It was in the eighties when he had laid the foundations of India’s $150 billion Information Technology (IT) and IT Enabled Services (ITES) industry that earned the country the respect of the world as a knowledge power.
Today, Sam Pitroda is once again agitated, animated, irritated and impatient as India dithers on the edge of another momentous opportunity.
“We don’t have the vision, and I include both the government and the corporate sector, to ride this incredible opportunity that beckons us to lead the world,” he excitedly remarks, trying to explain how India can recover from the threat of technological disruptions brought about by Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Deep Learning (DL), and Robotic Process Automation (RPA).
The IT & ITES industry is faced with an unprecedented challenge to its offshoring model from the twin impact of changes in the US regulatory environment under a new leader, and AI-powered automation and RPA which makes offshoring redundant.
Sam is perhaps witnessing the beginning of the slow decline of the industry which employs 4.2 million, a sizeable chunk of whom are about to see their livelihood disappear. If we don’t play our cards right, he would see the big dream he created turn into a nightmare in his lifetime.
“Government initiatives are critical in taking advantage of the new opportunities in a data-driven economy. Digital India is not just putting up a website,” he points out. India, he emphatically adds, has to use AI technology to solve its problems of taking healthcare and education to the masses and then take these solutions to the rest of the world.
“Education and healthcare, like many other things would not cost anything to the people,” he adds. “For far too long we have been solving the problems of the US and their companies. It’s time now we solved India’s problems. And from this solutions will emerge with new offerings to solve the world’s problems. It’s a glorious opportunity for India to lead again,” he says.
He hopes the Indian transnational IT organisations to pool their vast resources to create software products, end-to-end solutions and drive innovation in solutions that help people.
“They haven’t been doing this, satisfied merely by sending people to write codes using inexpensive labour,” he adds. “We haven’t shown this leadership to the world. Compared to the giant thinkers of the past like Gandhi or Tagore, who were citizens of the world, we have midgets today,” lamented Sam.
As opportunities for traditional IT services wane in the wake of automation, Sam is convinced that “India can leverage AI solutions to reach governance to the remotest corners of the country and that is a huge opportunity; the world will benefit from India’s experience of technology-driven democracy.”
“True democracy begins with democratisation of information,” and that’s happening now he says with his infectious energy that pulsates through the same mobile broadband connectivity from Chicago to Calcutta he had shepherded in nearly 30 years ago.
He is not just a PowerPoint warrior, he has always been a doer and even today he has set up a company which uses satellite data to predict the yield of crops, measure their protein content using ML software.
“It’s a different way of doing agriculture,” he explains, saying that technology today can transform food production and usher in an era of abundance where everyone in the world will have enough to eat.
Sounds utopian to most of us but not for the big dreamer Sam who, some years ago, was working on an idea to set up a countrywide network of private food banks — resource pools he called them — that would work as a parallel distribution system to disburse food and allied infrastructure to people living on the edge of the poverty line and below in the vast Indian heartland. He was emphatic that “These solutions won’t come from the western world but from India.”
“Solutions like these are for the entire world where millions go hungry every day and yet we waste 40 per cent of the food,” he says with palpable anger laced with frustration. This brings him to his favourite topic these days of redesigning the world which is in urgent need to disrupt the old institutions like the World Bank, United Nations, IMF, WTO which were not designed for a digital economy.
The old world design, based on principles of consumption he said was dangerous to humanity. It was a flawed design that had a linear co-relation between more consumption, leading to more production and therefore growth.
This, he said led to depletion of scare resources, triggering global warming and in turn affecting our climate. Instead, he argued the world needs more conservation of resources. This old design created soon after WWII had created inequalities around the world. It has not succeeded in global growth. The failure of this design was apparent in the wars, in the hunger, in the human sufferings we see around the world.
He envisions a new world design that would use technology to take education and healthcare to every individual on this planet, and he is very clear that it should start in India.
“There is need to start this conversation, to look to our heritage of non-violence, or empathy, of love , of family values which will be critical economic and social drivers of the new design of this world and not talk about mythical things like flying chariots,” says Sam.
In an abundant world created by the benevolent use of technology, there would be no need for nations to go to war over scare resource.
“Wars,” he said were part of the old design created to spur production of weapons and generate wealth for few. Instead the need now was to create a regenerative economy that does not exploit resources but renews it using technology.
In that world, Sam said, the old norms of measuring success like GDP, GNP, Trade Balance or Per Capita Income would become irrelevant.
Would we then use measures like Net Innovation Index, National Happiness or Hunger Score to figure out where we stood?
“I don’t have all the answers, but we need to start this conversation. And it will start from India and not China,” says Satyanarayan Gangaram Pitroda a.k.a Sam Pitroda, the son of a poor villager in Odisha, who has over 100 patents in his name. He was ready to start this conversation to change. No other country, but India, understood the true value of human emotions of universal love, of non-violence that is hardcoded in our DNA for thousands of years, he added.
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