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John S. Baras is one of the most renowned researchers in communication and automation systems in the world. He is a Professor and Lockheed Martin Chair in Systems Engineering, University of Maryland, College Park.

He received the Diploma in Electrical and Mechanical Engineering (Hons) from the National Technical University of Athens, Athens, Greece, in 1970, and the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in applied mathematics from Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA, in 1971 and 1973, respectively.

Since 1973 he has been with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Maryland at College Park, MD, USA, where he is currently a Distinguished University Professor. He is also a Faculty member of the Applied Mathematics, Statistics and Scientific Computation Program, and Affiliate Professor in the Fischell Department of Bioengineering, the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Department of Decision, Operations and Information Technologies, Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Since 2013 he has been Guest Professor at the School of Electrical Engineering of the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Sweden. From 1985 to 1991, he was the Founding Director of the Institute for Systems Research (ISR) (one of the first six National Science Foundation Engineering Research Centers). In 1990, he was appointed to the endowed Lockheed Martin Chair in Systems Engineering. Since 1992, he has been the Director of the Maryland Center for Hybrid Networks (HYNET), which he co-founded. He has held visiting research scholar positions with: Stanford University, Stanford, CA; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA; Institut National de Reserche en Informatique et en Automatique (INRIA), France; Linkoping University, Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Lund University, Sweden; Technical University of Munich, Germany. He is an IEEE Life Fellow, SIAM Fellow, AAAS Fellow, NAI Fellow, IFAC Fellow, AIAA Associate Fellow, Member of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) and a Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA).

In his interview with Greek News Agenda* Professor John Baras offers insight into the valuable opportunities for Greek research and development stressing that Greece needs to “Implement a program like the European “Competence Centers” across the country in business areas where Greece can be competitive. Such centers can have focal areas like Agriculture; Shipping – Merchant Marine; Health care – local mini-clinics, assisted living, e-Apps for archeology, tourism, restaurants, etc. All these areas can benefit tremendously from ICT (Information and communication technologies).

How important is research for a country and what should Greece do more in that direction?

In the current era of the “information-knowledge economy” research and its products in inventions and innovations play a central role in economic development, prosperity, quality of life and work, in any country and culture. Several of the most advanced economies and countries in the world, including the United States, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, England, France and China, have realized this fact for some time now and are making substantial investments in research at Universities and Research Centers, as well as technoparks and guided entrepreneurship programs. I am continuously disappointed by the fact that Greek governments do not appreciate the tremendous role that Universities and Research Centers can have in economic development. For example I have been involved in developing and maintaining industry-university collaborative centers of excellence in the USA and several European countries. These so called “Competence Centers” and associated “Total Innovation Systems” have been established in the USA and several countries world-wide, with tremendous positive results in economic development and quality of life and work. Such successful programs in several countries world-wide are always linked to regions of the country and to regional economic and educational characteristics. Greece should establish such programs after carefully selecting the regions and the focus of such centers. There is even European Union funding available (with country matching) for such programs.

Can you describe a little more such efforts and programs and why they are so essential for modern economies as you advocate?

As I have noted and emphasized in several lectures world-wide and in Greece, these are challenging times for higher (read post high-school) education – worldwide. Major socioeconomic changes are transforming the way we live, work and communicate. New strategies are needed for success in the new so-called “information-knowledge economy”. Society is “scrutinizing” ever more closely the behavior and performance of higher education institutions. However, I most strongly believe that great challenges create also great opportunities. In many of the modern, new and renovated “old” industries a most critical role is played by ICT (Information and communication technologies). This is acknowledged world-wide under such names as “digitization”, Industrie 4.0”, “Industrial Internet”, etc. ICT related industries and companies are perfectly suited for Greece as I have advocated over many years. The reasons are simple. ICT industries require great minds and do not require raw materials. Greece has had success in this industrial sector for a number of years before the last economic crisis. It is also broadly accepted that Greece has well educated and very competent people in this sector, but has unfortunately allowed most talented manpower to leave the country due to lack of appropriate opportunities and employment. This has been a huge mistake in strategy and resource allocation I believe.

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These ideas require a strong tertiary and University education role. Correct? Can you explain a little more and give some examples of programs to support what you are advocating?

Yes, this is correct. Indeed the role of tertiary and University education in modern societies has changed quite a bit over the last fifty years. It is now widely accepted that tertiary education must have as one of its goals impact on quality of life. That means educate “better” citizens, that is graduate “productive” citizens, with successful careers, who influence economic development. Universities must be “open” and integrated with society. Research Centers can be an engine for economic development (e.g. INRIA in France). This way, there is direct accountability for society’s investments in tertiary and University education. Graduate students and their careers should be the best ambassadors for tertiary and University education to society at large. Furthermore, tertiary education must produce students that are more agile in their career pursuit. They must be able to succeed in the global economy. Thus exchange programs between countries have proven to be very effective in this regard. Cross-disciplinary education and out-of-school cooperative experience is a must. Industry is an important factor in this integration, programmatically and financially. And here by industry I mean world-wide industry. There are plenty of examples world-wide where companies have created satellite programs and participated in research centers due to country and regional advantages and most importantly proximity to excellent Universities, Research centers and associated technologically competent manpower. There is no reason whatsoever that such activities cannot be undertaken and successfully practiced  in Greece. There are many examples of programs emanating from this modern vision of integrating Universities with society at large. These include: Universities and K-12 education (e.g. special schools introducing computing to elementary school students!); Research experiences for undergraduates (e.g. manufacturing labs using advanced CAD and flexible machines and printers to induce students to love making things!); More hands-on courses (i.e. fewer lectures); Research experiences for high school students; Educating high school teachers (math, science, technology, …); University programs for life-long learning; Universities as knowledge sources; Universities as key contributors to solving problems with significant impact on society; Universities and economic development (i.e. innovations, company creation and jobs); University programs for improving the quality of life and work; University programs that contribute to art and culture; Universities as agents for international collaboration and peaceful co-existence.

How realistic is it to expect that such developments can take place in Greece at scale? Can you describe a few initial steps? Some ideas targeted at specific sectors of the Greek economy?

I absolutely believe so. Here are some of the reasons why such programs can be developed and maintained successfully in Greece. These include: High quality human capital present; R&D nests of excellence in several places – competent and winning tough EU funding. Some recommendations: A supporting infrastructure needs to be created, but not via total reliance on government (e.g. can Greece develop something like the VINNOVA agency in Sweden?); Utilize EU funding opportunities and attract other funds; Work with “mentors” from successful programs (e.g. from Sweden and/or Germany); Decentralize development and implementation (i.e. technical areas selected must have strong “local” component for jobs); Move to a layered post high-school education (i.e. emphasize more and in a balanced manner shorter vocational education and training than traditional University education, as in Germany, Sweden, USA, etc.); Consolidate Universities and link them to the various layers and to high schools. Some specific initial steps towards more efficient linkage of Universities and Research Centers to economic development in Greece include: Placing the General Secretariat for Research and Technology under the Ministry of Development (and not under the Ministry of Education) as in so many other advanced countries; Create a new culture where daring is more important than failing; Remove regulatory and bureaucratic complexities, provide clear tax advantages; Create an infrastructure supporting economic development, innovation and entrepreneurship (e.g. support total innovation systems, teaching and cultivating entrepreneurship, government matching of industry funding for projects, business incubators and technology parks); Implement a program like the European “Competence Centers” in Greece across the country in business areas where Greece can be competitive. Such centers can have social focus, quality of life focus, not just technology focus, not just high-tech focus. Examples of focal areas for Greece are: Agriculture; Shipping – Merchant Marine; Health care – local mini-clinics, assisted living, etc.; e-Apps for archeology, tourism, restaurants, etc. All these areas can benefit tremendously from ICT.

Can you be a little more specific about a few but key initial steps towards this end?

Here are some that are within the capabilities of Greece in the next few years: A small “task force” is needed to investigate several ideas and develop an implementation plan for Greece, including identification of the “best” areas to invest in for the various regions; Use EU funding opportunities and EU structural funds; Use Centers, or other cross-constituencies organizations, to attract companies to Greece world-wide; Use such centers to create SMEs in the targeted areas; Capitalize on the rich international network of Greek-origin scientists, engineers, business people (e.g. exchange programs, advisors, international collaboration and ventures); Encourage volunteers in Greece to help (e.g. retired people to “professors of Practice”, advisors, etc.). Some examples of such Center topical areas for Greece include: Health IT; Sensors and improvement of agricultural processes; Maintenance and repair of merchant marine ships; Sustainable management of fisheries; Location aware e-Apps for tourism; Energy-photovoltaic systems; All electric cars; Fast trains; Efficient ethanol production from diverse plants via biotechnology.

You are also saying that invention is not innovation. What’s the fine line between the two notions?

The two notions are fundamentally different and their differences must be understood by all involved for a successful outcome. Invention refers to the basic discovery of a principle, law, phenomenon or process. Innovation refers to the process of taking this basic new discovery to a successful product or service. Innovation involves (among other processes) management, fund raising, marketing, manufacturing, human resource management. Quite a few companies fail because the inventors involved in the company did not realize the fundamental need for these other functions and talents.

How could Greece benefit from the example of other partner countries within the EU in R& D?

Just providing economic help via funds is not an adequate long-term benefit. I have emphasized these ideas in various lectures in Europe and Greece (most recently at the Delphi Economic Forum in March of 2018). Let me focus as an example on Germany. Since Greece has such excellent man-power, Germany can select a region and technical area and create a Fraunhofer Institute in Greece (they have two in the US). Intel minimized its R&D Labs two years ago and created 14 R&D centers at Universities world-wide – 5 outside the USA. Can German companies create similar Labs at appropriately chosen Greek Universities or Research Centers? Can Germany in collaboration with Greece create an apprenticeships program in Greece similar to the excellent German one – Greek high school students are introduced to industrial sectors and summer internships in German companies. More generally I would like to see programs whereby the industrial EU “north” creates satellite company programs and facilities in Greece, which will keep most of the excellent technical manpower of Greece in Greece. The current massive “brain drain” is of course catastrophic for Greece but I claim it is also not good in the long-run for Europe and its industrial “north”. I recommend that a program like the USA help in Israel’s development be developed and maintained, whereby the majority of the excellent Greek-educational-system trained manpower remains and works in Greece for various companies (including EU-based or internationals). The key question here is whether Greece’s leaders (both political and industrial) can negotiate such arrangements with their European or international counterparts.      

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What are some of your research interests?

Some of my current research interests are:

1. Networked control systems, with and without humans, and the needed foundations of multi-agent decision-making, communications and computing. I have developed a layered model with three interacting dynamic multigraphs (representing collaboration, information, communication agent relations). Most fascinating is the need for non-commutative probability models (that is von Neumann models rather than Kolmogorov models) due to the logical constraints in the event algebras. This has been an old interest of mine recently reinforced by experimental evidence from human psychology and Internet interactive inference.

2. Hybrid hardware (analog-digital) for signal processing and control modules. Systematic methods to design such hardware are lacking and needed due to the emerging cyber-physical systems (CPS), advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning. The resulting systems will involve various types of neural networks and the associated mathematics will shed light towards the verifiable design of deep learning systems, and “cortex on-a-chip” implementations.

3. Future communication and sensor networks that are virtualized in order to provide on-demand networks with real-time adaptation to changing traffic demands. Necessitated by the explosive increase in wireless connections and the increasing bandwidth demands. We are investigating extensions of software defined networks (SDN) to wireless (SDWN), and network function virtualization (NFV). These lead to networks as a service (NaaS) and novel architectures for Networked CPS and Human-CPS. SDWN/NFV are indispensable enablers for 5G, IoT, CPS, Industrial Internet, Industrie 4.0, smart cities, smart manufacturing, smart grids, healthcare.

4. Network security and trust. In the current and future networked immersed world security and trust are of paramount importance. In this continuously evolving landscape new attacks, threats and defenses emerge. The newest type of threats and attacks we are investigating are outside the domain of traditional cryptography and security, as the control and inference algorithms are attacked (e.g. Stuxnet worm). Consequently these investigations are of critical importance for CPS and human-CPS. Key ideas we are pursuing are: composable security, hardware-software security, models of trust and mistrust and their dynamics, formal methods for verification.

5. Rigorous model-based systems engineering (MBSE) methodologies and frameworks, and associated tool suites. I have long advocated that systems and control scientists are best qualified to develop further MBSE (design, manufacturing, implementation, operation of complex systems). Past successes include design of VLSI and aircraft (e.g. Boeing 777 and 787). Biology provides the “existence proof”. Today MBSE is needed for all kinds of complex systems ranging from MEMS and nano-systems, to automotive, networks, security, biology, healthcare, energy, enterprises, social networks.

Until your graduate studies at Harvard, you were a product of the Greek education system. Can you offer some comments regarding the impact of your education in Greece on your career? Any suggestions for the Greek education system?

I was fortunate through my entire life to receive the benefits of exceptional education. From special and highly selective elementary (Ralleion Experimental Elementary School in Peiraeus Greece) and high (Ionidios Model High School in Peiraeus Greece) schools, to the highly selective National Technical University of Athens for my undergraduate studies. My sincere and deep appreciation for such an education goes to my parents who distilled in me a rigorous work ethic and the ambition to excel, and to my teachers in Greece for the sound education and training in basic and fundamental science and engineering, and most importantly for teaching me to think and to learn efficiently. I cannot overemphasize the impact that my education had on my career. I believe, as I mentioned also above, that linking Universities to high schools and elementary schools and to extra-curricular activities outside the school environment (such as apprenticeships ad internships) can substantially strengthen and invigorate the Greek educational system. Furthermore, moving more towards hands-on educational experiences rather than the traditional lecture style system will be extremely beneficial. Finally, taking advantage of the Internet and the knowledge and learning that it can support, modern educational aids should be developed and made available to schools throughout Greece. Such efforts have been initiated and I hope they continue and spread.

Thank you very much for this discussion and ideas. Closing, could you offer your opinion regarding new grand opportunities for research, innovation and economic development?

It was indeed my pleasure to have this discussion. Thank you very much for the opportunity. Here are some of the areas which I consider as most promising for research, innovation and economic development: Digital Manufacturing and Digital Innovation (where else can we repeat what we did with VLSI?); Democratize Manufacturing (the only way to “win” over cheap labor competition; Flexible and smart manufacturing; Industrial Internet – Industry 4.0; Cyber-Physical Systems; Security and Trust; Social Networks over the Web -- Big Data analytics; Health IT everywhere – to reign on cost explosion; Customized and precision healthcare; Lab on a chip for customizing pharmaceutical manufacturing to human genome and side-effects

* Interview by Efthymis Aravantinos, Head of Press and Communications Office, Embassy of Greece in Washington DC.