The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in the United Kingdom last week honoured India-born Stanford University professor Arogyaswami Paulraj with the Faraday Medal for the year 2023.
The medal is the IET's highest honour and one of the world's most prestigious awards for engineers and scientists who advance technologies with global impact.
The citation reads, "For the invention, advancement, and commercialization of MIMO Wireless."
Professor Paulraj created MIMO — Multiple-antenna Input, Multiple-antenna Output — wireless technology, which broke through fundamental barriers to increase wireless data rates.
It is now arguably the key enabling technology in high-speed 4G/5G/6G mobile and WiFi networks.
Thanks to MIMO, high-speed internet access has become transformative infrastructure in modern society, touching billions, mostly through their mobile phones.
Paulraj invented MIMO at Stanford University in the United States (US) in 1992. After building its theoretical foundations, he moved to commercialise the technology in 1998, founding two semiconductor companies in Silicon Valley, Iospan Wireless and Beceem Communications. They were subsequently acquired by Intel and Broadcom respectively.
The ubiquitous broadband wireless internet access we enjoy today would not be possible without MIMO technology.
It harnesses multiple antennas, both at the transmitter and the receiver, in a wireless communication link to speed up the data rate by a factor equal to the number of antennas used.
Professor Paulraj is the hundredth winner of the Faraday Medal. First awarded in 1922 to Sir Oliver Heaviside, it is one of the oldest medals in science and technology.
Named after Michael Faraday, the father of electromagnetism, the medal's early recipients included J J Thompson (electron) and E Rutherford (atomic nucleus).
In recent years, the Faraday Medal has also recognised business leaders in technology, such as Wipro founder Azim Premji in 2005.
Paulraj holds 79 patents and has won several global distinctions, including both the top global honours for telecommunication pioneers — the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal in 2011 and the Marconi Prize and Fellowship in 2014.
This week's IET Faraday Medal makes Paulraj a rare individual to receive all three top global awards for electronics and telecom engineering.
Paulraj’s honours in India include the Padma Bhushan in 2010.
In May 2017, Paulraj was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame of the United States Patent Office.
The hall of fame honours "people responsible for the greatest technological advances that make human, social and economic progress possible" and cites Paulraj for his 1992 US patent on MIMO.
Indian Naval Officer to Scientist to Stanford Don
Born in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu, India, in 1944, Paulraj joined the Indian Navy at age 15 through the National Defence Academy (NDA) and was commissioned in 1965. He served in uniform for 25 years before moving to Stanford.
In India — at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, where he obtained his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) — his contributions included mathematical theories in signal processing, which were to have applications in military systems that he subsequently designed.
Recognising his academic and scientific potential, the Indian Navy seconded him to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Naval Physical and Oceanographic Laboratory (NPOL) in Kochi, Kerala.
There, he led two successful projects for the development of anti-submarine sonar (sound navigation and ranging) systems, including APSOH, the anti-submarine sonar, India’s most successful military technology achievement in the 1980s.
Paulraj also founded the Bangalore (now Bengaluru) centres of three national laboratories in India — The Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR), The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), and The Central Research Laboratory (CRL) of Bharat Electronics — spanning high-speed computing, AI, robotics, and military electronics.
But circumstances led him to leave India in 1991 and join Stanford University.
Currently an emeritus professor at Stanford, Paulraj serves on many advisery committees in the US, ranging from the government to technology firms. He is a senior adviser to Celesta Capital, a US venture capital firm committed to building deep-tech businesses in India.
Indian Government Work
"Prof Paulraj has been guide and mentor to all of who work to advance wireless technology in India," says Bhaskar Ramamurthi, former director, IIT Madras.
On regular visits to India, Paulraj has assisted dozens of Indian researchers in telecom research not limited to MIMO, and is fiercely committed to seeing India make a global impact, not just as a major consumer but as a creator of high-tech for the world.
In recent years, he has helped the Indian government formulate its 5G strategy, and currently works with the India Semiconductor Mission, chairing its Fabless Committee.
He suggests that while 4G, which entered India around 2014, allowed smartphones to access the internet, enabling today’s digital transformation, 5G, currently under deployment, goes beyond gigabit-speed personal connectivity to allow machines and Internet of Things (IoT) devices to also access the wireless internet.
This creates a virtual infrastructure that can replace or even outperform physical infrastructure, a huge future opportunity for India.
The 6G standard promises even higher data rates and link quality, but will also support the delivery of AI applications, improved accuracy of device positioning, and integration of radar-type imaging along with communications.
Paulraj believes that India has the clear potential to enter deep technology industries. Almost all the value in these industries comes from innovation and intellectual property (IP) ownership.
Global Socio-economic Impact
MIMO has attracted massive research and development (R&D) attention, with over 800,000 research papers and patents to date.
Thousands of researchers and engineers, mostly in the US, Europe, and China, and more recently in India, have advanced MIMO, making it a pervasive technology today.
There are about 6.4 billion smartphone users using MIMO-based connectivity, almost reaching the entire global adult population.
Smartphones have enabled access to both social media and digital services, enhancing the quality of life for everyone. Wireless networks have also helped advance digital inclusion, providing individuals from weaker economic backgrounds with affordable access to the internet and its many services.
There are also about 12 billion other consumer devices and machines that connect to the wireless internet.
MIMO today underpins a wireless equipment industry with a revenue of over $450 billion annually, and mobile service providers command an annual revenue of over $1 trillion.
According to the mobile and WiFi industry groups, the global economic value of wireless networks is $7.6 trillion.
MIMO in India
Indian researchers, in particular Professor B Sundarajan of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), developed MIMO coding techniques in the mid-2000s, used in 4G systems.
Later, in 2015, researchers at the Centre of Excellence in Wireless Technology (CEWIT) at IIT Madras, led by Dr K Milleth and Professor B Ramamurthi, made proposals to 4G and 5G’s standards bodies. A notable success was a technique for improving coverage in rural areas.
More recently, Dr K Sivarajan of Tejas Networks has led the development of a 4G infrastructure (RAN, Core) system for Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), while joint teams at the IITs have developed a prototype for 5G infrastructure.
Indian carriers deployed 4G mobile services in 2015 and built the world’s highest data intensity and lowest-cost data network. MIMO-powered 4G and 5G smartphones now underpin India’s rapid digital transformation.
Moreover, 5G has features that enable machines and controllers to effectively connect to each other. 5G can create a virtual infrastructure, greatly amplifying the impact of digital transformation.
On winning his latest award, the Faraday Medal, Professor Paulraj said: "I am humbled to be included in this distinguished cohort of former recipients. Though the prize is presented to an individual, it also recognises the field of wireless communications systems and the thousands of researchers and engineers who contributed to MIMO technology for the benefit of humanity."
The massive footprint of MIMO has no doubt required the contributions of thousands of researchers and engineers, many of them eminent, but Paulraj is generally acknowledged as its key enabler.
The huge reach of MIMO, through over 6 billion mobile phone users, makes it arguably a technology with the greatest global socio-economic impact, invented by an Indian-origin scientist in the post-independence era.
Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.
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