Leveraging new technologies for development

Vikram Sarabhai’s vision exemplifies India’s ability to leapfrog technological generations, learning from global advancements and avoiding their pitfalls, particularly in data technology, healthcare, and urban mobility. It should give us the confidence to shake of path dependence and try new innovative solutions to modern problems.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

Vikram Sarabhai was born with a silver spoon. As the son of industrialist Ambalal Sarabhai, he could have done anything he wanted with his life. But, instead of becoming the businessman everyone expected, he chose the path of science. He earned a degree from Cambridge, studied under the legendary C.V. Raman and had already set up the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad before embarking on an audacious plan to set up a rocket launch facility in India.

His initial justification for this project was to be part of a global scientific effort to better understand the magnetic equator—the imaginary line around the earth where its magnetic field becomes horizontal. This research was of significant strategic importance because the equatorial electrojet—a narrow ribbon of current that flows eastwards through the ionosphere — runs directly above the magnetic equator, affecting worldwide radio communication. The only way to understand this phenomenon was by sending up “sounding rockets" from launch sites located on the magnetic equator. It was to support this scientific mission that India established its first rocket launch station at Thumba in Kerala, and, as a result, earned early entry into the club of space nations.

Though his stated objective was scientific, Sarabhai had far bigger ambitions than he let on. Even in those early days, he was convinced that if India could launch a network of broadcast satellites capable of carrying television signals to remote villages, we would leapfrog the expensive investments in terrestrial networks that other countries had made. More importantly, he intuitively realized that satellite communication was the future and India needed to establish its own network of satellites if it wanted to ensure that it remained independent of the largesse of other nations.

This was how we came to build the satellite network that is currently the nervous system of the Indian economy. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first example of India consciously skipping over a generation of technological evolution to its advantage. It would not be the last. When the cost of extending our land-based communication network into the rural hinterland of our country proved to be too prohibitive, we embraced mobile communications. Today, as a result, nearly every person in the country has a mobile phone. The dividends we have reaped from this, not just in improving the reach and ease of communications but also in the commercial benefits that reliable and ubiquitous connectivity have brought to the economy, are well documented.

It is not always possible, given the size of our population and the scale of our geographical, cultural and economic diversity, for us to lead the world in large-scale technology innovation. More often than not, we lag behind other countries in our deployment of new technologies. Some view this as a failing. I think it is an advantage. It means we can use the rest of the world as our sandbox, observing the missteps they make and avoiding them when we deploy these technologies ourselves.

We now know that if there is bias inherent in the training data that machine-learning algorithms use, the output could be compromised. As we begin to rely more and more on data technologies in India, we have the opportunity to engineer around this, avoiding the mistakes that have plagued their use in other countries. When we use technologies like predictive policing and criminal sentencing we should be mindful of these issues and eliminate them in the Indian context. As we use artificial intelligence to sift through job applications or to qualify candidates for financial assistance we should be cognizant of the fact that the suggestions these algorithms make are likely to be tainted by the fallible human decisions it has learned from.

More importantly, this should give us the confidence to shake off the path of dependence we often fall victim to while charting out the policies that affect the long-term trajectory of various sectors of the economy. We know from the experience of countries that have used electronic medical records systems for decades that it is near impossible to get proprietary databases to talk to one another. As we promote the use of data technologies in our healthcare ecosystem, we should carefully design them to use a common taxonomy so that even if the data itself remains federated, it is capable of being accessed interoperably.

The growth of the ride-sharing industry has resulted in a general shift away from automobile ownership in the US and Europe. This is a trend that will have a different impact on countries where 60% of the population owns cars, as compared to India, where automobile ownership is 5%, according to the 2011 census . To me, this is a huge opportunity. It means we have the flexibility to design urban mobility solutions differently, simply because we are uniquely positioned to leapfrog ownership completely. Our regulations can promote shared mobility in a way that countries saddled with the baggage of decades of aggressive car ownership can never hope to achieve. As a result, we will be able to leverage new technologies like electric and autonomous transportation without fighting vested interests that other governments have to deal with.

For this we need to realize that we need regulations that address the future rather than being based on the way things have always been.