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Hidary says one of the biggest opportunities that he sees in India is to launch more start-ups that deal with artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Hidary says one of the biggest opportunities that he sees in India is to launch more start-ups that deal with artificial intelligence and machine learning.

India is a moonshot nation, says Google X Labs’ Jack Hidary

The technology and financial entrepreneur on driverless cars, hackathons and Narendra Modi's moonshot ideas

Technology and financial entrepreneur Jack Hidary is a senior adviser at Google X Labs and also founder and chairman of US-based Samba Energy, a marketplace for commercial solar projects and financing. In 1995, Hidary co-founded EarthWeb, a company dedicated to the needs of tech professionals, and sold it in 2005. (Renamed Dice.com, it is now a DHI Group Inc. company). A founding member of the Clinton Global Initiative and also serving on the boards of the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) and the X Prize Foundation, Hidary, in an interview in Mumbai on Wednesday, discussed his advisory role at Google X Labs and why India needs more start-ups that deal with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. He also shared his thoughts on why he believes that Mahatma Gandhi had the first “Moonshot" (defined by Google as a radical proposal that addresses a huge problem) in India, and why Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be able to deliver some moonshots. Edited excerpts:

How are Moonshots helping Google?

I cannot speak on Google’s behalf. But in my personal capacity as an adviser, (I can say that) Google X is doing very exciting things. In general, we call them Moonshot activities. It’s very important that companies such as Google engage in Moonshot activities. They can, thus, identify new sectors that are $100 billion opportunities. This is how companies can grow and innovate. Many companies have very successful core businesses and they just stick in that one business but eventually others come and start disrupting it. So it’s very important in the new economy to ensure that you are always looking out for new opportunities that might be very large ones. And Google has the vision to do that, which is why, I believe, they set up Google X.

Give us some examples.

Driverless cars is one such example, where it is not so much about transportation at its core. Rather it’s about AI and machine learning. This is one of the key themes that is running here in India too. I think one of the biggest opportunities that I really see in India is to start more start-ups that deal with AI and machine learning. I don’t see enough of that right now. In London, for example, there are 10 plus start-ups in these fields—for eg. drone start-ups with AI and we need a lot of that kind of thing. For example, one can apply AI to e-commerce by having a recommendation engine. Or you can apply machine learning to drones for agriculture in India so that you can have self-driving drones or automated ones that are not driven by joysticks or smartphones. These drones can fertilize, seed on their own and increase agricultural productivity in this country.

Google’s self-driven car was dismissed as crazy when it was started. But, then, this is the hallmark of a moonshot. Another example is that of the Google X Makani energy kite system which does not use towers (wind power requires large towers). You can put a kite up there that simulates the tip of a wind turbine blade. Air makes the rotors rotate, driving a generator to produce electricity, which then travels down a cable. This is now a Google X project that is going to be deployed.

What’s your role as senior adviser to Google X Labs?

My focus is on Moonshot hackathons. We recently held one such hackathon with (software industry lobby group) Nasscom in Bengaluru—the first one in India and Asia—and we’ve held them in New York city and California too.

Was there much of a difference between the hackathons held here and those in the US?

A very big difference. First, when we talk about challenges such as water and energy for a billion people and access to education, in countries like the US, they sound abstract. In India, these challenges are tangible. These hackathons are also very different from tech hackathons which are all about coding. Our hackathons, which we also call Moonshot Design Sprints, are shorter than tech hackathons. We don’t solve coding issues. We try and solve the big grand challenge. My role is to lead these Moonshot hackathons. And we have a platform for this which is called “Solve for X", which Google has created to gather and scout for, and highlight Moonshot thinking. You don’t have to be an expert or an engineer. Anybody can make a video, upload it on Solve for X and say that “I want to share my Moonshot idea". It is a democratization—opening up of the Moonshot ecosystem. As an adviser, that is one of my key responsibilities.

You have said in the past that Mahatma Gandhi had a Moonshot idea.

I do believe that Gandhi was one of the early Moonshooters. He had a lot of patience when seeking Independence for India. He pulled back when he realized it was not going to happen the right way. He also recognized that when you have a Moonshot go (idea), people will initially laugh at you. That is exactly what happens with every Moonshot that we have seen in the last 10-15 years. Even the Moonshot to cross the Atlantic in an airplane, they were laughed at.

Do you see any Moonshots happening in India?

We have Team Indus (India’s only entry is Team Indus http://mintne.ws/1Qb2gP2) for the Lunar X Prize—a mission sponsored by Google to land a private rover on the moon. So that’s positive. Also consider Prime Minister Modi’s statement of having 150 Gigawatt (GW) (100 GW solar power target by 2022 and ramp it up to 150GW by 2030) of solar. This is Moonshot thinking in terms of setting a goal. I think we have to couple that with another Moonshot that the PM has not mentioned—we need distributed battery storage in every building in India, without which the first part of solar will not be successful. The idea of distributed thinking, distributed energy and distributed storage is a Moonshot idea. It’s not too late for India to avoid the mistakes of America. For instance, we designed our electric grid the wrong way in America—by centralizing it. We did not set up the Internet this way—it’s distributed node to node. You don’t hear of the Internet going down because it’s not centralized.

Is that one of the things you’re trying to do with Samba?

Yes. The idea is to build distributed storage. We did that in the US and we already have a project here in Alibaug (a coastal town and a municipal council in Raigad district of Maharashtra) to implement distributed storage. When there’s a power shortage, these distributed storage batteries suck grid electricity and thus serve continuous power when there’s no electricity. These batteries have a chip in them, a computer and an Internet connection. The batteries can take from the grid, or you can take from solar. But you need more financing (plans) combined with distributed thinking to make solar power popular in India.

You graduated in philosophy and neuroscience and have also conducted research in neuroscience. Do these areas still interest you?

The connection is very clear. I learnt distributed thinking by studying the brain. Our brain is the exact opposite of the architecture of our computers today. Can you imagine a computer that will still work if we cut it into half? The brain, on the other hand, has no internal CPU (central processing unit) like the computer. It has 80-100 billion neurons and 2-4 trillion synapses that work together in a distributed way to create the brain experience.

You believe in philanthropy (Jack D Hidary Foundation) too. What’s the vision here?

In my foundation, we are working on cancer. Traditionally, we use chemotherapy and radiation. I believe that India has the opportunity to go a new way, just as it leapfrogged America in smartphones. Why should India make the same mistakes that America made in healthcare? In the US, we have a $3-4 trillion healthcare system for 300 million people. And a lot of this money is being spent on chemotherapy and radiation which is very expensive, and doesn’t really work that well. My foundation, and other foundations, are pioneering the idea of immunal therapy, using the body’s immune system to fight cancer. We can use genomics (genetic sequencing has decreased significantly in cost and time and can now be used as a critical tool to investigate cancer).

I call India a Moonshot nation. It has the opportunities to avoid the mistakes of America. It has 300 million smartphones now. I believe the number will grow to 600 million in four years. I believe 4G is coming very quickly, more quickly than other experts think. I think on digital payments, India will go from an 87% cash economy today to 50% digital in the next seven years. All these things, combined with the opportunities in energy we discussed, make me believe that we are in a Moonshot nation.That’s encouraging to know. But before we conclude, I want to know why you made a New York mayoral run in 2013? Do you plan to run for mayor again?

We had a very good run, and got a lot of ideas out. I really ran for two reasons. One is education. I believe in America, we are too focused on rote learning and testing. But this is not helping young people for the jobs of tomorrow. What about problem solving, creative thinking and team building? And I may run again for mayor.

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