Page 32 - April 2021
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         India’s IT Prowess
Should Propel
Astrobiology
The grand quest for astrobiology has the potential to offer rich dividends to the country
   n Dr Chaitanya Giri
Since the 1991 economic liberalisa- tion, India has made great strides to become a global information technology (IT) giant. Thirty years hence, Tata Consultancy Services is the largest IT company in the world. Today, India boasts of tremendous IT ecosys- tems in Gurgaon, Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai, Navi Mumbai and Bengaluru. Our IT sector now is arterial to indus- tries from pharmaceuticals to oil and gas to banking to telecommunication. With such a reckoning force at hand, an unorthodox question arises: why should India not go a big way with astrobiology?
The IT sector has begun making prolific contribution in the areas of as- tronomy and astrophysics. For instance, the Pune-headquartered IT company Persistent Systems provides software support to India’s Giant Meter-wave Radio Telescope and its participation
in the international Square Kilometre Array astronomy megaproject located in Australia and South Africa. India’s involvement in the international Thirty Meter Telescope and its leadership with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) India proj- ect will bring tremendous inputs from the robust IT industry. What ails our attempts to create similar competence in astrobiology and search for extrater- restrial intelligence (SETI)? The reasons are linked cascadingly.
SETI and astrobiology are enor- mously transdisciplinary but tend to fall prey to their inherent grandeur. Finding life in the universe is often viewed as a long-range quest. Developing countries stay away from such grand searches and emphasise only solution-driven science. Furthermore, since SETI and astrobiol- ogy first began in a superpower nation, the US, they are branded as expensive pursuits of the developed world. Resul- tantly, developing countries’ national space agencies do not allocate funds for these domains, which in turn do not cre- ate a strong community of scientists and technologists. Developing nations also lack scientific philanthropy to provide
grants to these domains. It does not help the philanthropists earn what they seek — social capital from investing in real- world problems. Furthermore, there is a shortage of narrative that highlights the practicality and solutionism of these domains.
Contrary to popular perception, as- trobiology has had practical beginnings. Not many would know it shares its gen- esis with Artificial Intelligence back in the 1960s. The credits of their conjoined birth go to the then young Nobel laure- ate microbial geneticist Joshua Leder- berg, who coined the term ‘exobiology,’ and the young Edward Feigenbaum, who is now known as the ‘father of expert systems’ and a pioneer in Artificial Intel- ligence. The first output of the conjoined genesis of exobiology and artificial in- telligence was Lederberg’s and Feigen- baum’s ‘DENDRAL’ project. DEN- DRAL was the world’s first artificial intelligence expert system that helped chemists identify unknown organic molecules’ structure and composition using a mass spectrometer. DENDRAL boosted mass spectrometers’ capabili- ties, heightening their applicability in the pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, and
 32 SCIENCE INDIA APRIL 2021
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