By Loubna Flah
By Loubna Flah
Morocco World News
Casablanca, June 4, 2013
Rachid Guerraoui, a brilliant Moroccan researcher in the field of Computer Science and a professor at the Federal School of Polytechnic studies in Lausanne received the Focused Award from Google for his project Alter ego. He gave an exclusive interview to MWN on his inspirational journey, his motivations and his achievements.
MWN: When did you realize that you had a passion for Mathematics or for the field of computer science?
Rachid Guerraoui: When I was young, I was more passionate about sport like handball and football rather than mathematics. At the age of 15, I had to choose my major. I was in Ibn Khaldoune high school in El Jadida which had the only class of mathematics in the entire region of Doukkala. My father who was a math professor insisted that I join that class. I resisted because I knew that class would require a lot of work and I wanted to keep participating in sport competitions. Under my parents’ insistence, I decided to enroll in the mathematic class. The class was very competitive and there were many bright students which I considered way better than me and more motivated than I was. In the class of Baccalaureate and at the age of 17, I was among those selected for the Mathematics Oylmpiad. This event gave me an impulse and more confidence to follow this direction.
MWN: How did you improve your performance in Mathematics or was it a God given gift?
Rachid Guerraoui: I do not believe genes or anything of that sort matter that much. Context, luck and work matter much more in my opinion. The fact that my father pushed me to major in mathematics was crucial. The fact that my father and my uncles were mathematicians helped me demystify all apprehensions about this field. I was lucky enough to have good teachers and professors who initiated me to the field mathematical in an ingenious way. It was a real catalyst for me to work in those fields and, at the end, work is what matters most.
MWN: Did you have any influential mentor in Mathematics?
Rachid Guerraoui: I remember that the Math teacher I had in the Baccalaureate was great. He was a young Moroccan, full of passion, named Saki if my memory does not fail me. He replaced the retiring French professor we had the year before. Mr. Sakir used to tell us that we should understand what was in the “head of the theorem”: I found that cute and inspiring. The philosophy teacher I had the same year, Mr. Amine according to my memory, was also great for he asked us to open our minds and question everything: this is crucial for research. Later, in France, I got some professors who got me even more attracted to Algebra, Arithmetic and then Algorithms. In the US, I also met professors who influenced me by asking their students to doubt about everything, including what they learned at school.
MWN: You have been awarded the Focus award by Google for your project Alter Ego, can you tell us about your project?
Rachid Guerraoui: Every year Google awards a couple of researchers for specific work in computer science. The award is based on the resume of the researchers and the originality of their project. I got the award for a project conducted with my wife, Anne-Marie Kenmare, who is also researcher. The Focus program is very competitive and most institutions apply for it. The fact that I was elected ACM fellow last year and my wife is a recognized researcher helped a lot.
In short, our project has to do with designing algorithms to associate, in real-time, to every Internet user and to its closer users. The term “close” here is in the sense of users who perform the same activities in the Internet, e.g., visit the same sites, like the same information etc. Needless to say, such algorithms can be very effective to improve the process of Internet browsing. A major challenge here is to do so without any central authority and without revealing the names of the users. We like to think that addressing those issues can have a deep impact and so does Google which provides us with a substantial amount of money to conduct the project. It might be important to mention here that Google has no right over the results of the project.
MWN: Why did you choose research rather than a professional career after you became an engineer?
Rachid Guerraoui: Again, the influence of my professors was crucial. As an undergraduate student in Paris, I had a couple of professors who were talking about their PhD experience and this gave me the desire to do one. While working for a PhD, I had the opportunity to go to conferences and meet researchers. The interaction with them again gave me the desire to work as a researcher. Besides, taking the time to explore specific topics, question assumptions, come up with alternative solutions has always been something I enjoyed. It turns out that, at some point, I had also spent some time in a company and my experience was not as great. In retrospect, I realized that I always enjoyed freedom and that of thinking, even if sometimes only an illusion is just great.
MWN: How was your experience in the MIT in Boston?
Rachid Guerraoui: MIT, especially in the context of Information Technologies and Mathematics, is a fantastic university and research center. The economy generated by its professors, students and former students correspond to that of an industrial country.
This is simply amazing and might be a consequence of various facts. (1) MIT is a place where the only thing that counts is how good a researcher and a teacher is. When the question comes about why someone should be hired or promoted, nothing else matters. The best students and professors in the world go work there if they can. The best professors do not become deans but are devoted to their passion: research. I had the opportunity to work there and could have stayed longer but I had to go back to Europe for family reasons. (2)
Besides the fact that the students and professors have access to a high standard education to pursue good research, the general atmosphere is very open and favors creativity and interaction. There are for example dozens of student associations, i.e., Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, Gay, etc. All of them co-exist peacefully manner and there are all kinds of panels to bring them together and exchange experiences and opinions. This looks a priori irrelevant to scientific pursuits but I came to realize that this kind of freedom is key to enhance creativity. I noticed the same atmosphere in Stanford when I was living in the Silicon Valley, working for Hewlett Packard.
MWN: You seem also oriented towards the publication of academic articles and books, can you tell us about the works you published so far?
Rachid Guerraoui: The job of a university professor is teaching and research. I personally tend to avoid any administrative task although I do my share whenever it is necessary. Research is about exploring new areas and publishing results. It is somehow similar to the system of Tennis tournaments. In every subfield, there are a bunch of big tournaments (conferences in our case) where all researchers should try to participate and present their work. For that, they need to submit their results. Results are selected if they are novel and substantial. Researchers are classified with specific numbers, basically measuring the impact of their publications, for instance the number of publications that reference their work. When a result is accepted for a conference, there is a companion paper that is published in the proceedings of the conference. In many case, there is also, eventually, a more complete journal paper that appears in a journal.
I have published papers in conference proceedings and journals, as well few books as support for my classes. These are accessible at lpdwww.epfl.ch/rachid. In short, they basically have to do with the principles of distributed computing, namely, how to design algorithms that would exploit networks of computers to ensure reliability.
MWN: What do you think about the prospects of scientific research in Morocco especially in the field of computer science?
Rachid Guerraoui: Let me first say that I am simply going to express here an outsider opinion, based on my interactions with Morocco and my work in various places as consultant for various universities and research centers over the world. Needless to say, my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt: I am not specialist in political matters, even when these come to education.
It seems pretty clear that a country without a strong education in Information Technology is doomed to sub-development. I do also believe that such an education cannot be achieved without research. So the question here is whether Morocco is well positioned for that. To be honest, my feeling is very mixed. On the one hand, there has been a strong culture of Mathematics in Morocco and there are Engineering schools that produce good students.
I do try to bring some students to my university for internships, masters and PhDs and some of them do perform pretty well. On the other hand, from what I could see so far by interacting with Universities and Engineering Schools in Morocco, I am afraid the culture of research, although seemingly improving, is still generally far from what it takes to produce good results. It seems to me that, in many cases, the priorities are not put where they should be: good performances in teaching and research should remain the absolute criterion to hire and promote professors. The best elements should not need to become administrators to get promoted. Also, humanities are often neglected. Specific classes in English and Philosophy might seem a luxury at first glance but they are not. There are various successful experiences that have been conducted in Brazil and India for instance and Morocco should draw on these experiences.
For the last six years, I have been organizing in various places of Morocco, together with colleagues in ENSIAS (Professor Erradi and his team), annual schools to bring the best researchers in the world of Information Technology and have them interact with students and researchers from North Africa. We organized these events in Tangier, Fez, Marrakech and Rabat. Recently, this turned also into a symposium where students and researchers could produce their results and have them published by a major editor (www.netys.net). I was lucky to obtain some sponsorship from my colleagues in major IT companies and I hope that they will keep supporting us (Questions a Rachid Querraoui)
© Morocco World News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed