India has always been a very important market for Google Inc. This is evident from the India-centric products and initiatives, as well as the latest artificial intelligence (AI) research lab it has set up in Bengaluru. In an interview, Anand Rangarajan, the engineering director at Google who heads the Bengaluru development centre, talks about Google’s localization of products, the AI lab, and its collaboration with the startup ecosystem. Edited excerpts:

Can you talk about some of the new India-centric products and initiatives, made for India, by India?

While there is plenty of innovation in India in the education space, the majority of product innovations and tools for learning are currently targeted at the urban and semi-urban population. Access to quality education for the kids in their foundational years in rural India, remains a big challenge, and that’s exactly what our teams at Google took on with Bolo, the speech-based reading app. Bolo uses Google’s existing speech recognition and text-to-speech technology that powers the Google Assistant, to serve as a personalised reading tutor for kids, and works even when completely offline. Since its launch in India, we have now expanded the product to more developing economies. Other examples of India-centric products include – Two wheeler mode in Maps, Files by Google, which is used by over 100 million users across the world, as well as Gstation which was built and launched in India first and is now present across four continents and over 5,000 venues in eight countries.

Google recently announced setting up of an AI Research Lab in Bengaluru. What’s the progress on this and what’s the kind of AI-related work that is being done out of this lab?

Google Research India is our newest AI lab based in Bengaluru. It is part of Google’s global network of researchers who will have the benefit of connecting with other leading AI researchers around the world, attending conferences, publishing papers, and helping advance the state of this incredibly exciting field. The team here will focus on two pillars: first, advancing fundamental computer science and AI research by building a strong team and partnering with the research community across the country. Second, applying this research to tackle big problems in fields like healthcare, agriculture, and education, while also using it to make apps and services used by billions of people, more helpful. The AI lab will primarily be operating in the fields of machine learning, computer vision, languages, speech, systems, and other related areas. We believe that India will play a central role in the future development of AI, and there is tremendous potential here to drive societal impact through fundamental research.

Google Assistant currently supports nine Indian languages. What is its current user base in India and are you planning to increase the support to more languages?

The Google Assistant enables people to simply speak to Google, helping them get things done in their world. We won’t be able to break out usage numbers by region, but we are certainly excited to see the kind of traction that the Google Assistant is witnessing in India. Hindi is the second-most used language globally, after English, and there has been a 5x growth in Hindi users on the Assistant since last year. We are always working to bring our products to more languages, and want to make the experience more helpful; one that feels personal to every user.

Google Pay seems to be a popular choice for online payments in India but security remains a concern. How are you planning to address this?

Google Pay has been built upon the best of Google’s security infrastructure and I can assure that there have been no breaches. What you are reading about are social engineering frauds where the users are falling prey to scamsters and sharing their UPI PIN, OTPs etc. As it is true for all Google products, we have in-built fraud protection on GPay as well which includes features like enhanced fraud protections with SafetyNet. Beyond the ‘one device - one account’ safeguards offered by UPI, Google Pay is secured with advanced fraud models and backed by Google’s authentication platform. This ensures world-class protections against fraud attacks, and faster identification and suspension of fraudsters.

How are you leveraging the startup ecosystem in India to co-innovate and co-create solutions?

At Google, we have been investing in partnering with the Indian startups on their journey to build solutions for many complex challenges across core sectors of the Indian economy such as social, agriculture, healthcare, and others. Our efforts under the umbrella of ‘Google for Startups’ is geared towards helping Indian startups address ambitious market challenges and build and scale their products to deliver for India, but also have the ability to scale to global markets. We are bringing our expertise in AI and ML (machine learning) to help Indian startups get access to the latest technology, mentorship, and support needed to succeed in their goals. Our programs like Launchpad Accelerator are designed to help entrepreneurs and their teams overcome challenges as they look to improve their products, drive adoption, and identify the right product-market fit.

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