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New Delhi: Guddu, a 32-year-old belonging to a small village of Uttar Pradesh, juggles multiple jobs a day in Panchkula, near Chandigarh. An electrician, plumber and a street vendor, he often needs to exchange his phone number with his clients. When the need arises, he asks the other person to give him a missed call and saves it later with the help of others, since he cannot read or write.

Guddu represents one of those 400 million people in the country who are uneducated or barely educated, and cannot think of accessing the Internet on their own, even if they owned a smartphone or computer.

To bring people like Guddu online, the Indian government as well as the industry is looking to tap next-generation technologies, including natural language computing interfaces and voice-based operating systems.

Last week, Rajan Anandan, vice-president and managing director of Google, South East Asia and India, said that while India is expected to double its Internet user base to 700 million by 2020, bringing the last 400 million people who are illiterate will be a bigger challenge. Speaking at IAMAI’s India Digital Summit, Anandan said the industry needs to come out with innovative solutions based on technologies like natural language processing (NLP) to bring such people online.

NLP deals with interaction between computers and humans, enabling computer systems to understand human language and respond adequately.

“One thing that we have started giving a lot of thought to is that there are about 400 million people who are not illiterate and it does not matter what language their keyboard is in or what language they get their texts in," said Anandan. “That’s a very important segment and we have just started focussing on that. “

“So we (industry) are actually going to have new kinds of compute interfaces which are based on visuals and voice. I am very bullish on voice, actually," he said, adding that “the natural compute industry needs to change" to address this problem.

Meanwhile, the government has already started collaborating with companies, which are researching and innovating in this area.

In December 2015, the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (Deity) partnered with Indus OS (OSLabs Technology India Pvt. Ltd), formerly known as Firstouch, a Mumbai-based start-up which offers a regional language Android-based mobile operating system (OS).

Deity has been promoting research in the domain of Indian regional languages through its initiative, Technology Development for Indian Languages (TDIL), under which it funded research in institutes like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) to develop regional language solutions, including text-to-speech technology, which converts and translates text into voice.

Indus OS signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Deity under which TDIL agreed to transfer this technology to the company. The aim of the collaboration is to introduce native operating system in the market which has an integrated text-to-speech technology in regional languages.

The Indus OS, which was launched in May 2015 and partnered with Micromax Informatics Ltd around the same time in its current avatar, targets first-time smartphone users by simplifying the functionality of Android and providing them a regional language interface with an ability to let users read and write in 12 Indian languages. The company, which already has a user base of two million, plans to reach a 100 million mark by 2018.

The company is working on embedding text-to-speech technology with its indigenous OS, which will enable users to listen to messages as well as other content instead of having them to read.

“The first partnership is for text-to-speech technology. The research is spearheaded by IIT Madras and is a seven-year project," said Rakesh Deshmukh, chief executive, Indus OS. “This technology will be tightly integrated with the operating system."

“First we are giving it an ability to work from inside the message application. You can hear messages in English and Hindi. The second ability will be across the phone. Suppose you are in the phone browser and reading a news article. But you can’t understand the article since you do not understand English. So, using this technology, you can hear this article in Hindi," he explained. “For consumers who are not literate, they will be able to hear the content."

“We will launch it in next two months," Deshmukh said. “To take it to the next level, where it can create a bigger impact on the ecosystem, we would be launching it as SDK (software development kit), so that other developers can build applications on the top of it," he added.

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