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On 25 May 1961, something special happened. President John F. Kennedy addressed a special session of Congress that the US planned to put people on the Moon and return them safely to Earth before the decade’s end.

Eight years after Kennedy’s initial so-called moonshot challenge, two American astronauts took the famous “one giant leap for mankind"—walking on the Moon for the first time. However, the bigger impact of that moonshot was the resultant building of a massive military and industrial innovation complex that propelled the US to the top of the industrial economy. The industrial economy, in simple terms, grew by selling excess production from one place to another by connected pathways.

By 1975, the industrial economy was at its peak, with more than 1 billion places connected by rail, road and airways dominated by multinational companies born in the US, selling technology developed during the moonshot.

The other spinoff of this moonshot was ARPANET, kicked off in 1966, which eventually became the internet. The internet gave rise to the knowledge economy driven by connecting people via the world wide web. One of the other offshoots of this moonshot was a technology named GPS, which is now powering at home pizza delivery to rental cabs via location-driven business models.

The world slowly witnessed the rise of the knowledge economy powered by massive information networks driven by connected human beings exploiting the knowledge deficits across nations and companies. India, too profited from this knowledge economy race by leveraging its talented workforce and grew companies such as Tata Consultancy Services Ltd, Infosys Ltd and Wipro Ltd.

The next 15 years are going to be critical for India’s growth story. We will have an opportunity to combine demographic dividend with artificial intelligence (AI)-driven hyper-innovation, in which 50 billion smart things (machines and devices) will combine with billions of connected humans. Unlike previous innovation cycles, the AI wave is different in which rapid technology innovation (combination of AI, Robotics, 5G and Quantum technologies) will occur together with business model innovation (digital intangibles-driven experience economy).

A case in point is Alexa, which promises to create the experience of owning an intelligent assistant that will provide a personalized digital experience in anything they do—shop, travel, eat, watch movies, etc. Global stock markets are seeing this shift very clearly. This is accelerating rapidly post-covid, with 90% of the perceived value being in digital intangibles—a case in point being the top 5 tech stocks amassing almost $8 trillion in market value.

For India to play a massive role in this upcoming ecosystem, we need to launch ambitious technology moonshots, which will create the innovation ecosystem necessary to dominate the experience economy. Else, China, with its almost-ready experience economy ecosystem, will grab half of the estimated $15.7 trillion of new economic value this AI-driven experience economy might provide.

Therefore, the time is here to devise the next moonshot rooted in our context and put enough capital and the government, industry, and academia’s might behind to help it succeed. For example, India could link the unconnected by creating 100,000 smart village clusters by digital and physical (aerial) connectivity through autonomous drones.

However, it might take 8-10 more years to reach there; the journey towards the next goal is critical because this journey will transform into a more experience-based economy that must be planned in advance and carefully. We can break these moonshots into achievable expeditions in 3-, 5- and 10-year horizon goals like the original moonshots.

It’s important that governments, stakeholders, startups, and industries in this space come together to plan and roll out these ambitious technology moonshots to help create a tomorrow that was dreamt by our freedom fighters at the dawn of 15 August 1947. Like JFK on that day, as a nation, we need to commit to the technology moonshot, things that will not bring incremental change but promise a 10x outcome. That would be a true “Azadi ka amrut mahotsav".

Umakant Soni is chief executive officer of the AI and Robotics Technology Park (ARTPARK) and co-founder of AI foundry.

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