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Newsmakers

Connecting the World: Ajay Bhatt

By Petrina D'Souza, 16 Jul, 2015
  • Connecting the World: Ajay Bhatt
Ajay Bhatt – though the name doesn’t ring a bell at the very moment you hear it, it has a lot of success and achievement attached to it. To start with, he is one of the inventors of a device which is used in almost every computer in the world, and that too on a daily basis. Ajay Bhatt, an Indian-American computer architect, is the co-inventor of the Universal Serial Bus – popularly known as the USB.
 
Though the device’s popularity is such that it needs no definition, in simple terms, the USB allows users to connect devices to a computer more easily. “The USB has made computers easy to use,” says Bhatt, Intel’s Chief Architect and Fellow, Client Computing Group. “It has enabled a variety of new applications that were not possible before. It is really for those people who don’t care about technology, but just want to get their job done. So the USB has clearly enabled new uses of the computer and it has attracted new users to the computer.”
 
As they say, “necessity is the mother of invention”, the idea of creating a USB came to Bhatt’s mind at his home in California, 25 years ago. Seeing how difficult it was for his wife and daughter to use the computer, due to the annoying process of rebooting and reconfiguring the system, even for simple tasks like printing, Bhatt thought of designing something that would make computers easy to use. “Something that a common person can use – you just plug it in and it works,” he adds, further explaining, “You don’t have to look for computer settings, or computer disks, or computer software to get anything done.”
 
 
Today, the USB is found in billions of electronic devices all over the world, from webcams to cell phones and memory sticks. It has also streamlined work for hardware and software developers. Yet, the idea was not completely obvious when it was initially suggested – one of the biggest challenges Bhatt had to face while creating the USB. Many thought that it would be an impossible problem to solve. “A lot of people didn’t understand what I was trying to do,” recollects Bhatt. “In a world where in the PCs the compatibility was required with all these existing software, some people prematurely concluded that the USB couldn’t be developed.”
 
Once the work on the project began, there were quite a few instances when Bhatt and his team faced difficult moments, especially during the initial stage. “Usually when you start something like the USB, it’s usually early in the programme, where you don’t have the specifics and you are missing a whole bunch of necessary details and you have to get people to trust you and to work with you,” expresses Bhatt.  
 
Influencing people was the hardest part, states Bhatt. “Technical things can be solved, but peoples issues are the hardest ones. Each of our collaborators had slightly different vision, ideas and approaches in mind, and tapping into everybody’s imagination, and converging on the collective best ideas, and then coming up with the final USB technology was probably the most difficult part,” he reveals.
 
He further adds, “There were ups and downs throughout the development. At various times of the project, it felt like the problems were numerous, insurmountable and the project could be gone next morning. Of course you sleep on the issues; you come back to work next day and make another attempt at solving the problems. That’s how the whole project went.” 
 
 
Bhatt and his team started working on the USB in 1992. In November 1995, they had a specification and in 1996, they had their first set of products. Ever since, the use of the USB has grown, and now you see them everywhere. “In a fast moving world of high technology and computers, a lot of technologies come and go, they become obsolete in a short amount of time because the newer technology can easily displace the old ones. But I’m amazed how we were able to improve and extend the USB technology over the years, and it still continues to evolve,” says Bhatt, who is credited as being the father of the USB standard.
 
The humble co-inventor is quick to point out that this was not the work of one person. “It has been a group effort. There have been diverse group of people at Intel and across the computer industry, who have used tremendous amount of energy, creativity and imagination, and of course all of us were resilient – so we were ready for any and all adversities. That’s why we succeeded in the end, because we just wouldn’t give up.”
 
It is interesting to note, however, that it was not the USB that got Bhatt recognition, but an Intel advertisement which portrayed him as a rock star. Intel was doing a series of commercials with the theme being the “Sponsors of Tomorrow”. They were looking for a technology that a common person can relate to, something that people use everyday. That’s how Intel’s marketing team approached Bhatt and the commercial came about. “Even though I was not in the commercial, my name was there; so everybody started Googling the name. That’s when my background came to light for a lot of people,” says the Portland-based Intel Fellow, who has been a part of the company since the last 25 years.
 
Ask him if he sees himself as a rock star at Intel, and Bhatt jokingly says, “Not necessarily. I am surrounded by some superstars. Intel has a heavy concentration of very smart and creative people. It feels like I am going to grad school every single day.”
 
The recognition, however, turned out to be beneficial for Bhatt – it opened a lot of doors for him to do new things. “The struggle that I had while creating the original USB is not there anymore. Convincing people or to launch new projects is become relatively easy as a result of the recognition and higher position that I have.”
 
The success of Bhatt’s invention is such that he is currently engaged in defining the latest generation of the USB – USB Type C – which appeared in the market two months ago. The latest version has not only improved the performance, but has addressed the most disliked feature of the USB i.e. the connector. “Lot of people try to plug the USB one way, it doesn’t go in, so they flip the connector and plug it in the other way. With USB Type C, the user does not have to worry about which end is up. You can just plug it in and it works,” shares Bhatt, calling it the new thinner, smaller connector that is also flappable (Reversible).
 
 
Beyond the USB, Bhatt has developed several widely used technologies, including Accelerated Graphics Port, PCI Express, Platform Power management architecture and various chipset improvements. He holds 34 US and International patents, and has received many awards for his work – 2013 European Inventor Award, The Asian Award 2013, and The Light of India Award 2012, to name a few. He is frequently invited to give technical talks at various universities around the world. 
 
One would think that Bhatt’s life revolves only around his work, but there is more to him than meets the eye. The 57 year old engineer is passionate about photography and travelling. On days when he gets time, he goes out to shoot pictures or take lessons. “In and around Portland in the Indian community, if there is a function, I help out by photographing the event. I think I can give memories to people.” Talking about his love for travel, he would love to revisit his favourite destination – Africa. “Africa is unlike anything I have seen. We went on a 
safari for about a month; it was phenomenal.”
 
Bhatt is very close to his family – who are proud of his work and achievements. The intelligent inventor, however believes that his work is not as meaningful as compared to what his daughter, Priya, is doing. Priya is pursuing research in genetics; she is working with a group of scientists in California where they are looking for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. “They are using computational methods, which involve the use of computers to look though the large set of data to determine genetic patterns in people who are predisposed to get an Alzheimer’s disease. Through this way, you can determine the condition much early,” explains the proud father.
 
Belonging to the field of science, but different specializations, Bhatt and his daughter do seek each other’s help when needed. “Anytime she is struggling with some technical problems and wants to discuss how to solve it, she talks to me about the approach. I can’t give her a lot of advice on her detailed work, but I can give her advice on an approach, and vice versa when I am thinking of ideas.”
 
Just like his daughter, his experience meeting youngsters at various institutions tells him that the current generation of kids are very smart. “These youngsters are learning a lot more about computing than I ever did at their age. I am very impressed by some students I have interacted with. When I see the new generation, I think world is really flat and we can tap into imagination from capable people from all over the world.”
 
One advice he would like to give anyone who wishes to follow his path is to be fearless and persistent. “If you have imagination, then it is possible to make your vision a reality. Don’t 
follow the conventional path, think differently, and make impossible possible,” says Bhatt, who states that his observant nature of how things work around him helps him come up with new ideas – some of which materialize immediately, and some over time.
 
“Timing is everything, and one just has to have multiple ideas in their mind to work on the right ideas at the right time. The best is yet to come,” says Bhatt summing up.
 
QUICKS FACTS ON AJAY BHATT
 
Ajay Bhatt was born in India in 1957.
 
He completed his graduation from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. 
 
He completed his master’s degree from The City University of New York (CUNY), United States. His only reason for choosing the school was that, as an undergraduate, he’d studied and liked an engineering textbook written by a CUNY employee.
 
He is the co-inventor of the Universal Serial Bus, popularly known as the USB.
 
Bhatt joined Intel corporation in 1990 as a senior staff architect on the chipset architecture team in Folsom.
 
He is an Indian-American computer architect who helped define and develop several widely used technologies, including AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port), PCI Express, Platform Power management architecture and various chipset improvements.
 
He holds 34 US and International patents.
 
Ajay Bhatt rose to global celebrity as the co-inventor of USB through an Intel 2009 TV advertisement showing him as a rock star, where he was portrayed by actor 
Sunil Narkar. 
 
He won the Achievement in Excellence Award for his contribution in PCI Express specification development in 2002.
 
In 2013, he was awarded the Outstanding Achievement in Science & Technology Award at The Asian Awards in London.
 
He won the European Inventor Award 2013 for leading a team of computer experts at Intel that developed USB technology.
 
He received The Light of India Award in 2012 for his contributions in advancement of science and technology.
 
WHAT IS A USB?
 
USB, short for Universal Serial Bus, is an industry standard developed in the mid-1990s that defines the cables, connectors and communications protocols used in a bus for connection, communication, and power supply between computers and electronic devices.
 
The USB interface works by ‘translating’ the different signals from peripherals and delivering them into one centralized message stream to the computer’s operating system.
 
The first model, USB 1, was introduced in the market in the late 1990s and was an instant hit. Later versions are the USB 2.0 which released in 2000, and USB 3.0 that made its debut in 2008. Both have vastly improved data transfer speeds.
 
The latest generation of the USB is the USB Type C which appeared in the market two months ago. The latest version has not only improved the performance, but has addressed the most disliked feature of the USB i.e. the connector. It is the new thinner, smaller connector that is also flappable.
 
All USB plugs are compatible. So if you buy a new computer, you don’t have to upgrade all the rest of your equipment like video camera, mobile phone.
 

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