So it’s 10 AM, one humid and mercifully cloudy morning in Colombo, and we’re inching into the University of Colombo’s New Arts Theater, a large cavern decked out in yellow and black. This is the annual Colombo Research Symposium, where graduating students present their papers. There’re a few more banners up here compared to last time – for starters, there’s now Millenium IT and WSO2 banners decking the halls.

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“Your ideas can help power the world’s economy,” they shout. 

It’s great to see these companies taking an interest in the research; this is what drives innovation – academic research hand-in-hand with corporate interest. Quite a few bright minds to recruit here, too.

Once the formalities are done (I’ve successfully managed to light an oil lamp without thinking of a flamethrower) the event begins in earnest. The Chief Guest: Hemantha Jayawardena, Chief Operating Officer at Millenium IT, opened with his keynote, as good a motivational piece as we’ve ever heard on a Sri Lankan tech stage:

“I’ll spend about 5 minutes talking about research in the IT industry and where it should go. Now, you will have heard of a body called SLASSCOM. SLASSCOM put out a report last year detailing the three stages of the development of Sri Lanka’s IT industry. The first is outsourced, or captive development, where a company contracts a company in Sri Lanka to develop their program for them. This is a very successful business model.

The second stage is what we call customized development. Think of an outside IT company setting up in Sri Lanka and creating a research facility where we build a software product that the company them sells to the world.

The third is product building. This is where we control the entire process – from the engineering to the design; to create intellectual properties that belong to Sri Lanka. This was SLASSCOM’s 2022 vision.

If you compare countries that we are competing with in that first stage – India, Bangladesh, Pakistan – they have an advantage we don’t: numbers. They have more people. Therefore, to be successful, we need to be better than our counterparts. I call this India Plus One. We can’t be equal to India: we need to be better. To some extent, this applies to customized development as well.

The challenge here is, we always have to be India Plus One.

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The real breakthrough for Sri Lanka comes in product engineering.

That doesn’t require the tens of thousands that the outsourcing industry need. If you look at all the IT graduates coming out of Sri Lanka – it’s maybe 10,000 a year. If you look at one huge company in India, like TATA, they hire 20-30,000 graduates. We can’t play that game.

Now, to build successful products, you need good research. Building a successful product is hard; staying successful is harder. Because you have competitors around the world that aren’t going to stand still. That is why you need to engage in what we at MIT call “creative disruption” – creatively destroying what you already have so you come up with radical new innovations. Take IBM in the 80s; it creatively disrupted its mainframe business by dominating the PC. It’s hard to build a successful product – it’s much harder to keep that product successful.

And for this, doing research at a university level, and even in the workplace, is critical. Many are concerned that after leaving the university, you end up with a job coding software and doing little else. But the industry is changing; I see companies realizing that they need to make this transition and head to the future.

So my advice to you: don’t think of your research as something that ends. No matter what you do, where you work, don that creative – disruptive mantle and keep changing the world.

Thank you.”

With that, the Symposium officially kicks off. The students first launch a website – symposium.ucsc.lk. That done, the pitching begins.

Let me explain how this goes. In our hands, we have a document with some 47 research abstracts. Out of these, 8 are presented. Presentations are done by the researchers, speaking primarily to a panel of judges – Dr. Sidath Liyange, from the University of Kelaniya; Dr Prasad Jayaweera of the University of Sri Jaywaradenapura, Dr Ranga Rodrigo, of the University of Moratuwa and Dr.Rasika Withanawasam from MilleniumIT.

Those selected eight pitches were the top of the line. We saw good pitches and middling pitches, but, all in all, it was an exponential improvement in what we’re used to: the majority of the presentations were solid and fairly well-delivered.

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Overall, it’s a huge improvement over the previous year. The MIT / WSO2 sponsorship has upped it to a much more impressive scale, and it shows: it’s reflected in the enthusiasm with which the students pitched the fruits of their labour. We saw research into mapping protein sequences, research into reducing the energy consumed by a WiFi connection in mobile phones – all the way from medical science to consumer electronic applications (a method to maintain quadcopter radio link quality, anyone?), with a social curveball in between: a method of detecting drunkenness in Sri Lankan males via voice analysis.

We protest – this is sexism, ladies get drunk too – but now that we’ve got out of the way, they apparently used extensive analysis of Sinhala phonetic speech to create a valid testing tool that can stand up to court. We thought the abstracts on dynamically manipulating traffic and that for modelling the learning ability of fish in an aquarium were pretty interesting, though we didn’t see either on display (call us shallow, but it looks like modelling a better aquarium simulation is a logical rung on the ladder to, say, modelling and virtualizing an entire zoo). This is a lot of diversity.

Unfortunately, we can’t list out all the papers here: not everything lends itself well to a neat summary. Once the final pitch ends  Finally, the director of the UCSC, Prof Gihan Wickramanayake hands out the certificates: clapping erupts from the crowd of university students orbiting the stage.  Dr Sidath Liyange, Dr Prasad Jayadeera, and Dr Ranga Rodrigo come up to the stage to present the judges’ decisions:

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The best paper award in Computer Science goes to the paper titled “Computation Approach To Prioritize Functionally Significant Variations in Whole Exome Sequencing” by Ishani Liyanage, Rupika Wijesinghe, Ruvan Weerasinghe and Nilakshi Samaranayake. 

The best paper award in Information and Communication Technology goes to: “Recognizing Level of Alcohol Intoxication in Sri Lankan Males through Changes in Voice Suprasegmentals” by Ganesh W. Wakista, Sachie J. Abhayarathne, Gihan T. Mendis, Shiromi M.K.D. Arunatilake and K. Daitha Sandaruwan.

The Millenium IT Research Paper Award goes to: “Machine Learning Based Approach for Disease Diagnosis of the Human Retina.” by W.O.K.A.S. Wijesinghe, N.D. Kodikara and K.D. Sandaruwan. 

Of course, the rest aren’t going away with empty hands: we’ve mentioned that the presenters all had their moment in the limelight and a certificate to remember the event by. Hopefully, we’ll see some of these ideas being picked up by the industry; if not here, then abroad, at least. Science must prevail.

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