Siavash Alamouti on How Technology Can Empower the Oppressed

02/01/2016 01:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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(Photo credit: Jeremy Hsu)

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the West Asia Council has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Siavash Alamouti.

Siavash Alamouti is the President and CEO of mimik Technology, a startup dedicated to empowering consumers to take control of their content using a distributed cloud technology. Their software can run as an application on any computing device, turning them into "micro servers." Previously, Alamouti led the research and development team for Vodafone where he oversaw R&D, Corporate Venture, and IPR for the entire group. Before Vodafone, Alamouti was an Intel Fellow and CTO of the Mobile Wireless Group where he championed Mobile WiMAX and WiGig technologies. Alamouti is most well-known for the invention of the Alamouti Code, which laid the foundation for MIMO technology. The Alamouti Code has been adopted in most wireless standards globally. He is recognized by the IEEE Communications Society as the author of one of the best papers in the last 50 years of the society's history. Alamouti has received more than 15,000 citations for his scientific work and has received multiple industry awards. He has been passionately pushing the industry to new limits of technology for the benefit of humankind and has been an outspoken international figure for spectrum policy reform and open standards. For more details, please click (here).

Can you tell us about yourself and your background? Where did you go to school?

I was born in Tehran in 1962 and graduated from Kharazmi High School in 1979. I was admitted to Sharif University in 1980 right after the revolution, and was purged right after the Cultural Revolution. I left Iran and lived in Madrid, Spain for a couple of years where I attended University. In 1984 I migrated to Canada and enrolled at University of British Columbia where I received a Masters degree in electrical engineering. I dropped out of the Ph.D program in 1992 to work at MPR Teltech, a Research Lab owned by the local phone company.

You are best known for the invention of the so-called "Alamouti Space-Time Block Code. Could you tell us about your invention, what it is, and how you came up with the idea?

I came up with the code in 1996 during a project at AT&T Wireless Services where I was in charge of designing the physical and MAC layers of a fixed wireless system. This was an ambitious project by AT&T at the time, and involved enabling fixed broadband access. In order to get high reliability for access, we needed to put multiple receivers in the remote units that were installed in people's homes, which was way too expensive. So I came up with a way of adding a transmit antenna at every base station and creating the same effect of having multiple receivers at every remote unit. I published the paper in the Journal for Selected Areas of Communications (JSAC) in 1998 and called it "A Simple Transmitter Diversity Technique for Wireless Communications." Some colleagues from AT&T Labs Research called it Space-Time Block Code. That is not a name I came up with. My code is very pragmatic and simple to implement so it got adopted quickly in almost all the wireless standards and became the most recognized MIMO code.

What were the most difficult elements of bringing your invention to market?

Generally, the biggest impediments for innovation are the established norms, or "legacy" systems, both in terms of technology and business model. Most new inventions require old systems to be phased out and new business processes to be established. This can create resistance. My invention required the adoption of various new standards, which can be very complex politically. Nevertheless, thanks initially to a couple of engineers at Texas Instruments that pushed for it in 3GPP standard and later many others in IEEE standards, the code was included in almost all the wireless standards.

Is there anything you learned developing your invention that you would now do differently if you had to do it all again?

When I came up with the code, AT&T management did not realize what an impactful invention it was. They didn't even invest enough in patenting the idea and combined two separate patents into one in order to save money. If I had been wiser at the time, I would have bought the rights to the patent from them. In fact, I tried at that time, but could not raise the money from the bank and was not familiar with other ways of raising money. Thinking back, I could have gone to any smart angel investor and raised enough cash to do it. Long story short, you should try to bring your innovations to market without having to convince many people because convincing others is probably harder than launching the product yourself. Especially, nowadays, when you can get cheap computing and storage from the likes of Amazon and leverage third parties through APIs to complement what you're missing.

IEEE Communications Society recognized you as the author of one of the most important papers in the society's history over the past 50 years. Please tell us why your contribution has been invaluable?

This was the JSAC paper, which first introduced the so-called Alamouti code. It was an invention with immediate impact and significant cost saving for the industry. Also, it was mathematically super elegant using closed form mathematical equations to prove that you could not do any better. Usually there is a big gap between a date of the invention and its adoption. With the JSAC paper, it was only a 3 to 4 year gap for its adoption.

You hold over 20 patents in the areas of wireless communication applications and wireless systems design. Can you tell us about three most important patents that you have had so far?

Obviously, the Alamouti Code which laid the foundation for MIMO is one of them. The method for FDD which described an OFDM/MIMO wireless system and embodied many inventions that later were used in WiMAX and LTE. Also the patent on mmWave scanning antenna that was fundamental to WiGig.

What are you doing today at mimik and what is the vision behind your activities?

Like many in my generation who experienced the Iranian revolution, a big part of my life has been a struggle for freedom. This experience has impacted the way I look at the world and my greatest passion in life is personal freedom and empowering the oppressed. In this day and age, information is power. The greatest tool against religious fundamentalism and superstition is knowledge and if you provide equal access to the entire population, you eradicate many social ills. This was the main motivation when I led the technology effort for Mobile WIMAX. We basically wanted to make wireless broadband as cheap as WiFi. Obviously, that was a battle that was beyond the power of even Intel and Google. That initiative failed but it had some positive impacts. It led to significant spectrum policy reform internationally and it accelerated LTE and made it a more open standard. Now at mimik, we are trying to put the consumer in control of their content so they are not forced to trust others or give the right of their content to others in order to share their content. We took a fundamentally out- of- the-box approach to the problem whereby, instead of using the cloud to share, we create a cloud node on every device so that the content doesn't need to leave the device in order to be shared. In this way, people are in complete control of what and with whom they share their content.

You created the WiGig alliance and joined the Tensorcom board. What's your vision? What is the next stage of growth and development? What are your insights on the company's future growth and its strategic direction?

I spearheaded the formation of WiGig Alliance while I was the CTO of Mobile Wireless Group at Intel. Our vision at Intel was to create affordable wireless standards that work seamlessly together and are fully coordinated. A big gap was multigig wireless transport. We envisioned that WiMAX would be for Wide Area, WiFi for the local area and WiGig for high speed streaming and syncing. They would all get integrated onto the same chip not only to save cost, but also to create a seamless experience where users do not have to be aware of the network. I have been advising Tensorcom and I joined their board recently to help them with their technology and market strategy. The company's CEO is another visionary and fellow Iranian, Fay Arjomandi, with whom I've worked in the past when I was at Vodafone. She is also one of the founders of mimik where I am currently the CEO. Tensorcom is funded by Dr. Patrick Soon Shiong who is a visionary in the medial field and has a mission to personalize patient treatment starting with cancer. I like to be part of what he is doing as I believe it is a worthy cause and I believe in his vision. Personalization of medicine is about processing and transport of terabytes of patient data and WiGig is an enabler. That is the connection between me and Tensorcom. I don't know much about the medial field but know a whole lot about WiGig and sharing that with the Tensorcom folks.

What are the key factors that have made you become a successful inventor, manager, and entrepreneur?

Obviously, there are many elements, but in my case has been to start with the end user first, and to look at the technology as the enabler, which is necessary if you want to see your invention adopted quickly. Pure scientific research has its place and is very important but its results usually show up years after, far beyond entrepreneurial timelines. Other elements are thinking outside-the-box, not limiting yourself to existing technology know-how and surrounding yourself with good people; treating them right, and making sure that everyone has a common vision while working towards the same goal.

Given the major contributions of the Iranian diaspora (especially the Iranian-American community) to the high technology sector, how can their untapped potential be harnessed to develop this area in Iran?

Innovation can only flourish in open and democratic societies. The most important step to harness the great talent in Iran is for the system to undergo significant reforms against corruption, superstition, and dictatorship. You cannot be ranked 130 in corruption, treat women as second class citizens, and limit peoples' personal freedom and become a technology innovation hub. Historically, there is not a single example of this anywhere in the world. Once that is done, I myself and I'm certain tens of thousands of world-class experts and entrepreneurs of Iranian origin will go out of their way to help out.

Do you see the United States maintaining its lead in innovation and technology in the decades ahead? Which countries will be its main competitors? What is the role of immigration policy and population diversity in maintaining America's leadership?

The future is really hard to predict but so far U.S. has been doing the best job in this regards. It has attracted great talent globally. It is still the first choice destination for entrepreneurs. It has the largest investment funds, and a concentration of skilled entrepreneurs with a history of success. It will be hard to replicate that elsewhere. Immigration policies should be open and companies should be allowed to bring in the talent they need. Artificial limits on the number of work visas should be removed. Instead, a better process for vetting candidates should be established. Population diversity is key to healthy growth, and aiming otherwise would be discriminatory. That said, I am not a proponent of multiculturalism. There are certain principles that have to be non-negotiable such as equal rights for women, respect for peoples' sexual orientation, respect for others' personal freedom to choose and separation of religion and state. New immigrants need to adapt themselves to these values even if in their countries it is otherwise. Multiculturalism should only apply to things such as language, music, arts and gastronomy that do not compromise all the values and freedoms that was a result of hundreds of years of struggle. Leadership in technology will sustain only in an environment filled with knowledge, science and freedom and devoid of superstition and oppression.