Garg does not discourage students from taking up the subject, but he points out that they should be aware of the challenges. “Get into this area only if you can enjoy it. We are solving problems here that researchers have been looking at for maybe 100 years, classical problems that still lie unsolved. It involves a lot of discrete mathematics. One needs to have perseverance, but the fruits can be very rewarding,” he says.
Discrete mathematics is the study of mathematical structures such as integers and graphs, and one needs to be fluent in it to work in many fields including data science, machine learning, and software engineering.
Garg, a recipient of the prestigious SS Bhatnagar award for Mathematical Sciences, says that algorithmic research is the foundation of designing a programme; the sequence of steps to solving a problem. Before a programme is designed, one needs to find out what is the algorithm to use.
“For example, if you are a bank manager and you have to set up a few ATMs in a town and have a budget, you have to figure out the best locations. One important criteria is how well you are serving the maximum population by not making them travel too long. This is a clustering problem; how do you identify clusters before designing the product.”
Garg works more on algorithms related to logistics, such as how a truck can deliver goods to the maximum number of customers in a given time window. This involves figuring out which could be the most efficient route. “Behind all of this, you have to design an efficient algorithm, not for one instance, but for all sets of data.” While trucks are delivering products now, in the near future, it may be drones doing the job, and that will need a new set of algorithms.
“It is a very interesting and challenging subject but only for the mathematically inclined. But even companies during interviews today are looking for skills in designing algorithms besides programming skills,” Garg says.
Students interested in the space can opt to do a Master’s with specialisation in theoretical computer science. Such students are really sought after in the industry for their problem solving skills. A PhD, however, is perhaps only for the real math geeks.
Consider this, there are just 50 students across the major institutes in the country who are pursuing a PhD in algorithmic research. “Many students who have gone to the mathematics Olympiad are the ones who take up research in this area as it appeals to their intellect,” Garg says.