Honorary Conferrings Speeches Archive

    at Aula Maxima, UCC

  • 02 Nov 2015







DR PADRAIG CANTILLON-MURPHY, Lecturer in Engineering, in University College Cork, on 2 November 2015, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, on ANANT AGARWAL


Deputy Lord Mayor of Cork, Mayor of Lincoln, Chancellor of the NUI, President of UCC, Registrar of the NUI, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,


Today, the world marks the 200th birthday of George Boole, philosopher, mathematician and logician. However, it seems unlikely that we would be celebrating this day without the work of a second man; a young engineering student from Petoskey, Michigan, who completed his masters thesis in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, over sixty years after Boole’s death. While the connection appears tenuous, it has transpired that the work of George Boole and that of Claude Elwood Shannon would become inextricably linked in the decades that followed.


Shannon was born on the final day of Ireland’s Easter Rising on April 30th 1916. The son of a businessman and a local teacher, Shannon grew up in admiration of another American engineer, Thomas Edison, a distant cousin of Shannon and the man who revolutionised American industry. Shannon graduated from University of Michigan with a double degree in electrical engineering and mathematics before moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to begin his graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a young institution which had quickly established itself as one of the premier research institutions for science and engineering in the United States. Like UCC, MIT was founded in the midst of one of the most traumatic episodes in the history of its country, the American Civil War. Incorporated in 1861, its original location was in Boston’s Back Bay, on the southern side of the Charles River where the institute was known as the ‘Boston Tech’. It was only in 1916, incidentally the year of Shannon’s birth, that the Institute moved to its current location in Cambridge. The vision of its founder, William Barton Rogers, was for "the teaching, not of the manipulations and minute details of the [scientific] arts, which can be done only in the workshop, but the inculcation of all the scientific principles which form the basis and explanation of them.”


It was to this institute that Shannon arrived in 1936. At MIT, Shannon worked under the supervision of Vannevar Bush, the man who initiated the Manhattan Project. It was while working on Bush’s ‘digital analyser’, an early analogue computer which Bush had developed at MIT, that Shannon began to re-examine the work of Boole. A year after coming to MIT, Shannon published his masters thesis, which was entitled ‘A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits.’ It was in this thesis, which was subsequently published in abridged form in the Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, that Shannon proposed, for the first time in a coherent manner, the electrical switching circuits based on Boolean logic. Howard Gardner, the eminent developmental psychologist, described Shannon’s work as "possibly the most important, and also the most famous, master's thesis of the [twentieth] century."


The concept of digital logic circuits was elegantly simple; while Boole had presented the theory for representing logical mathematics in terms of zeros and ones, it was Shannon who now implemented this electrically by representing zeros with a value of zero Volts and ones with a value of five Volts or so. Shannon’s work coincided with the evolution of the transistor as the first viable electrically-controlled switch, capable of implementing Boolean logic operations on a large scale. In the decades that followed, digital logic based on electrical switching became the foundational technology for every communication and information technology device which we take for granted today. However, underpinning each of these developments is the understanding of Boolean logic applied to electrical systems as developed by Shannon at MIT.


While the interdependent work of Boole and Shannon is certainly, and rightly, the most celebrated instance of a relationship through research between MIT and University College Cork, it would be incorrect to think that it was the only one. In particular, the collaborative links established by Professor John M.D. Murphy, professor of electrical engineering at UCC need to be acknowledged. Professor Murphy’s international standing as a leading authority in the control of alternating current motors led him to the Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems at MIT, beginning a long relationship between that laboratory and electrical engineering at UCC. Over a period of almost forty years, this relationship led numerous graduates of UCC to either work or study at LEES, including Dr Francis O’Sullivan, currently director of the MIT Energy Initiative, Dr Michael Egan, former senior lecturer in electrical engineering at UCC, Professor Gerard Hurley, former Vice President at NUIG and a UCC graduate, and Gerard’s son, Fergus, who is currently a Product Manager at Google’s London Office. There have been many other instances of UCC graduates who went onto further studies at MIT, another of whom, Professor Richard Milner, currently serves as Director of MIT's Laboratory for Nuclear Science.


UCC continues to work closely with MIT in research fields of overlapping interest. In recent years, the Tyndall National Institute has been pivotal in fostering this relationship, led by the ‘magnetics on silicon’ project. Meanwhile, the Cork Constraint Computation Centre based in the department of computer science at UCC and now linked with the national Insight Centre for Data Analytics, has established strong collaborative links with the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory or CSAIL at MIT. CSAIL brings us to today’s honourary doctorate recipient, a former director of that laboratory amongst many other achievements and milestones.


Anant Agarwal graduated in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in 1982 before being accepted to graduate studies at Stanford University. Anant graduated from Stanford in 1987, where he worked with such giants of engineering and computer science, as Professor Mark Horowitz, a name synonymous for all electrical engineering students with his textbook, “The Art of Electronics”; and Professor John Hennessy, the current president of Stanford University.  


In 1988, Anant was appointed to the faculty in the department of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, where he quickly established himself as a leading international authority in multicore computer architecture. While Anant’s academic credentials are truly remarkable in his field, he has also demonstrated the vision to translate his academic brilliance and imagination into commercially relevant and sustainable products. His achievements include the "Tile" multicore processor, a 64-bit architecture with applications in data-centre networking, developed as part of the MIT RAW project which Anant spearheaded at CSAIL. The Tile multicore processor led Anant to co-found the Tilera Corporation in 2007, an organisation which in 2014 was acquired by the EZChip Corporation for a total cost approaching $130M. However, Anant’s breadth of research interests extend well beyond hardware design. His Carbon research group pioneered the ‘Factored Operating System,’ or ‘fos’; a new operating system specifically designed for multicore and cloud computing. Anant is a champion of simulated environments and his group also produced the ‘Graphite’ multicore simulator, the first open-source, distributed parallel simulator specifically designed for multicore architectures. Anant’s work has been recognised with the Maurice Wilkes prize for computer architecture and it was his work on organic computing that Scientific American selected as one of 10 "World-Changing Ideas" in 2011.


Notwithstanding his extraordinary contributions in the field of multicore computing, today’s award, in the first instance, recognises Anant’s remarkable and ground-breaking efforts in the field of online learning. While it is rare for researchers to so dramatically change focus mid-stream in an illustrious academic career, it is quite unprecedented for that sea change to take one from the pinnacle of research excellence to the domain of teaching and learning; an area all too often perceived as unglamorous and unrewarding. However, as those who know Anant will testify, he has never been more comfortable than in the classroom. At MIT, Anant become synonymous with 6.002, the introductory circuits and electronics course which is taken by every electrical engineering and computer science student. In particular, his classroom demonstrations to explain the more difficult aspects of electronic circuits, soon assumed legendary status.


Anant has that innate gift as a teacher to allow students learn without their realising it. Anant provided ‘edutainment’ before gamified learning was conceived.  But, above all, it is the youthful exuberance and energy which Anant radiates, that captivates his students, and makes learning a pleasure even in technically challenging fields. His excellence in teaching has been recognised on multiple occasions. The MIT Smullin and Jamieson awards for teaching are two of his accolades.


It is this energy and enthusiasm for imparting knowledge to others which Anant now brings to edX. Founded in 2012 by MIT and Harvard University, edX has the ambitious goal of increasing access to high-quality education for everyone, everywhere. Anant has spoken eloquently on many occasions on the goal of democratising university education and that vision becomes reality in edX. It was fitting that the first edX course should be 6.002x, a free online version of the course Anant taught at MIT, teaching the principles of electronic circuits which have enabled the information age that makes edX realisable. That first edX course drew 155,000 students from 162 countries, and through a series of video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, real-time feedback, and online laboratories, the seeds were set for a learning platform which now provides hundreds of free courses from institutions like MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, Cornell and elsewhere.


To date, almost 5 million learners have benefitted from edX courses in over 650 subjects. Unlike its competitors, edX champions free courses and has prioritised quality of courses over quantity.  The change we are witnessing through edX is truly the democratisation of third level education. For the first time in 500 years, university courses of the highest quality are freely accessible to the global community, through the power of the internet, information technology and, ultimately, Shannon’s implementation of Boole’s logic. In a world which often feels divided and driven by dividends, edX offers the opportunity to learners of any background, any means, man or woman, rich or poor, in Cork or Cambridge or Khartoum; to access education of the highest quality for free.


This remarkable and unpredicted change, in no small part, is due to the vision and the work of Anant Agarwal and the edX project.  Anant’s extraordinary capacity to shape the way that the world views university education led him to be named on the Forbes list of top 15 education innovators in 2012. When the history of massive online learning is being written 200 years from today, there is little doubt but that Anant’s name will feature large in the preamble.

It would be remiss to conclude without noting that Anant holds a Guinness World Record for the world’s largest microphone array, is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery. His textbook, ‘Foundations of Analog and Digital Electronic Circuits’ continues to be used as the foundational text for circuits and electronics at MIT as well as in thousands of other colleges and universities around the globe. We are also honoured today by the presence of Anant’s wife, Anu, herself an eminent material scientist and a principal scientist at the MIT Microphotonic Centre.


George Boole once remarked “No matter how correct a mathematical theorem may appear to be, one ought never to be satisfied that there was not something imperfect about it until it also gives the impression of being beautiful.” Today, University College Cork recognises the long-standing and inextricable links between MIT and UCC, and, in particular the achievements of Anant Agarwal. Anant has scaled the summits of excellence in academic research, engineering design and commercial success. Yet it is Anant’s vision for edX; a platform that provides the hope of free education to millions, that shines the light of knowledge across borders and that breaks down the divisions which ignorance and intolerance erect; that should give him most satisfaction and, like Boole’s perfect theorem, deserves to be called a thing of beauty.


Anant Agarwal: engineer, entrepreneur, innovator, educator, thinker, inspirational leader, it is an honour and privilege to invite you to accept the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.


Praehonorabilis Cancellarie, totaque universitas!

Praesento vobis hunc meum filium, quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus Scientiae, idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo totique Academiae.


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