Geographies in Depth

How can technology help India? An extract

A fruit seller swipes a customer's debit card at a roadside market in Mumbai, India, April 2, 2019.

A fruit seller swipes a customer's debit card at a roadside market in Mumbai, India. Image: REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

Natarajan Chandrasekaran
Chairman, Tata Sons
Roopa Purushothaman
Chief Economist; Head, Policy Advocacy, Tata Sons
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It's 2030. India is among the world’s top three economies. All Indians use advanced technology and have access to quality jobs, better healthcare and skill-based education.

Technology and human beings coexist in a mutually beneficial ecosystem in a 'brigital' economy.

That's the vision of the future set out by N. Chandrasekaran, Chairman of Tata Sons, and Roopa Purushothaman, Tata's Chief Economist.

Instead of accepting technology as an inevitable replacement for human labour, the authors believe AI can actually generate jobs in emerging countries. They make the case that the 'bridgital' model can create 30 million jobs by 2025.

The booked was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the presence of the Chairman Emeritus of the Tata Group, Ratan Tata.

The following in an excerpt from Bridgital Nation: Solving Technology's People Problem.

During the first days of India’s smart city initiative in 2015,, a government website, asked Indians to imagine what a smart city transformation would look like. The response was enthusiastic. There were hundreds of suggestions to use technology in ingenious ways, of course. Still, scrolling down the pages, it was clear that a much larger number were interested in getting what they already had to work properly. They suggested that smart cities should have running water, uninterrupted power, and trucks that picked up garbage twice a day. A truly smart city, they said, would have streetlights that worked at night.

The city they described—the city of their imagination—was nothing more than a functional city.

Picture, for a moment, the same survey on a larger scale: If citizens had to imagine not a smart city but a smart nation, the range of their concerns would significantly expand. They would desire better healthcare and jobs. Mobility. Security. Quicker justice. Fewer regulations. The concerns of life. Yet India, which has known of these challenges for decades, has struggled to provide its people what they need. And now time, which once seemed an infinite resource, has begun to grow scarce. There are more Indians jostling for the same resources with every passing month, and at the other end, technology’s transformations are on the horizon. There is a narrow window to realize the potential of India’s demographic endowments.

This book started out as an attempt to understand how technology could help India navigate this crucial transition period. It soon became apparent that there were two primary challenges that needed urgent attention: Jobs, and access to vital services. Whether in education, healthcare, the judiciary, or any other field, the problems remain the same—both resources and skilled people are scarce.

India will have to think about its problems in new ways, because the old ideas have proven unsuccessful time and again. In the twenty-first century, these new ways need to harness the power of artificial intelligence (AI), the cloud, machine learning and the Internet of Things (IoT), considering the rate at which they are expanding what is possible on a daily basis. The combination of these technologies can provide answers to problems that just a few years ago may have been considered intractable. However, the approach to technology requires careful consideration. It means not being distracted by the array of possibilities, or simply mimicking the innovations of others, but being razor-focused on what is needed. Not technology for technology’s sake, but technology in context—applied in ways that make sense to people, and that can help increase the yield of India’s existing human and physical resources.

This lies at the heart of our book’s argument: The future, if India is to harness it, has to come from a mutually beneficial relationship between its citizens and new applications of technology. Neither human nor machine alone can help India prepare for the great changes at its doorstep.

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This contrasts the dominant portrayal of the future that, in economic and imaginative terms, is typically seen through the lens of developed economies. For decades, we have heard in general terms that robots are coming for jobs, for the future, and for all of us. As early as in 1964, a memo sent to the president of the United States envisioned a ‘cybernation revolution’ which would result in ‘a system of almost unlimited productive capacity’ that would replace human labour.1

Since then, the questions and concerns have become more specific. How will the advent of machines affect jobs? What jobs will be the first to go? What will it mean for the way we work, live and play? The conversation is accompanied by video footage that seems to confirm our worst fears: We see machines in a sterile warehouse sort packages before they are sent; we see the skeletal frame of a headless metal bot run, leap over obstacles, jog on snow, stagger but not fall after being pushed, and right itself if it falls over. We see more reliable models of ourselves.

The other view is more pragmatic. When new orders emerge, there are societal leaps in productivity, jobs, and living standards. Jobs will be lost, but others will be created. Over 120 years ago, even before the start of Ford’s automobile assembly line, it was evident that horse carriages were on their way out. ‘[The] time is coming when the vehicle drawn by horses will be the one to excite remark, and the present novelty will be a thing of ordinary use,’ a reader wrote to the New York Times in 1899.2 When costs fell and the market for ‘horseless carriages’ grew, new technologies and jobs emerged at fuel stations, repair shops, and automobile dealerships. History shows us that these economic and technology-led transitions inspire feelings of discomfort and uncertainty. Now, as then, these views often look at a future without automation and a future with automation, not an in-between future where both coexist.

Imagining where AI and automation, the main drivers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,3 will end up is certainly an enticing and terrifying exercise. But what keeps governments and leaders awake at night is not its final form. It is what will come before that—the inevitable social, political and business costs that will only gradually become clear. They understand, deep in their bones, that this time truly is different. Automation in the past focused on repetitive tasks, done by hand and on foot. Now, tasks of cognition—thinking itself—are the objects of automation.

But, as the physicist Michio Kaku says about general cognitive ability—common sense, by another name—even the most advanced robots and algorithms today have the intelligence of a cockroach.4 We have time.

What we need is a new approach that views AI and automation as a human aid, not a replacement for human intervention. If we do this, automation in India will look nothing like it does anywhere else. We call this approach ‘Bridgital’.

First, though, we have to understand India.

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