Indian entrepreneurs should use tech for humanity rather than just for profit
You can be sure that governments and investors are funding the most profitable and malicious uses of technologies. That is why it is so important to teach India’s entrepreneurs about the advances and to inspire, motivate, and support their efforts.
Learn all you can from the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley but don’t become like them. This was my advice to a group of 91 students who are visiting here on a programme sponsored by Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje. In a talk I gave this weekend, I encouraged them to take home the Valley’s optimism and culture of openness and information sharing — but not its greed and obsession with making money.
I also explained the advantage they have over the people they are meeting: an understanding of the true problems of humanity. This is what gives these students the ability to solve these.
Living here in California, surrounded by beautiful state parks, being close to mountains and the ocean, and having incredible comforts and luxuries, it is easy for entrepreneurs and investors to forget the realities of the world. People here cannot comprehend the hunger, misery, disease, and suffering faced by the majority of people on this planet. That is why the vast majority of the billions of dollars that are invested every year by venture capitalists go to silly apps and other equally meaningless, mindless projects.
Social entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility are foreign concepts in Silicon Valley for the same reasons.
I told the budding entrepreneurs that they have opportunities that their parents could not even have imagined. They can literally build the Star Trek future that we have dreamed about, taking humanity from eons of scarcity to an era of abundance, to a world in which we worry more about sharing prosperity than fighting each other over what little we have. This period in human history is unique, because now entrepreneurs can do what only governments and big companies could do before.
With the advances in computers, which keep getting faster and smaller, the smartphones we carry in our pockets are many times more powerful than the Cray supercomputers of the 70s and 80s were. Those were only for scientific research and defence—and cost in the tens of millions of dollars. Our phones also have advanced sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes, more accurate than those in old nuclear missiles, and cameras with higher resolution than what spy satellites had.
Artificial Intelligence has advanced to the point that it can analyse large amounts of data and help improve decision-making in every sector from agriculture to finance to transportation. The same tools used by engineers at Google and Microsoft—and government research labs—are available to startups everywhere. These can be downloaded for free on the web and mastered by watching YouTube videos.
Robots are already beginning to do the jobs of humans in manufacturing plants, in grocery stores, in pharmacies, driving cars, and making deliveries. The humanoids of science fiction are also becoming a reality. The actuators and sensors necessary to build robots that resemble Rosie from the TV series The Jetsons or C-3PO from Star Wars are commonly available and inexpensive. AI will soon take a few more leaps forward and provide these the capability of acting intelligently—just like what we imagined.
There is no reason that Rosie, or Ritu the Robot, can’t originate from Jaipur—and speak Hindi or Marwari.
Using CRISPR, a new gene-editing system derived from bacteria that enables scientists to edit the DNA of living organisms, it is becoming possible to eradicate hereditary diseases, revive extinct species such as the woolly mammoth, and design plants that are far more nutritious, hardy and delicious than what we have now. Imagine banana and mango plants that thrive in the desert of Rajasthan. These may, one day, be a reality. This is all terrifying and amazing at the same time and relatively inexpensive to do by anyone, anywhere, using the tools.
These are just a few examples of what new technologies are enabling. In the next decade, we will also be 3D printing household goods, entire buildings, electronic circuits, and even our food. We will be designing new organisms that improve agriculture and clean up the environment. We will be delivering our goods—and perhaps be transporting ourselves—by drone. We can also build futuristic cities, which use only renewable energies, are clean and self-sustaining, and provide incredible comforts.
Amazing and good things really are possible. Yet, the same technologies can create dystopia, with large-scale destruction, spying, pandemics, and other unimaginable horrors. Many social and ethical dilemmas lie ahead.
You can be sure that governments and investors are funding the most profitable and malicious uses of technologies. That is why it is so important to teach India’s entrepreneurs about the advances and to inspire, motivate, and support their efforts. They will surely put technologies to their best uses and do this out of concern for humanity rather than just an intention to make profits.
Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon University at Silicon Valley. His forthcoming book, Your Happiness Was Hacked, explains how you how you can live a more balanced technology life.
The views expressed are personal