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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  India must focus on research to be able to lead the AI revolution

Every few decades, technological changes upend the environment and relative positions of contestants, be it in the field of business or warfare. For instance, technology advanced from fighting on foot, to mounted calvary, then to weaponised platforms like chariots. Its naval equivalent was progress from human rowed fast canoes carrying armed warriors to armadas consisting of scores of ships with massive sails and cannons. Internal combustion engines made it possible to create faster and powerful platforms like intercontinental bombers. Jet engines opened the final frontier of space and computers ushered in cyberwarfare. Progress in nuclear, biological and chemical technology made everything exponentially powerful and lethal.

Since businesses harness the same technologies, they encounter similar orbit shifts mirroring the advancements in warfare. So, whether it was merchant caravans plying the silk road, trading flotillas connecting the world’s supply chain, airlines contracting the globe or even plans to inhabit Mars, all are driven by the same technological orbit shifts. The key, however, is that within the technolgical shifts lie opportunities which change the fate of nations.

The world witnessed such an orbit shift at the end of the second world war. Every major power including Germany, realised the game changing capability of nuclear weapons and raced to tame the atom. The US, however, beat the world to it and resoundingly ended the war by pulverising Japan into surrender. Its triumph was not attributable just to the possession of superior scientific knowledge or a scarcity of talented scientists in other nations. Rather, it was the absence of a conducive structural framework that hindered other nations from capitalizing on the pivotal turning point. In stark contrast, the US had astutely established five fundamental pillars to seize the opportunities.

It was the first to discern and react to what was then a weak signal. Hitler was obsessed with fantastical weapons projects and in late 1930s, nuclear bombs were still a fantasy. However, Einstein’s letter to president Roosevelt about using nuclear power as a weapon alerted US leadership to an impending technological shift and Project Manhattan was sanctioned immediately.

Second, while the rest of the major powers were ravaged by the two world wars, the relatively unaffected US was able to leverage its economic and industrial strength to channel resources into research and development. They were (and still are) able to buy the best when it comes to innovation.

Third, the US had a robust, intellectually independent and iconoclastic education system that encouraged its students to challenge dogma. Despite prevailing racial discrimination, Project Manhattan not only had immigrants from several nations including Germany, but also women, including African American and Chinese. It had the strongest scientific temperament and diverse talent base as it systematically created an environment to attract them.

Fourthly, the US leveraged national capacity by unifying the military, scientists, academia and the private sector into a singular purpose. Despite having the resources and scientists, the Soviet Union was unable to foster similar creativity because of their dictatorial culture and lack of entrepreneurial talent or decentralised innovation.

Lastly, the US kept national security above differences within leadership. Though Harry Truman thrust into presidency because of Roosevelt’s untimely death, he was unaware of the Manhattan Project, but took up the baton and was the one who pressed the button.

The Soviet Union took almost half a decade to catch up in nuclear capability, relying more on espionage (two of the Soviet moles were scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project). Despite US assistance, UK took almost 10 years and France 15. China and India attained the milestone two and three decades later, respectively.

This combination of the brightest talent, scientific temperament, audacious venture capital with structured and sustained government support ensured US dominance in virtually all technologies where it continues to hold the pole position in the value chain. The orbit shift of artificial intelligence offers the potential to change that.

To seize this potential, India must adopt an integrated approach that focuses on intellectual property creation. This entails investing in research and development to produce cutting-edge algorithmic tools rather than skilling schools teaching usage of such tools. India possesses one of the world’s largest, most diverse and richest sets of data points—which are like seeds to a data farm. We also hold the key to one of the richest growth markets in the world. Insights into it can have applications in fields as diverse as public health and nutrition, preventing resource wastage, genetic research and countless others.

Despite having some of the best minds, India missed fully exploiting the information technology and subsequent technological revolutions like in robotics and chip research. If we miss this one too, we will be left drawing surrogate pride from Indian origin foreign citizens helming companies and creating value for those countries while we work on hourly wages.

Raghu Raman is former CEO of the National Intelligence Grid, distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation and author of Everyman’s War.

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Updated: 30 May 2023, 12:15 AM IST
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