Kunal Sen, Chief Technology Development officer, Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB) tells Sudhir Raikar about his offbeat career path, key influences, holistic body of work and inventive business and technology initiatives at EB.
Can you elaborate a little more on your passion for science that grew against the backdrop of art?
I grew up in an environment where I was surrounded by artists of all different shades. Ours was a tiny apartment, with two very small rooms. Almost every day, my father’s friends would start pouring in from eight or nine in the morning, and there was a constant flow of people until midnight. I preferred to spend my time in the middle of this intellectual chaos, as the atmosphere was energetic, almost addictive. As a little kid I didn’t understand most of what they were talking about, but I sensed it was important, and that realisation itself seemed exciting. As I grew up, I started taking more interest in the conversations, and eventually my own friends joined in. My mother and my uncle, who stayed with us at that time, were actors, so I was surrounded by many people pursuing artistic professions. Naturally, I developed an interest in film, theatre, literature, and other form of visual arts.
At the same time, I developed a keen interest in science and technology. It was a very deep passion, but I am not sure where I got it from. Though my father had a physics background, I don’t recall him taking much active interest in science during my formative years. Part of my decision to pursue science could have been a conscious desire not to take advantage of my father’s social position. At that age we are all a bit of a rebel. People expected me to turn towards filmmaking, and that in itself may have pushed me in the other direction. I still remember the day when my father’s production manager spotted me in a serpentine queue, waiting for my turn to buy a ticket for “Calcutta 71”. I didn’t want to bypass the process, and was deeply embarrassed when he pulled my out of the line. I just couldn’t look back at the other people in the queue who were left sweating it out in the hot Calcutta sun.
So it was peaceful co-existence between art and science, one driven by circumstance?
I never felt there is a wide gap between the arts and the sciences. I have always seen them as two different ways to achieve the same goal – to understand the world around us. I see absolutely no contradiction when science tries to explain why we like certain arts, and it also does not take away by appreciation of the art. I can easily analyse why a piece of music touches us from a purely scientific standpoint, and enjoy the same piece of music in the evening over a glass of wine. We may try to understand the need for “love” from an evolutionary point of view, but that does not make it any harder for us to fall in love.
What motivated the somewhat 'back and forth' academic voyage - Physics and Computer science degrees before the doctorate in Artificial intelligence?
I was not a very good student, but I managed to win in a national competition, and received a very lucrative award called “National Science Talent Search” scholarship. Since my high school results were average, and I could not get into the college of my choice, I enrolled for Physics at St. Xavier’s College in Calcutta. This was 1972, an era of political turbulence in Calcutta. I was keen to be part of it but to my utter disappointment, the St. Xaviers environment seemed quarantined from the world of political movements. I attended very few classes, and rarely went to college. Quite obviously, I lagged behind in my academic performance. Many of us started studying Physics with the certainty of being the next Albert Einstein, and in the clouded perspective at age 20, it didn’t seem that impossible. However, I soon realized I did not have what it takes to be a good physicist.
After finishing my B.Sc., I switched to Applied Physics, a mix between physics and technology, but didn’t like it either. During this period we had our first book fair in Calcutta, and I accidentally picked up a book called “Design for a Brain” by Ross Ashby. It was a brilliant book on cybernetics, and it started my love affair with computer science and artificial intelligence. I did my Masters at Indian Statistical Institute, followed by my doctoral work on Machine Learning in Chicago. For some convoluted reasons, I didn’t want to pursue an academic career, and after a period of developing medical instrumentation and writing text books, I joined Britannica.
Mine was certainly not a career path worth emulation. I allowed myself, again and again, to be swayed by whatever I found a passion for. My professional career certainly suffered because of that, but personally I don’t have too many regrets. Of course I envy people who find their true calling at an early age and stick to it, but it didn’t happen for me. In exchange I think I have a more colourful story to tell.
Why do you regard Art as an elitist entity? Should a gifted artist, carving a piece of art, necessarily care for its correct and common interpretation by the world at large?
I think you are referring to a couple of my blogs on the subject. I am not sure I have found the answer yet, but I have some thoughts and doubts. First of all, I do not believe any serious form of art can be appreciated unless one spends a significant amount of effort in exploring the given form. It doesn’t matter how bright or sensitive you are, you have to learn the specific language. Therefore, to start with, the set of people who can appreciate any complex art form is a small group of people who essentially took the trouble to delve deeper.
When it comes to purely abstract visual arts, I am not sure how much all of us are influenced by the judgment of the “experts”. That is not to say there is no intrinsic quality that we can appreciate, but maybe there is also the peer pressure of conforming to established assessments. If I am told from the very beginning that Picasso was a great artist, then it’s very difficult for my brain not to base his works in order to define “good art”.
An individual artist certainly may not care about public opinion, and we do have a few artists who do have that courage, but I don’t think that is a common attribute. Unfortunately, most artists do care, to some extent, about valued views. For some, that could mean a select group, while others may try to please a broader section, but it’s very hard to disregard it altogether. We all need appreciation.
When your father, the maverick filmmaker Mrinal Sen, looked for the enemy within, didn’t he effectively demolish the abstract notions of good and bad through a creative medium?
I find that phase of his career far more interesting than when he was looking at the enemy outside. I still believe the earlier phase was important, especially at that time in history, but the “enemy within” phase resonates better with me. Absolute judgment of anything is a juvenile exercise. As we mature as human beings it becomes harder to define heroes and villains. In that sense, this series of films are far more mature.
The thing that I find most inspiring and unusual in my father is his plasticity. All through his life the only thing that remained constant was his change. Not many creative people show the courage that I have seen in him. Every time he found a style or subject that worked with his audience, he changed himself to try something else. And most important, he has been critical of all his past work, always wanting to do it all over again.
Do you feel visual literacy (or critical visual literacy) can be taught like a pedagogical subject?
I certainly believe that all forms of artistic literacy are teachable to some extent. That is, a group of students may be given greater exposure to an art form, and can be explained why some things are considered better than others. However, like anything else, a few of them will really get it, another few will not get it at all, and a broad mid-section will get some of it.
My wife, Nisha, teaches in a school associated with the University of University Chicago. This is a very elite school, where half the parents are University faculties, and the school’s philosophy is very arts-oriented. When I talk to these kids, they seem to have far more exposure to all forms of art than we ever had in our school days. As a result many among them have a better appreciation of all forms of art, but that certainly does not mean all of those will turn out to be connoisseurs of art. I think we can raise the overall level, but we will still have a relatively small number of people who develop a deeper appreciation and understanding. Mediocrity is a universal truth – you can move it a little with effort, but excellence will always remain rare.
Which are the key influences that have helped shaped your life and work till date?
Obviously, both my parents have been a huge influence on my life. Above all, they instilled a core set of values in me, which guides me to make choices. I often disagree with my father and we have long arguments, nowadays mostly through emails, but that’s his legacy. He taught me to question all accepted notions, and that probably shaped my thinking the most. Both my parents, especially my mother, had a very tough life. These are the stories I grew up with, and we are, to a large extent, the stories we hear.
As I said before, heroes die as we get older, but a few of them still survived. The ones that I can think of now are Pete Seeger, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and Herbert Simon, a brilliant and multifaceted scholar.
Tell us more about your holistic body of work that blends first-hand understanding of the digital world with demonstrated love for visual arts?
Like most people, I am not particularly proud of most of my creations. In other words, many other people, with some degree of intelligence and perseverance, could have created something similar. I feel very lucky that I have been able to be a part of the digital revolution that is unfolding around us. In fact, I was a participant from the very beginning. When the whole microcomputer revolution was being staged in the west coast of America in the mid-seventies, I was keenly reading about it in Calcutta through smuggled magazines, and building my own microcomputer from scratch. My passion for electronics dates back to my formative years.
During my doctoral research days, I started taking drawing and painting courses in Chicago and rekindled a hobby that remained dormant since my school days. After I joined Britannica in 1999, I have been lucky to be part of the amazing changes that were brought about by the Internet. I personally believe this revolution will have a deeper impact on humanity compared to the Industrial revolution.
Since the last two years I have been able to combine these three passions into a single endeavour. I try to delve into my understanding of the digital shift through an artistic expression that gainfully employs my drawing, painting, electronic and engineering skills. I cannot be an objective judge of the output, but I am enjoying it thoroughly. Very few people get the opportunity to blend all of their passions into a single stream, and I feel very lucky. My only regret is why I didn’t start it sooner.
What do you feel are the key tech initiatives and innovation that's helping a mammoth legacy organization retain its competitive edge in the digital age?
Britannica’s story is truly remarkable. We are in the thick of our business ever since 1768. So many analog-era companies could not make the transition into the digital age. Even giants like Kodak failed on that count. We not only made it, we are growing.
Part of our success was our recognition of the shift. Even at the peak of our “print” days, the company made the decision to create digital products. We created our first digital version in 1984, way before the Internet was born. We were one of the first to publish on CD-ROM. We didn’t hesitate to kill our print encyclopaedia last year, because it no longer made business sense. Not too many other companies can claim this feat – to kill the product that you are most well known for.
We have diversified into making many educational products, which build on our rich reference materials, but they serve a very different market. We are also making key changes to our consumer offerings. The last ten years have not been easy. Everything around us was evolving, and we had to change quickly to stay relevant. Now we are standing on a much more stable ground, and unless we are misreading something, our future looks very positive.