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Dr. Madhusanka Liyanage: First Sri Lankan to win IEEE Outstanding Young Researcher Award

By Sajitha Prematunge

Oblivious to the laws of physics and before he could even grasp the meaning of the word velocity, he tried to calculate the speed of the bus he was travelling in, by taking into account how long it took the bus to travel between two lamp posts. He was just seven years old then. By grade three he was trying to calculate the light year longhand. It’s not rocket science, it was just a matter of multiplying how far light travelled in a second, by how many seconds there are in a year. But for an eight-year-old to even entertain such an idea, while his peers were still playing cops and robbers, is uncanny.

In any other country he would have been celebrated as a math prodigy. So it came as no surprise when, this year, Dr. Madhusanka Liyanage won the Outstanding Young Researcher Award presented by the Communications Society of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, one of the biggest engineering societies in the world. The award is presented to the 2nd Best Young Researcher in the region, in Liyanage’s case it is Region 8, which included Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

 

Award

Research performance of candidates was a major criteria for the Outstanding Young Researcher Award. The number of academic papers published in journals and conference papers produced in the last three years, for example, were graded depending on the ‘impact factor’ of the publication or conference, with contributions to IEEE journals and conferences receiving extra credit. Citations of work in the past three years is also considered, as well as contribution to the society in the form of the number of conferences or workshops organised and journals edited. Positions held within the IEEE society is given special consideration and Liyanage was elevated to the position of senior member this year. “It’s not just my award, my team of students, mentors and anyone else who had helped me throughout my career all played a vital role in my success.”

Born in Udugama, Galle, in 1985 Liyanage is the youngest in a family of three.”Everyone else in the family have a knack for business.” Both his elder brother and sister took after their businessman father, Sunil Ranjith Liyanage. The youngest Liyanage took after his mother, Magalika Hegodaarchthi. When asked whether his mathematics teacher-mother was influential in his academic trajectory, Liyanage readily admitted that she was a positive influence. He was exposed to math at an early age. His mother still fondly reminisces how the six-year-old parked himself at the back row of her math tuition class trying to solve problems meant for 14-year-olds. “Perhaps the exposure motivated me,” said Liyanage. “Math was the only subject that made sense to me. In fact, I am not good at any other subject.” His uncle bought him the book, ‘How to become an engineer’ when he was still in grade three, the math problems in which he avidly devoured. “In fact, I can’t remember a time I wanted to be anything other than an engineer,” chuckled Liyanage.

 

Education

Liyanage received his primary education in Udugama Maha Vidyalaya. The grade five scholarship examination results qualified him to enrol in Richmond College, Galle and A/Ls got him through to the Moratuwa University, where he obtained his B.Sc. Degree, with First Class Honours, in electronics and telecommunication engineering, in 2009. “3G was just rolling out and it was an exciting time to be in the telecommunications field,” said Liyanage. He received a scholarship to Asian Institute of Technology, even before he completed his bachelors. He completed his Master in Engineering (M.Eng.) from the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok, Thailand, in 2011. After a year at AIT he moved to France on a dual degree programme, where he obtained a Master of Science (M.Sc.) from the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, France.

In 2004, right after his A/Ls he represented Sri Lanka in the 45th International Mathematical Olympiad, held in Europe. Since that first taste of Europe, he had been drawn to it and knew then that one day he would make it his second home. In Finland, considered the base of telecommunication with big-name companies like Nokia and Huawei setting up shop there, Liyanage obtained a PhD in communication engineering from the University of Oulu, in 2016.

Then his path diverged. “I could opt for a job in the industry or stay in the academic track.” He decided to remain an academic. Between 2015 and 2018 he functioned as a visiting Research Fellow at various institutions such as Data61, CSIRO, Sydney, Australia, the data and digital specialist arm of Australia’s national science agency; Infolabs21, Lancaster University, UK; School of Computer Science and Engineering, University of New South Wales; School of IT, University of Sydney and computer science laboratory LIP6, Sorbonne University.

In 2018, he received the Docentship from the University of Oulu, Finland, within 18 months from the PhD, making Liyanage the only researcher to receive the Docentship so soon. He worked as an adjunct professor at the University of Oulu while engaged in his post doctoral studies. He joined the School of Computer Science, University College Dublin (UCD), Ireland, early this year as an assistant professor and Ad Astra Fellow with the prestigious Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Individual Fellowship. The fellowship is one of highly reputed fellowships offered by the European Union.

 

Research

Liyanage’s main research interest is telecommunication network, 5G and 6G mobile networks in particular, focusing on network security concerns. “The major change we can expect with the transfer from 4G to 5G will be the number of devices that will be connected to the system.” He explained that although we only connect mobile devices such as mobile phones, tabs and laptops to the network, the advent of 5G will allow more devices, such as smart wearables, to be connected to the network. 6G will further expand the horizon to include the whole shebang, or Internet of things (IoT). In lay terms IoT is the network of physical objects, referred to here by ‘things’, that exchange data with other devices and systems over the Internet.

“These new devises don’t have the standard security measures that mobile devises and laptops have, making them more susceptible to cyber attacks.” Liyanage explained that there are only a handful of mobile device manufacturers in the world, consequently all mobile devices have in place stringent security control measures and are required to follow strict standards. “There is a large number of IoT device manufacturers, and are not bound to follow such strict security measures.” Liyanage explained that such devices are susceptible to cyber attacks and can, in fact, be used as entry points for attacks on the 5G network. “Besides some IoT devices are considerably smaller and, therefore, does not have a lot of processing power. Consequently, they cannot support high power security mechanisms.”

Liyanage further explained that even reputed manufacturers of IoT devices, opt out security tests, due to related costs and time constraints imposed by high competition. “A major drawback in 5G is that it is a software controllable network and software based systems are generally more vulnerable than hardware based systems.” He elaborated that 5G is an open architecture platform, which will enable software developers to understand, and possibly manipulate it.

What has the potential to make matters worse is that, after all IoT devices are interconnected, the next step will be to integrate all critical infrastructure such as the power grid, transportation network or water managements systems. “These can be monitored by IoT devices via 5G.” Liyanage pointed out a major security risk arguing that any terrorist or cyber criminal with a decent IoT device could hack into such systems and thereby wreak havoc with any of the aforementioned critical infrastructure.

He explained that 6G will enable the integration of Artificial Intelligence into the system. “It will be a mostly automated, self sustaining network, centrally controlled by an AI. “AI is essentially a good thing as long as it is used for the good,” said Liyanage. But it can also be manipulated to achieve malicious ends, according to him. “For example, if someone creates a malicious intelligent agent, it can identify loopholes in the system and self perform attacks on it.” The sci-fi like evil AI agent stuff may come off like an episode of ‘Person of Interest’, but Liyanage maintains it is entirely plausible. Consequently, he reiterated the requirement of straightening out the AI related security issues before considering launching the 6G system. “We have to consider everything from the data fed to the AI to what kind of effect it will have on the AI and how reliable the AI algorithm will be.”

All these maybe years away and will no doubt have repercussions of global relevance. But what are the more immediate threats at individual level when switching to 5G? “It will have a huge impact on society. So far we only connect mobiles, tabs and laptops to the system.” But with a full-fledged 5G system, expected sometime between 2025 to 2030, a lot more IoT devices will be interconnected via the system. “These devices can collect a lot of personal information. For example, from cameras on mobile phones to smart TVs, every new device comes with a built in camera. It won’t be long before many strap smart wearable that store health information.” Liyanage pointed out that this wealth of personal information, most of which is uploaded on to cloud services, can easily be stolen. “This is a major violation of privacy.” He emphasised that, at an age when everyone in society is connected to the system most of the time by at least one device such as the mobile phone a proper privacy protection mechanism should be put in place to counter such privacy violations.

When asked whether 5G or 6G posed renewed individual financial security threats, Liyanage pointed out that such information is already available on most devices connected to the 4G system. “But they are connected through personal Wi-Fi, which is safe as long as you maintain it password protected.”

Blockchain applications, another research area that appeals to Liyanage, may just provide the solution for a host of these security issues. For those uninitiated in telecommunication networking, Blockchain applications are cryptography used to secure transactions made using cryptocurrency. Blockchain technology became popular a decade ago and gained momentum because of Bitcoin cryptocurrency, the digital equivalent of money. It may be just a bunch of ones and zeroes but daily transactions using cryptocurrency can amount to billions.

“Bitcoin cryptocurrency is a beautiful innovation but what’s more interesting is the technology used to secure transactions made using cryptocurrency, blockchain, because of its applications in other areas such as telecommunication.” Liyanage pointed out that some of the pressing security issues of 5G and 6G can be solved using blockchain technology. “The biggest advantage of Bitcoin cryptocurrency is that it eliminates the third party. For example, if two people want to make a transaction, it has to be done through the bank. But with Bitcoin, transactions can be made direct.”

So, what are its implications for telecommunication? “The same concept can be used in telecommunication,” explained Liyanage. “There are certain instances where a third party is required. Roaming is a case in point.” Roaming allows the use of a mobile connection while outside the range of its home network by connecting to another available network in the country of travel. “To achieve this, the home country service provider should have an existing agreement with the visiting country operator.” When two parties who do not know each other want to enter into an agreement, in order to ensure that both parties keep their end of the bargain, a trusted neutral third party must intervene, and be paid for, for their pains. Blockchain can offer this trust and is far more preferable to a physical third party as is requires no commission. “Anywhere a third party is required, they can be replaced by a blockchain.”

There are many other such applications, according to Liyanage. “It can be used in service-level or SLA agreements. For example, if a user enters into an agreement with a telecommunications service provider, on his or her own terms, a third party must ensure that both parties keep to their agreement.”

 

Multitasker

Liyanage currently supervises nine PhD students and three Master students in four different universities. He is also a visiting Lecturer at Moratuwa University, Sri Jayewardenepura University and Yangon Technological University, Myanmar. In addition to conducting lectures for Undergraduate and master courses at the University College Dublin, supervising postgraduate students, mentoring postdoctoral researchers and functioning as the principle investigator for various national and internal research projects, Liyanage has found time to publish over 100 research articles and three books. When asked how he achieve all this at such a young age, with two masters and a PhD to boot, Liyanage attributes it to his time management skills.

 

“I may not always have my nose in a book, but I manage my time efficiently.” He takes after his parents, who happen to be early birds, waking up at 4 am. From four to eight or nine he dedicates to research work. “Having the satisfaction that I have done my job for the day, I can fool around all I want the remaining 10 hours or so. I think life needs this kind of balance.”

Unlike Sri Lankan students, who are forced to work in the government or corporate sector while reading for a master or PhD, Liyanage didn’t have to sacrifice valuable time on a job unrelated to his field of work. Liyanage was paid to do research and this, he points out is the fundamental difference between European countries and Sri Lanka. “I hardly know any full-time PhD students in Sri Lanka. Most of them are forced to lecture. PhDs require dedication.” He admitted that his academic load of University College Dublin is comparatively low allowing him to dedicate more time to research. Usually a lecturer is required to teach three modules per year, but because he is an Ad Astra Fellow, he is required to teach only one module. “In a bid to encourage research, University College Dublin hired 100 lecturers over a four-year period as Ad Astra Fellows, who would have limited academic load.”

It’s quite the opposite in Sri Lanka, pointed out Liyanage. “There are talented students and lecturers in Sri Lanka, but they are overloaded. Some lecturers are required to teach three modules in a single semester.” He also pointed out the lack of research funding and grants. “It should come from either the government of the corporate sector. To attract good PhD students remuneration equivalent to industry sector salaries must be offered.”

Liyanage’s achievements are not solely academic. The multitasker also has a patent to his credit. During a short stint at General Electronics, their branch in Italy wanted to replace the wired communication mechanism between the head and the tail of trains built by them, with wireless communication. “Because wired connections were a hassle when changing carriages. But wireless communication mechanisms are relatively less secure, because open air transmissions can be intercepted.” Liyanage built a secure wireless communication mechanism, which was patented. When he is not engaged in research, teaching or supervising, Liyanage likes to travel.

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SLAF on hazardous wall, Sri Lanka Air Force has sent us the following statement……

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Sri Lanka Air Force has sent us the following statement in response to an article (That hazardous Ratmalana Wall) published on 21 Jan.

It is with regret that I would like to inform you that the newspaper article titled “That Hazardous Ratmalana Wall” published in The “Island” newspaper of 21 January 2021 contains false information which has not been clarified from the Air Force Director Media nor any other official channel of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF).

It should also be highlighted that the Sri Lanka Air Force does not wish to challenge the freedom of reporting information by journalists. However, news articles of this nature published with the use of unsubstantiated information tarnishes the image of Sri Lanka Air Force.

The newspaper article in concern has caught the attention of the Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force. As alleged in the article, the Commander has not declared on behalf of the SLAF that there is no objection for the removal of the wall and replacing it with a fence. On the contrary he had in fact stated that a collapsible wall could be put in place of the permanent wall which should have a solid finish obstructing the view from outside due to security reasons.

In addition, to date there has been no incident/accident reported at the Ratmalana Airfield related to the wall along the Galle Road. Further, vehicles such as passenger coach/container etc; travelling on the main road would be taller than the wall in concern and according to the article, the main road would also have to be closed each and every time when an aircraft approaching of taking off from that end of the runway. International runway due to limitations which is also can be considered as hazardous to flight safety, SLAF consider Flight Safety is a paramount important factor as an organization which operates different types of aircraft over the years from this airfield.

It is pertinent to mention the wall in concern was erected by the SLAF before year 2009 with the consent of the Airport and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL) to address the security concerns at that time and maintained to date. The outer perimeter security of the Colombo International Airport at Ratmalana is being provided by the SLAF free of charge over years. As a measure of gratitude, with the consent of AASL and the approval of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), SLAF authorized to erect hoardings along this wall and to utilize the funds generated for welfare measures of airmen.

Further, publishing of an article which has an author with a fictional name will have serious and adverse effects on the newspaper as well as the goodwill which prevails between SLAF and AASL. The goodwill which prevails between the SLAF and your esteemed Organization will also be adversely effected by articles of this nature. SLAF Directorate of Media always provide accurate and precise information to media institutions which has an impact on general public as well as to other organizations. Undersigned is contactable any time of the day through mobile (0772229270) to clarify ambiguities of SLAF related information.

In conclusion, I would like to express our displeasure regarding the newspaper article in concern and the damage which has been done to the good name of the Sri Lanka Air Force and in particular to the Commander of Air Force.

 

WADC WIJESINGHE

Group Captain

DIRECTOR MEDIA

for COMMANDER OF THE AIR FORCEs

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Dog-eat-dog culture

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By Rajitha Ratwatte

There is an old joke that goes around regularly about Sri Lankans’ in hell. How absolutely no guards are needed to keep Lankans in hell because they do a very good job of pulling each other down into hell when anyone even looks like they will escape. When you extrapolate that into real life in the Pearl, the examples are plenty. All of us have personal experiences of neighbours, peers, relations and even our bosses “cutting us” as the popular phrase goes. It is mostly those who either realise and watch out for these pitfalls or those who clearly identify a powerful figure to “bum suck” for want of a better word that display pure unadulterated sycophancy to, that “progress” to propagate these trends in the future. This I believe is something that is triggered by the basest of all human emotions, jealousy, and probably egged on by a sense of insecurity as well.

One would expect that in a nation of devout Buddhists such reprehensible behaviour would be addressed and controlled. Alas it is not to be and looks like it never will be.

It is rather disconcerting to observe that this behaviour is ‘going strong’ among the Lankan community in this the land of the “long White Cloud” as well. The more I live here and mix with the community, the more I hear about people who try to start new projects or give fruition to new and possibly brilliant schemes who have been stymied by fellow citizens born in the Pearl. They indulge in the anonymous letter method (that dates back from time immemorial) made even easier by using false identities, and “one-off” e mail addresses on the web. They inform all government authorities of what they believe are attempts to break the law of their adopted country. If there are bilateral trade agreements, they diligently contact the other parties and try to cast aspersions on the people concerned. They even inform the management of any company that these people with the new ideas may be working at, that their employee may be breaking a sub clause in his contract and thinking of doing some other business while working for them. All triggered by a wonderful sense of self-righteousness from people who don’t think twice about breaking the law when it concerns their own affairs!

As a result, those who have had a measure of success, guard their positions very carefully and a few who have tried to include other Lankans in their operations have learned hard lessons from those who stole their trade secrets and started rival businesses on their own. I daresay this happens in other communities too, but among the Chinese and Indian communities that form similar minorities in Aotearoa, there are official networks formed to help new immigrants. There are schemes and methods in place to help their people do business, especially in the field of imports, to try and reach some sort of equilibrium with regard to the balance of trade between Aotearoa and their home countries. Sri Lanka imports so much milk from New Zealand but almost nothing of our spices, gems and jewellery, tourism products or even our tea that used to have a much larger share of the market, are imported.

In these desperate economic times, shouldn’t the government be looking at ways to improve our export trade? There are so many pockets and communities of Lankans in so many different countries who are doing well enough to be able to afford some luxuries from their home countries but have to pay exorbitant prices or do without. A recent import of ‘sweet meats’ for Sinhala New Year saw such a massive offtake that great plans for expansion were disrupted by Covid-19, before the Lankan rivals could put paid to it. Although such plans were in place!

Something that is rather obvious to those observing the antics in the Pearl from outside is that there seems to be no plan. Innovative thinking, especially in the field of ‘non-traditional’ exports does not exist. We have all seen how fickle tourism is. Using our fertile soil and the artistic skills of our people to build a reputation for quality exports has been totally neglected in recent times. I daresay the relevant ministries and export bodies exist, but it is a well-known fact that they simply serve as JOBS for political catchers, who do nothing except enjoy a foreign junket or two every year on account of the taxpayer.

That brilliant marketing idea of the Ceylon Tea Centers was so far ahead of its time that no one really understood it. We had the best retail locations in some of the greatest cities in Europe and the UK and were building up a great reputation for serving quality tea and promoting our cuisine. It should have been expanded to handle handicraft products on the lines of Laksala and even spices. Of course, promoting our culture, hospitality and tourism would have followed. There are two ways to handle a crisis. We can either put up our shutters and slide deeper and deeper into the mire of debt and economic ruin, or take some bold steps, make innovative investments and take a gamble on products and ideas that are endemic to our country.

 

Even if the latter method fails the end result couldn’t be much worse! Go down fighting I say! Rather than ask expatriates to come back and try to work in a totally corrupt and politician dominated society, approach expatriates with ideas in other countries and back them to promote those ideas if they show real economic benefits to our land. Not everything will work but even a 5% success rate is better than nothing at all.

It is also acknowledged that RANIL has been reappointed as leader of the UNP. Now then, what does this mean? Is it that the Uncle-Nephew party has stuck to tradition or does it mean that at least some people have realized that an experienced politician with world recognition and a certain amount of credibility in the first world, is useful to have around? Search your minds all you critics who blamed absolutely everything on Ranil. Have a dispassionate look at the Muppets in parliament and think for yourself what sort of account they would give of themselves on the world stage. After you do this, place Ranil on the world stage next to those morons and realize for yourself the DIFFERENCE!

 

fromoutsidethepearl@gmail.com

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Lenin comes to town (again)

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By Gwynne Dyer

When Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny returned to Moscow on Sunday after convalescing in Germany from an attempted poisoning by the FSB domestic spy agency, the regime-friendly media loyally failed to mention his arrival. With one striking exception: Vremya, the flagship news show of Russian state television.

Presumably, somebody there was hoping to win favour with the Kremlin, because they briefly mentioned Navalny three-quarters of the way through Sunday’s two-hour programme. In fact, they compared Navalny’s trip home to Vladimir Lenin’s famous return to Russia in 1917, and suggested that he was as great a danger to Russia as Lenin had been.

As every Russian knows, the Germans plucked Lenin from exile in Switzerland in the middle of the First World War. He was sent across Germany in a ‘sealed train’ (so he wouldn’t spread the infection of Communism there) to St. Petersburg, then in the throes of Russia’s first democratic revolution – and he did just what the Germans had hoped he would.

Lenin overthrew the fumbling democratic ‘Provisional Government’ in a military coup, took Russia out of the First World War – and launched a 73-year totalitarian Communist regime that cost at least 20 million Russian lives in purges, famines and lesser acts of repression. Is Navalny really that great a danger?

The ambitious presenter at Vremya probably won’t get the job he wanted, because President Vladimir Putin really won’t have liked seeing his noisiest critic compared in stature to Lenin, a genuine world-historical figure. Putin himself never mentions Navalny’s name at all.

Russians cannot even put a name to the system they live under, as the poor Vremya presenter’s confusion illustrates. It’s certainly not a democracy, although there are regular elections. It’s definitely not Communist, although most of the regime’s senior figures were Communists before they discovered a better route to power and wealth.

It’s not a monarchy, although Putin has been in power for twenty years and is surrounded by a court of extremely rich allies and cronies. And ‘kleptocracy’ is just a pejorative term used mostly by foreigners, although Navalny does habitually refer to Putin and his cronies as “crooks and thieves”.

In fact, Putin’s regime is not a system at all. Its only ideology is a traditional Russian nationalism that is lightweight compared to blood-and-soil religious and racist movements like Trump’s in the United States and Modi’s in India. It’s a purely personal regime, and it is very unlikely to survive his dethronement or demise.

Putin has been in power for twenty years, and he has just changed the constitution with a referendum that lets him stay in power until 2036. But that seems unlikely, partly because he is already 68 and partly because the younger generation of Russians is getting restless and bored.

Navalny is a brave man who has gone home voluntarily to face a spell in Putin’s jails. (He missed two parole appointments for a suspended sentence on trumped-up embezzlement charges because he was in Germany recovering from the FSB assassination attempt.) But his role in Russian politics so far had been more gadfly than revolutionary.

His supporters do their homework and make clever, witty videos detailing the scandalous financial abuses of the regime (the latest is a virtual tour of Putin’s new $1 billion seaside palace on the Black Sea near Novorossiysk), but he is probably not the man who will finally take Putin down. What he is doing to great effect is mobilising the tech-savvy young.

Since 2018 the average age of protesters at anti-Putin demos, mostly linked to Navalny one way or another, has dropped by a decade, and their boldness has risen in proportion. Moreover, their attitude to the regime now verges on contempt. Rightly so: consider, for example, the last two assassination attempts by regime operatives.

In 2018, the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, sent two agents to England to kill defector Sergei Skripov and his daughter Yulia. The agents made two trips to Salisbury because they couldn’t find the right house, they were tracked by CCTV every step of the way, and in the end, they left too little novichok (nerve poison) on the doorknob to kill the targets.

Equally crude and bumbling was the FSB’s attack on Navalny in Tomsk, where the novichok was put on his underpants. Once again, the target survived, and afterwards the investigative site Bellingcat was able to trace FSB agents tracking Navalny on forty flights over several years before the murder was attempted.

Neither agency is fit for 21st-century service, nor is the regime they both serve. Russians have put up with it for a long time because they were exhausted and shamed by the wild political banditry of the 1990s, but Putin’s credit for having put an end to that has been exhausted. He may still be in power for years, but this is a regime on the skids.

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