Patrick Hosein: the quiet innovator

If you’ve ever used a smartphone, you’ve probably benefitted from the research of Trinidadian engineer Patrick Hosein. Raymond Ramcharitar finds out how

Photograph courtesy the Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence programme

We use the World Wide Web and our cellular phones, frequently simultaneously, like recently evolved appendages. We can barely imagine going for a few minutes, much less a day, without access to the Internet via the portals we carry around on our smartphones.

While no single person invented either technology, each was a confluence of the talents of many gifted individuals, with peaks of endeavour manifesting in people like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates. But behind these individuals are others equally gifted, but more obscure, like Trinidadian Patrick Hosein, the Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence Laureate in Science and Technology for 2015, who introduced the Internet to Trinidad and Tobago.

Born in Curepe, Hosein was an island scholarship winner from St Mary’s College. He went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, and left in 1991 with five degrees, covering the disciplines of electrical engineering, computer science, and mathematics.

Hosein made his mark at MIT in more ways than one. One of his professors and mentors was Amar Bose, inventor of the iconic Bose speaker systems. He was Bose’s teaching assistant and worked at his company, Bose Corporation. This combination of pure science and industry continued after Hosein graduated with his PhD. He took a research position at Bell Labs in New Jersey for eighteen months (as allowed by his scholarship and visa requirements).

Then in 1991 Hosein returned to Trinidad and Tobago, and took up a position as lecturer in the department of computer and electrical engineering at the University of the West Indies. There he acquired the distinction of being the first person to connect T&T to the Internet, which then existed in a rudimentary form in US academia.

That first connection was made through a fax line to the University of Puerto Rico. “It was painfully slow,” Hosein recalls, “but it was greatly appreciated by the students, to experience the Internet for the first time.” When TSTT, the national telecommunications company, first decided to offer commercial Internet access locally, Hosein was part of a team contracted to provide the necessary software to run on the IBM hardware.

Despite the satisfaction of being able to advance his field in his home country, Hosein decided to return to the US in the mid-1990s and focus on research. He returned to Bell Labs, where he worked on Control Algorithms for Telecommunications Networks as well as Internet Protocol Routing Algorithms — software to manage online traffic and congestion. A few years later, he felt it was time to move on, and with excellent prescience saw the burgeoning cellular phone industry as a good destination.

Hosein worked for Ericsson and Huawei, both leaders in the cellular phone industry. “I was able to use my expertise in optimisation (from my MIT days),” he says, “and my knowledge of controls (from Bell Labs) to come up with novel algorithms for resource management in wireless networks.” His work in the US was integral to the development of 2G, 3G, and 4G (“second-”, “third-”, and “fourth-generation”) cellular technology, and led to an enviable thirty-eight global patents granted for work in the field (with forty-two pending).

As a result, Hosein was nominated for the Ericsson Inventor of the Year award in 2004 and was the Huawei US Wireless Research Employee of the year in 2007. He is also a member of the US honour societies Tau Beta Pi, Sigma Xi, and Eta Kappa Nu, and has been honoured by T&T’s National Institute of Higher Education, Research, Science, and Technology (NIHERST), in addition to being named a Caribbean Awards for Excellence laureate.

 

Even with these considerable achievements, Hosein desired to do more. Having made contributions to global technology, he wished to transfer that technology to his home country, and he returned to UWI, where he is presently a professor in the computer science department. There he has revamped the postgraduate programme, and sought to change the way students approach their work.

To survive in the international scene, innovation, experimentation, and willingness to think outside boundaries are necessities, not options. “You hear people talk about innovation, but they don’t know what innovation is,” he says. “Most times they are referring to the minor adaptation of foreign technology for local use. We need more creative students, especially in the university. I’m trying to introduce more opportunities for students to demonstrate creativity. I think we have students who are capable, but we just have to train them.”

Outside of academia, Hosein is active in the integration of ICT (information and communications technology) into everyday life. He is the CEO of the Trinidad and Tobago Network Information Centre (TTNIC), which manages the .tt top-level domain for the World Wide Web. He also personally supports the hosting of web sites and provides domain names for over a hundred schools in Trinidad and Tobago. He is active in the area of open data — the movement towards making as much information as possible free to all — and has set up and manages open data repositories (data.tt and maps.tt) for Trinidad and Tobago.

Hosein is especially passionate about the open data project, since reliable and extensive data sets are key to the production of web applications, which is an area in which T&T can find a place in international competition. He’s also active in the development of energy smart grids and the use of ICT for agriculture. Recently, together with a new PhD candidate, he has collaborated with another Caribbean Awards for Excellence Laureate, Surujpal Teelucksingh, to use non-invasive ICT techniques to automate the process of monitoring the health of the nation’s schoolchildren, to be able to detect potential health issues at an early stage.

Of the future, he says: “One area in which we lack local expertise is operations research (the application of optimisation and advanced analytical methods to improve decision-making). Since this is one of my main areas of interest, I am hoping to start an MSc degree in operations research. I hope that I can continue to use my background in computer science, electrical engineering, and mathematics for the benefit of society.”

And it’s likely you’ve already benefitted from Hosein’s pioneering work — especially if you happen to be reading this article online, on your smartphone.