Arab Engineering Rising

A Techwise Conversation with Ahmed K. Elmagarmid of the Qatar Computing Research Institute

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.” This is show number 78.

The Middle East is a quiet powerhouse of engineering. Israel’s prowess is well known, but there’s a lot of engineering going on in the Arab world as well. Last year, the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, which itself was founded in 1995, created a research institute for computing, and grabbed a leading engineering scientist and executive from Purdue University to head it.

My guest today is Ahmed Elmagarmid. He is that founding executive director of the Qatar Computing Research Institute, or QCRI. While his previous post was director of the Purdue Cyber Center, he’s far from being a mere academician. He has served as chief scientist for Hewlett-Packard and held executive positions at the Harris Corporation and Telcordia. He’s also an IEEE Fellow who was cited for his “contributions to transaction management, data integration, and quality.”

He joins us by phone from Doha. Dr. Elmagarmid, welcome to the podcast.

Ahmed Elmagarmid: Hello, how are you, Steve?

Steven Cherry: By and large, the problems your teams are working on aren’t Arab computing problems, they’re just computing problems. But you do have an interesting collaboration with Wikipedia.

Ahmed Elmagarmid: Yes. That’s been very—I believe it’s something that’s really important. Steve, briefly, if you look at the English Wikipedia and how rich it is, the Arab Wikipedia is really poor, both in terms of content, size of the content, and the quality of the content. So for example, Portuguese is spoken by the same number of people as Arabic, and the number of documents in Portuguese is much, much more than Arabic documents, and the number of active editors and so on again is disproportional. So what—we’ve engaged the Wikimedia Foundation, we’ve reorganized a workshop for activists, the Wikipedians in the Arab world here in Doha about a month ago, and we asked them simple questions: Why are things so bad, and what can we do to help? We’re going to be setting up a program to be doing outreach in the Arab world to try to—for example, with the museums, with people who have natural content that is of interest. The other thing is, we’re going to do educational programs. We’re going to do training: how to train editors, how to be better prepared, and how to produce content that is of Wikipedia quality. The other thing—and right now we’re trying to find the right partner for that, the right vendor—is to do translations. We’re going to translate 1 million words into Arabic—Arabic Wikipedia content—and our plan is to do this consistently, month after month after month. So that’s one aspect—another translation. Another is creating original content. That will come either through this outreach—through education programs. So one of the things, for example, is we want to engage the universities in the Arab world, in Egypt, Jordan, other countries in North Africa, and try to get faculty, professors, to incorporate the Wiki into their education programs. We believe this is going to be something of great benefit. Our objective is to double the number of pages from—now it’s about 150 000 documents in Arabic. Our plan is to try to double that in two to three years.

Steven Cherry: At Perdue, you directed the Cyber Center. Is cybersecurity one of the research areas at QCRI?

Ahmed Elmagarmid: No, it isn’t. In fact, we’re not focused on computer security at all—not, at least, yet. Our focus is in five areas: data analytics, cloud computing, social computing, scientific computing, and sort of a combination area between scientific computing and bioinformatics and so on. So maybe I should step back just for 10 seconds and give you an overview: What is the big picture for what we’re trying to do? So, the foundation’s main objective is to lead the transformation of the Qatari society from a carbon-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, and that is a big umbrella statement. However, to us here it means something very specific. What we want to do is, we want to use research, education, and community service as three pillars to try to sort of lead the Qatari society and the region to be more focused on knowledge generation and so on. So in that respect, we are trying to engage not only the local population, but also engaging scientists from all over the world. Not only Arab scientists, but in general. With Arab scientists, they’re living abroad; we actually have started a special Arab expat scientist network, trying to engage Arab scientists that have lived and contributed in the West. So if we use this as a big picture, in the community service aspect of the foundation, we’re building a hospital. It’s Sidra...will be the world’s most advanced, totally digital. It’s being built by a consortium of companies like Dell and Lawson and Cerner. They’re each contributing different aspects to this system. For that, the analytics would come in, and the whole aspect of business intelligence, and to try to figure out what problems exist with the local population, how do we provide better health care, and so on and so forth. Specifically, the data analytics program is an academic research program, if you wish.

Steven Cherry: It sounds like the cloud computing also ties in with this.

Ahmed Elmagarmid: Absolutely. The cloud computing really serves many different areas. So, if I can explain it properly—the areas we are focusing on, like social computing, scientific computing, and Arabic languages technologies, things like computational linguistics, machine translation, and information retrieval. Then we have two infrastructural areas. Data analytics and cloud computing we would consider to be infrastructural. They really apply to all of these areas.

Steven Cherry: You yourself were born in Libya, and you came to the U.S. for college, first at the University of Dayton and then at Ohio State, and you worked here for many years before going back. So you’re an example of both brain drain and reverse brain drain.

Ahmed Elmagarmid: Yes. Yes. In fact, this is the beauty of the vision and the commitment that exists in Qatar. So this is a program that started back in 2005 and 2006, engaging Arab scientists in the diaspora, and we were brought into Doha over the last four years, engaging into: What will it take for scientists to come back here? We are finding now that this brain gain, in fact, is taking place. In general, you know, Steve, I’m not such a 1-0 person. It’s not a brain drain or a brain gain. It’s more like migration: People sort of migrate off to the West for obvious reasons, for the quality of life and so on, and democracy, and all the great things we all went for. And then you get to a certain stage where you realize that really the world is global, and in fact this is the theme that we have at the foundation, the globalization of research, and what tools can we develop that will help globalize research. So, coming back to your question about the Arabic expat scientists network, what we did over the last few years is try to identify Arab scientists working in Europe, mostly primarily in the U.S. and Europe, and perhaps in Canada. And we’ve identified about 5000 of these concrete people who are working in research environments, and now we’re engaging them. We’ve invited a small group of them, about 100, this week they will be here in Doha. We will engage them for a few days and try to say, “What will it take for you to come back and rebuild the renaissance?” There’s a lot of excitement here; as you know, a lot of great science and great research, mathematics, physics, and so on, took place in the Arab world, in the Islamic world, 1200, 1500 years ago, and what we’re trying to do now is be players again. Not only consumers of what gets produced in the West, but to also contribute, to be knowledge producers. So, hopefully, the outcome of this week is that we will get some more of these people who want to come. Just to give you an example, in my own institute—and this is really a small example—we’ve recruited 40 scientists this last year, and our plan is to recruit 50 this coming year. And we’ll go up to 120 scientists working in the field of computing. Similarly, there is another institute focused on energy and environment. That institution will recruit a similar number, about 100 to 150 people. There’s another institution for biomedical research, and so on and so forth. We believe that maybe in 5 years, if we have 1000 scientists of the caliber that has been trained in and has gone through sort of the ladder in the U.S. and in Europe in the best places, and if people come back here, boy, what an excitement…I mean, we will be able to truly collaborate with colleagues in the U.S. At the beginning, I was kind of worried: What would it take to recruit somebody to leave MIT or to leave Yahoo or to leave Microsoft research and come to Doha? But you know, it’s been really possible, it’s not been a walk in the park, but it’s not been impossible. We’ve recruited some really, really, really good people, and I’m sure you looked through our website and you saw some of the caliber of the people we’ve recruited. We’ve recruited faculty from MIT, people from Bell Labs. So I mean it’s—it is possible, it’s not a trivial proposition.

Steven Cherry: So looking back at history, Arab science led the world for several centuries before it was superseded. For your students, was that a source of consternation or inspiration—or maybe a little bit of both?

Ahmed Elmagarmid: It’s probably a little bit of both. Young people these days, we don’t want to talk about the past, we want to look forward. I personally am a student of Al-Khwarizmi. I’m very interested in the science he created, and I find it very inspirational that we could do great science in this part of the world. And in fact, there isn’t any contradiction between being a Muslim and being a great scientist. There is no need for stereotyping. That, in fact, we could emphasize doing science for the sake of science and being major players on the world stage. Just to give you an example, Steve, during this last year, since we started our institution, we’ve filed 20 patents. Now, this is nothing compared to the number of patents that get filed every day in the U.S. or by IBM alone. However, for this part of the world it’s really unheard of. If you look at the total number of patents in Qatar, collectively, I believe they had like six or nine patents all together. Well, this year alone, in our group alone, we’ve filed 20. I believe if we can get that energy, can capitalize on this energy, if we can get this sort of to become contagious to other institutions and so on and everybody is filing patents, submitting, writing papers in the best conferences and journals, hiring the best IEEE senior scientists and fellows and so forth, I believe we could have another renaissance. I’m a student of Al-Khwarizmi, so I really like the example of the House of Wisdom. A lot of things that are going on in the Qatar Foundation these days are akin to what’s going on in the House of Wisdom, you know, some, like, 1200 years ago or so. So the commitment is here. Her Highness is personally involved, is engaged. The serious commitment is there; the moral commitment is there; the financial commitment is there. We are really given freedom to do what we want to do, sort of work on our research, so I—I’m actually hopeful. I’m actually—I believe that something positive will come out of this, and we come out of...it’s positive in a global way, not in an inward-looking way. I believe it will be in an outward-looking way. In a global way. I’m not sure I want to think of myself as doing science for Qatar, or of doing it for the region, for the Arab world. I believe we’re doing good science that will compete with whatever science is being done all over the world. This is my hope that we as technology folks, we see ourselves as part of a global community, global village, and don’t want to sort of look inward.

Steven Cherry: If we could close on a slightly more personal note, I mentioned at the top you were born in Libya, and this has been a pretty big year in Libyan history. I was just curious if you had any thoughts about that.

Ahmed Elmagarmid: Oh, we’re excited, Steve. My wife and I are really excited. We’re pinching ourselves over all the changes in Libya and the Arab world. In Libya, it’s been such a depressed and exploited place that what’s going on now is amazing. We just pray that the transition happens to something better. It’s sort of like...we’re still at the early stages. People are trying to figure out—Libya’s been left without any leadership, has been left without any institutions, has been left without any modern infrastructure, so the question is how to get out of this. And in fact, the new prime minister, Abdurrahim El-Keib, is an academic from the U.S. I’m not sure if you knew that or not.

Steven Cherry: I did not.

Ahmed Elmagarmid: Yeah! And if you see that a lot of people who are going back and getting involved in the rebuilding of Libya are academics and people who worked in industry, engineers, physicians and so on and so forth. This is the beauty of it. The world sort of like goes around in circles. When you have a brain drain, you lose people, but then eventually you get them back, and you get them back much more, much better trained. Just look at the IIT example in India. I always give that example. When I was in the U.S. and I was a student, I thought what a dumb idea, you get your best engineers every year and you send them to the U.S. and they never come back—but how little did I know. You look at all the hustlers and the successful entrepreneurs in the U.S. and how they went back to India and how they helped the resurgence of India. Same in China. I hope now it is the turn of the Arab world and maybe Libya. I believe that the future is very bright, and I believe we’ll come out of it stronger, free people.

Steven Cherry: It’s wonderful to hear about basically a technical Arab Spring as well as a political one. We wish you the best of luck with that.

Ahmed Elmagarmid: Thank you, Steve. I’ve been a member of the IEEE since I was a student, and it’s something I’ve always been a part of. Thank you very much.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Ahmed Elmagarmid, the executive director of the Qatar Computing Research Institute, about a renaissance in Arab engineering. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Announcer: “Techwise Conversations” is sponsored by National Instruments.

This interview was recorded 17 November 2011.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

Follow us on Twitter @techwisepodcast

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

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