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Big Blue’s big bet

As part of its first $100-million technology gamble outside the US, the world’s largest infotech company is trying to build a parallel Web for voice. If it cracks India’s huge market, the world is waiting. Samanth Subramanian writes.

delhi Updated: Jul 01, 2010 22:58 IST
Samanth Subramanian

The call sounds unremarkable enough at first. The number dialled is a regulation 10 digits, tinny music bursts out in welcome, and a menu materialises: Press 1 for questions, 2 for announcements, 3 for archives.

Thus far, no different from any other automated voice response call. The first question after pressing 1 is a hint of something new. A farmer named Jaikishan has called in to set out his worries about Bt Cotton.

Jaikishan has precisely one minute to state his concerns. Later, dialling into the same number, he can see if an agriculture expert or even another farmer has answered his questions.

Other farmers can browse through these questions and answers; they can scroll through the announcements and upload their own. In a more elaborate version, users can create a “voice site” with a unique URL-type number and link it to other voice sites.

In the future, they may even be able to search for specific information and navigate back and forth between voice sites. All of which begins to expand the plain-vanilla voice response system into something more delicious: an alternative, Internet-like Web. This pilot, still running for farmers in 20 villages of Gujarat, is the second to test-drive Spoken Web, IBM India Ltd’s plan to create a parallel Web driven by voice and accessed by phone.

The first pilot, then called VoiGEN, was launched in Andhra Pradesh in 2008. It ran for eight months and more than 7,000 people — not just farmers — used it to make around 110,000 calls. Parents recorded babies’ voices so relatives could dial in to listen; some sang songs; electricians and plumbers publicised their services.

Most memorably, remembers Amit Nanavati, a senior researcher at IBM, when one man put up a matrimonial advertisement for himself, “somebody responded, warning everybody that the guy was a crook”.

A question of scale

That success was, in a way, a proof-of-concept. To hear IBM tell it, a Spoken Web seems now to be almost inevitable, and discussions for commercial uses of such a Web have already begun.

“In India, Internet penetration is really low, but mobile phone penetration is growing very rapidly,” says Sougata Mukherjea, a senior manager working on Spoken Web.

Internet reaches fewer than 7 per cent of Indians; mobile phones reach 55.4 per cent. “It’s just a question of using those scales.”

Like a benevolent virus, that word “scale” infects nearly every innovation unfolding in IBM’s research labs in India. It’s a recognition of how to use a daunting challenge — in this case, the sheer numbers involved in any enterprise in India — to build a robustness that can then function with ease anywhere in the world.

Manish Gupta, director of IBM Research-India, is an IBM research veteran. He joined the New York lab after completing his Ph.D. in 1992, and has worked, among other projects, for five years on the Blue Gene team — tasked with building what was then the fastest supercomputer.

Gupta returned to India two years ago, and took over as director of Indian labs in February. Under his purview are the facility in New Delhi, operating since 1998, a five-year-old centre in Bangalore, and a collaboration with the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad, established last year.

“Just last week,” Gupta says, “I invited every employee to submit the most audacious ideas they had and I promised to fund the most adventurous one.”

Calibrated audacity

The open invitation is inspired by an annual practice at IBM’s Almaden research lab in California, and is symbolic of the company’s methodical approach to innovation. Even audacity is carefully calibrated. Projects go into a “portfolio of horizons” — some near-term, lasting a year or less; some middle-term; and a few long-term, lasting five years or more. Some of the latter are termed, in IBM lexicon, “Big Bets” — projects with an investment of the order of $100 million over five years. “They have a low probability of success,” says Gupta, “but a high payoff if they do succeed.”

The Mobile Web framework, of which Spoken Web is a part, has become the first Big Bet to be led by an IBM research lab outside the US. It made sense to drive a mobile telephony project from outside the West, says Gopal Pingali, who now heads the collaboration with ISB but worked on Mobile Web when it started in 2008.

“Besides, we’d already pioneered Spoken Web by then, so this fit right in.”

Not every innovative project is as adventurous as Spoken Web. But they all latch on to the dizzying scale of doing business in India.

SNAzzy, an analysis tool, maps patterns in cellular networks, telling telecom companies about the behaviour of millions of customers, which proves invaluable in designing subscriber packages or offers.

Clean, another tool, works across databases to regularise information — something that is especially pertinent to India, says Gupta.

Previous such tools, developed abroad, performed poorly when they applied their 2,000-odd rules to Indian information. Clean patiently prioritises those rules and applies them hierarchically for far better results; IBM will merely reveal that accuracy levels went “from fairly low to fairly high.”

Finding traction

These products, however, have obvious applications and, therefore, a ready pool of customers; a project like Spoken Web is far more nebulous. Its adoption will not just depend on how well IBM engineers it, but also on how willing people are to populate it with voice content and use it effectively. IBM has no control over that.

Gupta mentions that if Spoken Web finds traction in India, it could translate well into South America or Africa, where the statistics of Internet and mobile phone penetration are comparable. But to find that traction, Spoken Web will have to become more flexible, including exactly the sort of functions that IBM’s scientists are struggling to build: a voice-controlled browser, for instance, or a robust search mechanism.

It isn’t easy, Mukherjea and Nanavati admit; search, in particular, is proving to be a difficult problem to crack. But Spoken Web is, for IBM, a rare project that puts its scientists into direct contact with large swathes of lay users, and that in itself is proving to be substantial inspiration.

“We got dozens of messages from the users of Spoken Web in the Andhra Pradesh pilot, saying: ‘Thanks for this. We’ve never seen anything like it’,” Nanavati remembers. “I’d get goosebumps just listening to them.”

Every Friday, this series chronicles technological innovation and India’s rise as a global R&D hub. Read previous stories at www.hindustantimes.com/innovation