial reluctance.

Another crucial part of the developmental solution, he said, is multidisciplinary co-operation.

There is potential for multiple faculties to collaborate—he mentioned an idea from a computing student for an app to translate legal documents into language understandable by the ordinary person.

Other potential collaborations exist with humanities, social sciences, and linguistics.

Flexibility in business and education is also crucial, as breakthroughs do not obligingly happen between 8 am and 4 pm.

What can be taken away from this is that with all the talk, paranoia, and praying going on in the face of economic hardship, there is a way to economic salvation: this is to encourage smart people, and provide the environments they need to think and work, and get primary and secondary schools to teach reading and writing.

Whether the government can do this, and stop actually creating chaos (like with the astonishing slow-motion stupidity that led to the Tobago ferry issue), arguing that school violence isn’t that bad, and UWI can find time for such collaborations alongside its all important slavery and Carnival research—these are the questions. I’m sure UWI and the Minister of Education will get right on them.