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Jayant Haritsa: The IISc scientist who makes his way through the information maze

How does Facebook remember your friends’ birthdays, and remind you about them well in advance? When you search for a fancy phone on Amazon or Flipkart, how does it manage to show up the right results? They can do it because all enterprise scale information is stored in sophisticated databases.

A database is an organised collection of information. Information is organised and stored in such a way that it can be retrieved easily by a user. When you search for your favourite phone on Flipkart, you are actually trying to retrieve information from a huge database of phones and other stuff that Flipkart maintains. Behind the scenes, an extremely complex software, called a “database engine”, is powerfully processing its way through the millions of pieces of data; therefore, as a user, what you experience is an accurate result delivered in almost no time.

This year’s Infosys Prize in the Engineering and Computer Science category has gone to Jayant Haritsa, a computer scientist who has made highly creative strides in the design of such database engines. He is a Senior Professor at the Supercomputer Education & Research Center and the Chair of the Department of Computer Science & Automation, Indian Institute of Science.

In a way, our brain is also a database. You are able to read this article fluently because almost each and every word is already stored in your ‘database’. However, how the brain manages to search its database, an art perfected over evolutionary timescales, still eludes the brains trying to understand this phenomenon.

There is a big difference between searching your brain’s database and Flipkart’s database: the brain knows how to search itself, but Flipkart needs the work of computer scientists to search though its information maze. Jayant Haritsa is one such scientist who has developed novel strategies to robustly and efficiently query databases to retrieve the desired information.

When he returned to India from US two decades ago, database research was at a nascent stage here. Today, India has a vibrant database research community, thanks to a leadership role assumed by Jayant. In fact, he wrote the very first papers from India in some of the highly selective database journals. Moreover, his research output has featured in the advanced database courses of leading universities, and deeply influenced industrial practice.

Jayant enjoys a highly visible position in the database research and industry community. His latest work provides the first ever provably robust query processing algorithm, in the process fulfilling a dire and long-felt need, and the reviewers opining “A crazy idea that works brilliantly!”. Further, Picasso, a visualization platform developed by Jayant and his team, has blossomed into a popular software tool over the last decade. IISc has obtained copyright from the Govt. of India on this tool, and licensed it to leading multinationals and top universities worldwide. More recently, Jayant pioneered the intriguing idea of 'dataless databases', which resulted in the CODD testing tool intended for Big Data environments. IISc has again obtained the copyright on this tool and licensed it to several industrial majors.                                

In a nutshell, during the last decade, his singularly imaginative ideas have turned database query processing on its head, from both academic and industrial perspectives, and indelibly redrawn the landscape of this primordial research area. Obviously, the gold medal, citation and the Rs 55 lakh purse that come with the Infosys Prize, have found the right person!