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‘The Point of the Spear’: Ramesh Rao Speaks on QI and its Unique Calling

Qualcomm Institute Director Ramesh Rao
"Universities have always played a role in being forward-looking, and Qualcomm Institute is very much at the point of the spear," says Ramesh Rao, director of the Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego. (Photo by Alex Matthews)

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Mika Elizabeth Ono of Qualcomm Institute (QI) communications spoke with Professor Ramesh Rao, who has served as a director of QI from its inception in 2000 to the present, about the institute, its endeavors and its role in the future. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Ono: Can you tell us what’s special about the Qualcomm Institute?

Rao: Much of academia has evolved over a long period of time and has developed clearly defined constituencies, expectations and processes. In contrast, thanks to the vision of its founding fathers and mothers, Qualcomm Institute is a space where researchers can be more exploratory, where they can discover new things they don’t yet know are of significant interest. So it’s more playful; it’s more exploratory. There’s room for discovery; there is room to engage and disengage and come back with a new idea. So Qualcomm Institute is different from, but also benefits from and contributes to, the more well-established aspects of academia.

Ono: How would you describe QI to people who have never heard of it?

Rao: In that case, I would welcome them to come on in and experience Qualcomm Institute for themselves. Words don’t do justice to the sense of awe and wonder you experience when you hear from many different creative folks, from all different disciplines, who bring together their expertise in new and unexpected ways. One example is the use of virtual reality in archeology. We all have a sense of what archeologists do, but it’s a whole different experience when those projects are brought alive in virtual reality. We also have events, including visual, musical and performance arts, specifically designed to engage broader audiences.

Ono: And what would you tell people QI is trying to achieve?

Rao: Throughout history, we’ve gone through many different phases where new understanding — whether it’s scientific understanding or an engineering feat — allowed us to transform the world we live in. But it starts out small. That’s where we come in. For example, in 2001 we understood the disruptive role that information technology might play in civil discourse, and we were delighted when the Department of Visual Arts hired a faculty member and now QI affiliate, Professor Ricardo Dominguez, who focused on electronic civil disobedience. It seemed like such an esoteric field back then, but today there is no doubt that information technology is refashioning civil society. Universities have always played a role in being forward-looking, and Qualcomm Institute is very much at the point of the spear.

Ono: What’s the big idea that drew you to QI?

Rao: Back in 2000, the world of networks, our communications, had reached an inflection point. This is a field I had worked in as a graduate student and as the director of the Center for Wireless Communications. So my interests and the needs and opportunities of the time came together nicely. But, on a personal level, a major attraction was QI’s interdisciplinary promise. We had to find a way for it to be meaningful for a professor from Electrical Engineering to spend time with a professor from Visual Arts. It seems exceedingly difficult on one level, but it can happen. Connecting things that are typically disconnected and making them come alive produce results that speak for themselves. So much of what we have done at the intersection of medicine and technology fits this mode. That’s what keeps me going.

Ono: What’s a project that stands out as one of your favorites?

Rao: As an engineer and somebody who has an interest in understanding mind-body practices, what has amazed me is the pace at which new technologies, especially new sensors and data analysis, have enabled a deeper validation of practices that we’ve always viewed as traditional practices. Things like yoga, meditation, paced breathing now are known to enhance the health of your autonomic nervous system in a way that is protective against COVID infections and mental health issues. These two worlds, the medical world and the world of tradition, are not as far apart as we used to think they were.

Ono: The world is such a different place today than in 2000, when QI was founded. Facebook was launched in 2004, YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006. Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, the same year Google launched Android. More recently, the pandemic prompted a massive global experiment in “work from home.” How has this shifting landscape affected QI and the questions it confronts?

Rao: Yes, how do you remain fresh forever? When we conceived of the proposal back in 2000, we gathered together the best minds and came up with the idea of putting together technology with its applications in a meaningful framework. To be honest, that hasn’t changed. I think relying on creative minds is a sure bet. Now, what comes out of these creative conversations and pursuits does change with time.

Ono: If the constant over the years is the creative minds and talent at UC San Diego, what stands out as different from when you started?

Rao: As we apply our talent and as technology creates new elements to work with, we begin to influence each other in new ways. That has utopian and dystopian sides. For example, the number of times you take out your phone and unlock the screen reveals something about your mental state. We have to constantly learn the new ways in which emerging technologies create complex, interdependent systems. This is not just an academic pursuit. It can be exploited. It can be abused unintentionally and intentionally. The challenges of understanding what we are confronting have gotten more complex, but I believe we can more successfully address them in an environment in which multiple disciplines mingle together.

Ono: What strategies have you used to create an interdisciplinary environment at QI?

Rao: Internally, creating a shared use environment is critical. Different people from all over the world come together to use our specialized facilities. Once they are here, they rub shoulders with others and begin to have interesting conversations. Externally, it’s centers and programs that explicitly call out the possibilities; for example, our neurodiversity program engages with young adults who self-identify as on the spectrum in a workforce training program involving digital games.

Ono: What is QI’s best-kept secret — a little gem that would change people’s view of QI?

Rao: Usually on a campus with a strong research focus most labs and advanced facilities are not open to the public or non-experts. One of the best kept secrets at Qualcomm Institute is that all our facilities are open to the public, startups, large corporations and faculty on and off campus. In a very big way, we have a deep commitment to shared, accessible infrastructure.

Ono: What do you want members of the UC San Diego community to know about QI?

Rao: If you come to QI as a student or researcher, chances are you will be rubbing shoulders with somebody who didn’t take the exact same courses and doesn’t publish in the exact same journals as you do. In mixing with others from different backgrounds, your understanding and the set of tools you take with you through your career will be enriched; you’ll encounter problems you never thought of and will have a richer set of methods and techniques and tools to draw on.

For undergraduates, QI offers innumerable opportunities. You can work in just about any corner of the Qualcomm Institute. From the point of view of the curriculum, many majors and colleges require students to complete a project — typically a design project in a team setting. Over the years, QI has developed programs that allow students from across campus to engage in projects that fulfill these requirements. Students can participate in bold, ambitious work in areas of QI faculty interest, and get academic credit for it.

Ono: What are insights you’ve personally had from interaction among disciplines?

Rao: In engineering, we spend 99% of our time solving problems, and 1% of the time defining the problem. Sometimes your peers or an advisor defines the problem for you. We like to work on hard problems that take many lifetimes. As I started to spend time with artists, I noticed they spend 99% of their time defining the problem, and 1% of the time doing something about it. An artist who draws attention to what we are doing to the environment doesn’t have to solve the environmental crisis. It’s interesting that what consumes most of our time in one discipline is not so important for another.

Ono: What do QI’s community engagement efforts look like?

Rao: From the outset, actually in the 2000 proposal, we talked about living labs, in other words, taking things proven in a lab into the real world. Over these last 20-plus years, we’ve had numerous projects in which we have deployed things in the outside world, working closely with a community of interest.

Early on, we had a project in emergency field medicine, with paramedics and firefighters, trying to see what kind of technology would make a difference. It was an enriching process in both directions. From a technology perspective, this work helped us discover if a new widget doesn’t work within 10 seconds, it’s useless because that’s the reality of the workflow.

We’ve also been doing work on wildfire monitoring and response. Rather than completing a project, handing it off and tracking its use, we enlist community members as core developers in multiple iterations. We conduct disaster drills and tabletop exercises, then make accurate observations of how these widgets or systems we’re building actually do or don’t make a difference.

Community engagement for us today also includes a more specific focus on underserved, underinvested parts of our state and region. The establishment of the UC San Diego presence at Park and Market is a great opportunity for us to work with the underinvested Central Promise Zone nearby and bring new kinds of connectivity and programs.

Ono: Looking ahead, what do you see as the future value of QI contributions?

Rao: QI is not separate. It doesn’t have an independent existence into which researchers and artists are drawn. It is a reflection of the community. So 10, 20, 30 years from now, we’ll continue to see QI at the point of the spear doing things at the intersection of many different disciplines. QIis not a static entity, it is a dynamic environment. It’s an infrastructure that enables the production of all sorts of new knowledge ideas. And I don’t think that’s going to change.

What will likely change is the concrete manifestation of the work. I think blending of the virtual and the physical world will be a big part of life, not just from the point of view of entertainment and fiction, but also managing our health, strengthening the communities we live in, building our social relationships. But, if you go back to 2000, I don’t think we anticipated the coming of what was then a supercomputer — now called a cell phone — on every person. So who knows what the future really holds?

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