29 June - 5 July 2000
Issue No. 488
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Six billion thoughtsAt the heart of invention he learns, and acts: complacency is anathema to this fertile mind
Profile by Aziza Sami
Totally focused, he sped after the ball, plummeting through the French window to re-emerge on the other side in an explosion of splintered glass. He was bruised, scratched and unmindful -- and he had the ball. This was my cousin at the age of 10.
That single-mindedness led him from the proverbial disassembling of electronic gadgets as a toddler on to 38 invention patents -- and six pending -- 30 years later, in one of the world's most prestigious scientific and industrial organisations.
At General Electric's corporate research and development centre, he helped engineer a turnaround in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) activities, re-instituting the company as a market leader in medical systems after a downward spiral in sales. As member of GE's Magnetic Resonance business board of directors, he participated in designing strategies and new areas of technology for MRI, which was broadened from brain scanning to encompass the spine and almost all of the human body, effecting a significant impact on the field of medicine.
He graduated from Cairo University's Faculty of Engineering and obtained his PhD from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), with a major in electrical engineering and a minor in computer science.
Starting in 1986, he worked extensively on GE's lighting systems, for nine years devising inventions which have earned him recognition as one of the leading innovators in the field of lighting and electronics. He played a key role in creating the Genura, a compact electrodeless fluorescent lamp whose low power consumption allows it to use a third of the energy of the normal incandescent lamp, while lasting ten times longer.
His patent for inventing the "power loss switching" method (now a textbook reference) was a breakthrough in power circuits that brought more efficiency to power switching.
How does he feel, literally on the way to the top of his field?
He entertains no euphoria with regard to new positions, just great enthusiasm for designs completed and inventions that work. He shifts his laptop around to show the images of the MRI scanner in colour.
What does it cost to achieve so much in a supremely competitive environment? "There is stress, but it is that stress of achieving. I have seen others undergo the same amount of stress just to survive." A small price to pay. He concedes as well that he has been fortunate. By inclination and by environment he was able to fulfil his aspirations. His father was an orthopaedic surgeon, his mother an anthropologist who both, he says, instilled in him a love of knowledge and books.
In almost 20 years, he has not changed. Burly, comfortable, casual in his T-shirt and sneakers, he seems ready for a football match -- a schoolboy's activity he still practices. Mentally organised beneath the deceptive laissez-faire attitude, he does not glorify his achievements.
"A key person in devising the cardiac MR known as the Signa Select was an Egyptian-born Greek who lived on Qasr Al-Nil Street," he says "Its important to say that... It is the team work that is important. When you work with those who are better than you are, they pull you up with them. You do your best and find yourself doing amazing things."
After a spell during which the flexibility of his work environment allowed him to deliberate whether to direct himself toward managerial responsibilities involving marketing products and technologies, as opposed to invention, he was back to the invention fold. In April, he was appointed e-engineering leader for GE's corporate research and development centre, and will be responsible for making all the company's research, development, and engineering activities accessible through the Internet.
"People in a position of power must look at reality. When you can't face reality, you can't redress it. There is also too much analysis, but nothing happens. It is important to shift gears from complaints to solutions -- to give the engine a kick-start"
The head hunters are there, the opportunities countless. Despite his success, he can conceive of a situation in which he will "move to a smaller company with new opportunities" if he no longer feels he is moving forward. "As long as things are happening, I am improving. The worst thing is to attain a level and then not move."
He has brought his 12-year-old son, Ahmes, named after his grandfather, to play with his cousins, fitting in a visit to his own childhood friends -- still very important to him -- and an outing with his two younger daughters for the rest of the day. His own little family, with his Irish wife Rachel, have brought him a warmth that offsets the strongest bouts of homesickness.
Living in the US, how does he feel about the issues that irk so many of his compatriots back home? Does he believe that globalisation is a continuation of US hegemony by other means, or are scientific and economic achievements beginning to transcend political and cultural differences? He believes that the information revolution, based on both scientific and economic development has created a 'quid pro quo' situation, and that this is something we have to accept. "Egypt is struggling with the issue of proprietary information and protection, which is the problem of all developing countries. We feel we will always be on the reverse side of the coin, because we have no inventions of our own. Once we start to invent, this will be our best protection." In the meantime, he asserts, even the maintenance of legitimate GATT transition periods before implementing patent protection could be a form of procrastination in facing up to inevitable developments. In the pharmaceuticals sector, for instance, international companies have money and want to bring in investments. Why wait another five years to implement IPR laws, when there could be a global economic recession and no one will want to bring in investments? Now, he insists, is the time to do it.
At his family's home, his childhood bedroom is as it was. On the shelves, hundreds of books -- yes, Jules Verne. Across the street, the same newspaper vendor where he bought comics and magazines, hoarding them in a wooden chest that retained the peculiar scent of paper long after the magazines were gone.
He wants very much to feel that he can contribute to positive developments in the country. But he also sees that the requisites for scientific and economic development -- a strong technical base and the ability to support small and medium enterprises -- are lacking. "If I, as a scientist, come up with the most amazing invention but cannot build it, it is worthless. Why? Because it is the technicians who come and fix my ideas. In the US, technicians have two years of college and earn an associate in science degree. You need excellent technicians in electricity, plumbing, car repairs -- in every single field. You can't have poor technicians and then hope to develop a high-tech environment."
Small and medium businesses are also vital for the growth of IT. "For science and technology, small companies are the engines of growth. When a person starts his own company and produces a new product -- say, a new ceramic, or a plastic handle -- the big companies, like GE or Phillips, scout the Internet, find out which small, successful company is selling whichever commodity they need, and buy it. This is a very powerful element in economic development."
Last year, he toured the country's academic and technological institutions with a delegation from his company, hoping to transport some of his achievements here. He met officials working on developing the IT sector, where Egypt could compete globally -- provided the right course is followed.
What, then, does he think is necessary for a scientific breakthrough to occur here? "A change in the existing mind-set," he says firmly. "People in a position of power must look at reality. When you can't face reality, you can't redress it. There is also too much analysis, but nothing happens. It is important to shift gears from complaints to solutions -- to give the engine a kick-start."
Perhaps, he says, there must also be "an acceptance of failure, a principle hardly supported by the system at present. It is as important for the IT sector as it is for the economy at large. The rules should help people go bankrupt and help them pay their creditors, while limiting risks for the lender. It is important, because you need to have a capital flow for the small investor." He has been writing a column on the development of Egypt's IT sector, and is perusing files of newspaper cuttings on the issue. "The government says it will extend credit to new graduates, but the amounts mentioned are very small: they might allow for a cigarette stand, maybe, but not a new IT company, which would require two or three computers, an Internet connection and four people hired for a couple of years. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of pounds are needed to keep such enterprises going."
He seems surprisingly aware of what is going on in the country; back in December, he was already warning of potential problems in the banking sector, long before things came to a head. "Having a strong IT sector cannot be achieved in isolation from sound economic principles regulating the financial sector," he explains. "I know of people who tried to come back to Egypt and borrow a million pounds from the banks, yet were not given them. But at the same time, people were allowed to borrow billions and leave the country. This kills any initiative for real growth."
Through the Internet, telephone and fax machine he has kept in touch with home continuously, reading almost every single item published about Egypt in the press. Now, he shuts his lap top, ready to move on to the football game. "There is nothing wrong with looking outside oneself, and learning. Anyone with self-confidence would do that. There are about six billion people in the world, many much smarter than I am. When I open my mind up to them, I will advance. It's that simple."
Photos: Randa Shaath