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Silvio Meira: A hopeful realist

Creator of one of the most important ecosystems of innovation in the country, the computer scientist discusses the emergence of the digital era in Brazil

Léo Ramos Chaves

Turning to Paraíba-born writer Ariano Suassuna (1927–2014), fellow countryman Silvio Romero de Lemos Meira, at 65 years of age, found the right words to talk about himself. “I’m a hopeful realist,” says the computer scientist and one of the founders of Porto Digital, which is one of the primary technology poles in Brazil and celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2020. Established in the historic center of Recife (PE), Porto Digital houses 344 technology-focused businesses.

The hopeful realist, as Suassuna explains, is the one who understands a problem and fights to solve it when possible. Meira has held this life philosophy since adolescence when he disassembled broken household appliances to discover the problem. More than obstacles, technological challenges became inputs for his work.

Professor emeritus at the Computer Science Center of the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), and born in Taperoa, Paraíba, he always made a point of keeping track of real problems faced by businesses. In the early years of his career, he rejected employment offers from multinational companies to dedicate himself to an ambitious project: to strengthen the IT department at UFPE and an innovation ecosystem in Recife.

Board member of various companies, Meira, who is married and the father of three, dedicates a significant amount of his time to thinking about how digital technologies and artificial intelligence can contribute to increasing the productivity of these businesses while also benefitting society. In this interview, he talks about the challenges of strengthening Porto Digital, outlining the opportunities for the digital era in Brazil, and speaking about how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted his routine.

Age 65
Field of expertise
Computer programming, digital transformation, innovation, technological policy
Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE)
Educational background
Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from ITA (1977), master’s in computer science from the University of Kent, in England (1985)
Published works
54 scientific articles. Author, coauthor, or organizer of five books

In your Lattes CV, you describe yourself as “a percussionist who has fun as a researcher.”  How has the Pernambuco culture impacted your career?
Carnaval was a defining factor in my settling down in Recife. In the mid-1980s, upon returning from England where I did my doctorate, I got involved with the city’s cultural scene, mostly Carnaval. I helped to establish the Cabra Alada, a maracatu (cultural performance) that had its twentieth anniversary in 2020. After this gets into your blood, it never leaves. My involvement with Carnaval runs deep.

How did you end up in Recife?
My father, who is from Taperoa, Paraíba, was controller for SANBRA, a Brazilian division of the Dutch multinational Bunge. His work required that our family move to the city every three years. Each one of my three brothers was born in a different place in the Northeast. I arrived in Recife to complete my second year of high school. Before attending school, my mother took care of teaching me to read and write. She was born in Areia (Paraíba) and was a teacher. I learned to read a year and a half after starting school—at four years of age—thanks to my mother. I became an adamant reader and helped teach my brothers. All of us became professors.

Do you have a strong relationship with the capital of Pernambuco?
My relationship is strong with Brazil. I am from the country and, for country folk, our country is the world. I had plans to go to São José dos Campos, outside of São Paulo, to study at ITA (Aeronautics Institute of Technology), but I ended up writing the federal entrance exam on my friends’ recommendations. I did the course with the intention of returning to Pernambuco. I began my master’s at UFPE and applied for assistant professor there.

When did computer science spark your interest?
In 1973, a short time after I started at ITA, I discovered something called the computer. During my time as an undergrad, I had my first interaction with an IBM 1130. In a short period of time, I was learning how to program. It was programming that caused me not to follow a career in engineering. When I discovered that it was possible to program a machine to do what you wanted, it was love at first sight.

At that time, programming was in its early stages in Brazil.
Yes, they were the early days of programming. The IBM 1130 at ITA only had 16 kilobytes (kB) of memory and you had to do algorithmic gymnastics to be able to program anything. You basically programmed it to solve engineering problems. At that time, I was fascinated with thinking about resolving math problems from a computer perspective. In 1978, during my master’s at UFPE, I discovered it was possible to consider programming as a scientific field. My dissertation, which was under the orientation of professor Clylton Fernandes, was about the simulation of network protocols. So, during my master’s, I was already working with software simulation and information traffic through communication protocols in digital networks.

Upon discovering that a machine could be programmed to execute what you would like, it was love at first sight

You even helped install the first large computer at UFPE, correct?
Yes. At the end of the 1970s, a group of Brazilian universities, including UFPE, bought North American equipment from the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), which at the time had a mega computer made for universities. Professor Clylton invited me to take care of the university’s computer systems. The goal was for the new machine to serve the campus and all of its disciplines, including executing bureaucratic tasks, such as organizing payroll and registrations. I was responsible for building this system. I learned a lot, but it caused a two-year delay in my master’s dissertation.

Was it during your doctorate that you decided to leave Brazil?
As soon as I finished my master’s, I got a scholarship from the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), and I decided to do my doctorate in England because it was somewhere different. It was a great decision to go to the University of Kent. I had a fantastic advisor, David Turner, a British computer scientist and one of the then-leaders in functional programming research. I stayed there between 1981 and 1985. After returning to Brazil, I decided to settle in Recife.

Was it during this period that you helped to strengthen computing at UFPE?
When I returned from my doctorate, I received a card from CNPq welcoming me and informing me that I was the country’s 49th computer science PhD. Until the mid-1990s, Brazilian computer science was very rudimentary and there were no autonomous departments in Brazilian universities, with some exceptions—UNICAMP (University of Campinas) established the country’s first bachelor’s degree in computer science and its own department in 1969, and USP (University of São Paulo) of São Carlos inaugurated the same course at the end of the 1970s. In general, it used to be an area linked to statistics and IT departments, such as at UFPE. The universities were unsure about offering degree courses in computer science because they did not yet fully understand this field of knowledge. When I joined UFPE in 1985 as a professor, Clylton, Paulo Cunha—also a member of UFPE faculty—and I decided to develop a long-term plan to put Recife on the computer science map within 15 years. At the time, many had already received employment offers from large companies, but we opted, along with many others, for this university plan.

It was an ambitious goal.
Yes. I was responsible for typewriting the project and I remember this as if it were yesterday. I typed everything on my father’s Olivetti Lettera 22. I viewed the plan as a life mission. At that time, UFPE had four computer science PhDs. The goal was to reach 20 by the year 2000. Many people took the challenge and began to send dozens of students abroad to do their computer science doctorate and return to Recife. It took years to build a critical mass. Today, UFPE’s IT Center has close to 100 PhD professors and 250 researchers who develop projects in partnership with companies. 2,100 master’s students and 500 doctoral students have already graduated, and it has become a benchmark because it houses a company incubator and accelerator. Participating in this gave me a real feeling of building the future. As it worked well, we continued to invest in ambitious goals and, in 1996, we founded CESAR, the Center for Advanced Research and Systems.

Personal archive Meira in his home office, in RecifePersonal archive

What is the idea behind CESAR?
Computer science graduates of UFPE did not find work in the local economy. Close to 60% of them left Pernambuco. We had to do something so this human capital would have an impact on the state economy. This is where the idea of creating an innovation center arose, to attract complex problems that could be solved in Recife. Our idea, therefore, was to motivate the creation of computer science companies. CESAR began to produce company spin-offs dedicated purely to computer science.

And when was the Porto Digital established?
Porto Digital was established in 2000 through a combination of efforts by UFPE, CESAR, and Softex, a Brazilian software support program launched in 1992, along with actions taken by corporate associations and the governments of Recife and Pernambuco. Technological hubs are typically created as part of a university. In the case of Recife, the lack of resources led us to the decision to create a cluster outside the university because it was not viable to do everything at UFPE. So, the university joined forces with the Softex program, city hall, and other institutions in the region to establish a hub that would not be exclusively from one entity.

Is that how you “invaded” the center of the capital of Pernambuco?
The objective was to occupy and transform Recife’s “crackland.” This effort, which began in 2000, resulted in the space that today houses Porto Digital, the third largest ISS (service tax) collector in the city. In 2019, sales totaled R$2.5 billion, which was 24% higher than the prior year.

How did this project begin?
The first step was to attract companies. CESAR took all its staff there. Over time, the local economy began to show signs of life. Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops opened. This was not planned. Recife, however, is still a city with needs, huge inequality, and enormous educational and infrastructure challenges. But, at the same time, it has a very strong culture. We have training programs within Porto Digital in partnership with various universities. Recife has the country’s highest number of people studying computer science per 100,000 inhabitants. This is one of the results of Porto Digital.

Was there resistance among the academic community with regard to the enterprise?
It took time for state universities to understand that there was a need to train more people for the marketplace. The academic environment is unique. I heard from professors that it was a mistake to train people for the marketplace. And see how we are talking about technological areas. The IT Center of UFPE has 270 student vacancies. Does this mean that all should graduate to become professors or researchers? Many of them choose to work with practical issues the companies face.

Technological development must be approached critically, considering all its philosophical and regulatory dimensions

How would you measure the importance of Porto Digital for the economy?
We have algorithm programmers there for logistics, health, finances, localization. There are individuals who create digital technologies for urban mobility, information security, big data. That is, it is not a cluster with a specific purpose. The Fiat Chrysler innovation center at Porto Digital, for example, develops vehicle control software that operates parts of a car’s motor. It is not coincidental that there are courses in Recife that specialize in this type of technology. Also, in recent years, undergraduate and specialization programs have focused on gaming and digital marketing. New demand has arisen in the market and this motivates the development of specific courses. Brazil’s first professional master’s program in computer science was developed through Porto Digital in 2006. The country’s first professional doctorate in engineering software is also there. These specializations are offered by CESAR, which created CESAR School through Porto Digital, with undergraduate and graduate programs in computer science, engineering software and design.

Do politicians understand the importance of the project?
In Pernambuco, politicians from all parties understand the role of Porto Digital in the economy of the state. You cannot speak about economic politics in Pernambuco without mentioning it. It is responsible for creating jobs, income, and taxes. There are close to 11,500 jobs with an average salary that is four times higher than those of Greater Recife. Furthermore, it has a clean economy that is recuperating a historical region that was degraded. In the last eight years, motivated by Porto Digital’s demand for qualified human capital, the mayor put IT and robotics labs in all municipal schools.

Has the pandemic affected Porto Digital?
The vast majority of companies connected to the project develop software. As such, employees have continued working normally but from home. Software programmers are used to working remotely because the processes for building IT system—primarily those associated with global platforms—are spread out and decentralized. Unfortunately, the effects of the pandemic are felt more by service providers who depend on the traffic within Porto Digital, such as bars and restaurants. It is estimated that 50% of restaurants around Porto Digital have closed and will not reopen after the pandemic.

You chose to teach early on in your career. What attracts you to being a professor?
For me, the greatest part of being a professor is not teaching but learning. I discovered what I loved about being a professor was taking a problem I did not know the answer to and try to learn about it. The best way to learn is to teach. I only know something when I can teach it to another. This was a key discovery because it somehow caused me to get interested in issues outside my area and the university. I stopped being an expert in engineering software, a field I had taught in since 1995. Honestly, I am a generalist at heart.

In what sense?
I have many interests at the same time. To manage it all, I have to work with many people. I like participating in different groups, and this defines my life. I am an adjunct professor with CESAR School and an advisor. I am a board member with various companies and institutions, such as Porto Digital, MRV, Magazine Luíza and CI&T. These are places that have interesting issues. I discovered that I could contribute to solving these challenges without necessarily being the person to do the work to resolve them. The only place where I dedicate my time to solve concrete problems is The Digital Strategy Company, a small business I helped to establish through CESAR and which is focused on digital adaptation, evolution, and transformation for businesses of all sizes. We have clients from startups to huge companies, such as the National Industry Confederation (CNI).

How do you help companies as one of their board members?
My interest is facing complex challenges or predicting problems that a company has not yet considered. Through the process of creating Porto Digital, I was involved with hundreds of businesses. This allowed me to interact with a large network of entrepreneurs and have contact with the real challenges faced by the market. Whether advising students or counseling companies, my focus is on the impact of innovation and improving performance.

Is it about helping companies to digitize their processes in the wake of the so-called industry 4.0?
Not exactly. There is an extreme difference between digitizing and transforming. Digitizing involves taking an existing process and adding a digital cover, which automates the industry. While transforming involves looking at an industrial or business process to identify if it is compatible with digital competition and if the execution method is digital. If not, you transform that process to the digital world. When you look at the digital world, you must look with fresh eyes. If you have already had competitive structures for the digital world, but that come from the analogic world—this is rare and requires adaptations—but it is possible to take advantage of these structures in the transformation process. Normally, you must create a lot from scratch.

How do you see the implementation of industry 4.0 in Brazil?
Many businesspeople are talking about digitizing their factories, but they cannot see that this is not industry 4.0, but rather digitizing in industry 3.0. For example, an industry 4.0 is developing a motor that continues to communicate with the factory, and the maintenance process is done from the factory. In its true meaning, industry 4.0 is not a process from within a factory to outside, where the products are transformed into services. It goes far beyond simple robotization of the production line. Robotization of factory processes does not define industry 4.0 but rather the capacity to connect objects and analyze in real time. In Brazil, the problem is that, in the last 50 years, the service productivity needle has not moved, leaving industry isolated as a “pure” industry without added services. At least the performance in agriculture has improved significantly. In family agriculture, we left behind harvesting cotton by hand to adopt the use of modern harvesters that process cotton right in the field.

What is the country missing?
Strategy. We have gone through yet another decade without it. The country is lost, from the perspective of policies around industry, science, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurialism. I cannot see a way out. There are no signs of us having innovation strategies for the next two, five, or 10 years. It is absurd to see Brazil enter a commercial war that has nothing to do with the country. I am referring to the fights between the United States and China around 5G technology. Suddenly, we are facing problems that we did not have before—problems based on differences in science and technology from that of China.

How is that?
There is no expectation that we will have a 5G platform that is our own. We have not invested in this. In recent years, while northern countries and China have worked to develop standards and software systems and platforms for 5G applications, the United States did not invest in any of this. They opted to create applications, such as Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp, leaving investments in infrastructure as a secondary plan for the next generations of digital connectivity. The Brazilian government should fund the union between public, scientific, and technological policies.

Should private enterprise work together to plan for the country’s future?
No company thinks about the country over the long term. This is done by the high courts—those in power. The entire electronic revolution in the United States is the effort of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In England, the substrate for pharmacological research and fine chemistry are government projects. And how did this take place? The strategies include funding interactions between universities and companies to directly impact Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But this takes time and thus needs government policies. Private enterprise does not think about government. No company has defined the trajectory of a nation.

Technological orders from government are important in this regard.
Exactly. This vehicle is not widely used in Brazil. In the United States, product orders and technological solutions have been taking place for decades. SpaceX—the aerospace company of billionaire Elon Musk—has been successful not only on its own merit. Musk secured a contract of US$480 million with space agency NASA. When we consider countries that have done admirable things, such as create competitive technological capacity, we see that they have defined challenges they often pursue for decades.

What risks are there if technology is addressed with considerable enthusiasm?
Technological development should be approached in a critical manner with all its philosophical and regulatory dimensions. Should we allow any Facebook propaganda, including those who promote it, at times subliminally, to behave with nazi-fascist tendencies? Or allow explicit lies in political propaganda? Should we make the intermediary responsible? The thesis that led to an explosion in social media was the following: intermediaries, such as Facebook, do not hold responsibility. It is as if social media were only a telephone wire that transmits information. But Facebook is not only a transmitter but is practically a station of global information and editorial intervention. It should be regulated.

There should be someone to draw parallels between genes and computer program codes. Would you agree?
Yes. The great problem with genetics is that whoever holds this knowledge is not always thinking about its consequences. It is a regulatory space that deserves attention. To minimize risk, the social factor should be discussed. For example, genetic manipulation can only be done by those who are qualified and have passed certain exams. At the same time, I do not think innovation should be hindered. So, how should it be regulated? It is a dilemma: to give freedom for research to yield results that are potentially beneficial for society and, at the same time, prevent innovation from creating the conditions for activities that are expressly criminal or not based on ethical or moral principles. I can write a code to hijack personal data and request ransom via bitcoin or create an algorithm to analyze images of a lung to identify cancer through artificial intelligence. The technological programming principle is the same; what changes is the ethical education and the values behind whoever uses the technology.

Thinking about bioethical issues requires a lot of research in human sciences.
Without a doubt. British physicist Charles Percy Snow (1905–1980) argued that we were losing the capacity to interpret the world and understand the context in which science and technology were being used. I think that technology is always a possibility: if it can be done, people do it, even if there is no science behind it. But we must think about how a technology functions and its consequences on society. The same should be done with respect to basic science. If tomorrow we discover another planet has life, we must immediately begin to reflect on our world, including from the perspective of religion. This reflection about human nature is fundamental. We cannot assign human sciences a secondary role, as if they must receive what is left over from the total investment in science. Large research projects in human sciences must be funded.

Is there a lack of studies with the capacity to reflect on Brazil today from an interdisciplinary perspective?
Yes. In the past, this capacity to think about the country came from individuals such as Celso Furtado (1920–2004), Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (1902–1982) and Gilberto Freyre (1900–1987). However, the current need is to coordinate truly interdisciplinary approaches. This does not mean that the individual human being must be interdisciplinary. What should be interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary are the teams comprised of various people who are experts in specific fields.