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Jack Hidary, founder and chairman at Samba Energy.
Jack Hidary, founder and chairman at Samba Energy.

It is critical for India to gain a foothold in artificial intelligence: Jack Hidary

Hidary, senior adviser at Google X Labs, on technology trends he sees and how India can be a moonshot nation

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). He is also 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.

Jack HidaryHidary is a tech and financial entrepreneur who lives in New York. He is the chairman of Samba Energy and was the co-founder of EarthWeb (renamed Dice) and Vista Research. He also co-founded the Auto X Prize and was one of the architects of the Cash for Clunkers program-me. He has been a vocal propon-ent of renewable energy and an expert in transportation techno-logy and policy. He studied philosophy and neuroscience at Columbia University and was awarded a Stanley Fellowship in clinical neuroscience at the National Institutes of Health.

In an email interview, Hidary—who is a keynote speaker at the two-day EmTech India 2016 event to be held in New Delhi on 18 March—spoke about the technology trends he sees, and how India can be a moonshot nation. Edited excerpts:

The Internet has changed since you sold EarthWeb, a firm you co-founded. Can you highlight a few important technology trends that are defining today’s Internet?

Human capital is still the critical factor for growth in the IT sector. Capital is plentiful, but IT talent is not. There is a global shortage of IT professionals. Mobile, big data and other key trends have driven this demand-supply imbalance to greater heights. In India, today, there is a shortage of trained professionals both for the big IT service companies and for the start-ups.

Other trends include the doubling of the Net. The Internet will double from 3 billion to 6 billion users within the next five years. This sounds incredible considering it took 40 years to get to 3 billion users, but this non-linear trend has now taken hold—look at the low price of Android smartphones in India as an example—well under 1,000 for some new models.

Faster access with 4G and then 5G will also enable new kinds of e-commerce and online media. India is a nation of small businesses and soon most of them will be using mobile tech to advance their companies.

Then, there is artificial intelligence (AI) that has been around for decades. But now with faster compute, better algorithms and bigger data sets to train, AI is taking a new leap forward. Expect to see AI helping to drive all sectors of our economy from robotic manufacturing, to self-driving cars, to advanced medicine. AI programming skills are and will be in high demand.

We are also about to see technology have a huge impact on very traditional sectors such as auto manufacturing, healthcare and banking. The wave has started, but it will pick up pace quickly. Sectors once thought immune to technology, such as the construction industry, will soon see great change. Many traditional companies will lose their footing as the waves rush in.

What should India do to become a moonshot nation?

India has great potential to leapfrog western nations. Instead of trudging through decades of old-school development with old systems for energy, infrastructure, transportation and healthcare, India can skip to the front of the line by drawing upon new distributed models that will give it a more resilient and decentralized economy. India can think big right now to bring connectivity and energy to all its citizens, but doing so in a way to preserve its key natural resources and the health of its people. If India ignores its environment, as other countries have done, then the population will literally choke in the cities before being able to grow further.

Second, let’s work with the schools across India at both the secondary and university levels to bring moonshot thinking into the classrooms. Young people are the future and we should not squelch their creativity with rote learning. Instead, when we share the incredible power of exponential technologies and the potential of India to leapfrog other countries, we will inspire them to come up with moonshot solutions to the grand challenges.

Do you feel that India, with almost 300 sunny days, is doing enough to harness the potential of solar technology?

Prime Minister Modi has made a good start as have some of the Indian states, but so much more can be done. India has one of the lowest costs on a per watt basis to install solar technology. India can create hundreds of thousands of jobs and power tens of millions of homes with solar power along with battery storage if it scales this sector.

You earlier said that India needs more start-ups that deal with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. How should India go about developing skills for this task?

AI is on the move. We will see AIs developed for many specific tasks, such as monitoring an ill patient in hospital for signs of certain urgent conditions, or sorting through mounds of transaction data of a large retailer to better compete in the market. But we will now begin to see AIs helping us create the next generation of AIs. We will begin to see AIs with more general purpose problem-solving capabilities. Not just AIs that can beat humans in chess and go, but AIs that can help us diagnose a wide range of diseases and AIs that can predict such complex phenomenon as earthquakes and natural disasters in ways that will save thousands of lives.

India has tremendous tech talent, but has not yet focused on AI in a big way. It is critical for India to gain a key foothold in this field if it wishes to compete on the world stage of innovation. India has the talent and drive to harness AI for the benefit of society, but must make a concerted effort to train a much wider set of techies and scientists in AI and then support start-ups and incubators dedicated to this field. India will also have to contend with cheaper and cheaper automation tools for manufacturing as other countries develop these tools. What will India do with the prospect of millions of people losing their manufacturing jobs to automation? This calls for nothing less than an educational moonshot.

Tell us a bit about your company, Samba Energy. Why did you feel the need to open an office in India?

Samba Energy installs clean-energy solutions including battery storage of energy for buildings. Samba integrates many technologies into its solutions including solar, LED lights and battery storage to give a building energy certainty and lower cost of operation. Samba is entering India with local partners so that it can contribute to the great potential for battery storage in particular in the India market. The Indian grid is unreliable in many parts and battery storage can give hospitals, hotels, office complexes and apartment buildings the reliability they need to operate in a cleaner way than using diesel.

What was your role as a founding member of the Clinton Global Initiative?

I was honoured to be one of the many people to support the president as he launched this critical program. CGI has now impacted so many sectors including clean water, reliable energy and education. I have attended every CGI since the launch since it is such as great way to make a commitment with partners and see that commitment through to reality.

You also serve on the board of the X Prize Foundation. How do you find time to handle, and do justice to, so many responsibilities?

First, I have a great team of people who work with me. Second, we use a lot of fast, nimble tools such as cloud-based services and productivity apps that save us a lot of time and increase collaboration. Third, everything we do is related to innovation, so even though there is a lot going on, it all comes back to the core principle of inventing the future. X Prize, in particular, is a great organization that is now launching its programmes in India. X Prize will challenge all of us to think even bigger and deliver moonshot solutions to our grandest of challenges.

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