By Vivek Wadhwa
The following article was first published on May 12, 2014, in the Washington Post. Though we don’t share the author’s unalloyed optimism about the potential of technology, we’re reprinting the piece here as it represents an important emerging perspective on economic development in the subcontinent.
Indians are fed up with government inaction and corruption. They want accountability, better education for their children, improved health care, and economic prosperity. And they want change now. Technology-led solutions may be the only way for India’s new government to rapidly uplift its population. Large-scale government programs and social welfare will take too long. Here are seven ways technology can help:
1. Smartphones: A great equalizer
Note how mobile phones transformed India within a decade: from being objects of luxury, they became a basic necessity. Landlines were once scarce, and phone service was unreliable and unaffordable. Now, India has amongst the best and cheapest phone connections in the world and has a billion cellphones.
Tremendous possibilities are opening up as cellphones evolve into smartphones — and as tablet computers become as cheap as cell phones. Most of India now has affordable 3G or 4G data connections. This means that India’s masses will soon have access to the same tools and knowledge as the elite of Silicon Valley: they can watch YouTube videos, visit Web sites, download apps, connect to sensor-based devices, and can network with people from all over the world. They can crowdsource solutions to problems and accelerate social change.
2. A path toward bureaucratic transparency
Corruption has eroded India’s fabric, and can be eradicated only from the ground up. India spends tens of billions of dollars every year on social programs, but most of this is siphoned off. The key to eliminating corruption is to automate procurement processes, cut out the middlemen; reduce bureaucracy; and eliminate the information gap between the government and public.
To facilitate the recording and reporting of corruption, there need to be government-supported, but privately managed, Websites such as Ipaidabribe.com as well as smartphone apps. E-governance needs to be implemented across the board, both national and at a state level. All government tenders and procurement, budget reporting, and status monitoring need to be transparent, the data being immediately available to the public via the Internet. Data-analytics technologies, such as those being developed by Calcutta-based Quantta, can be used to monitor public data and to independently report on corruption and abuse.
3. A health care revolution
India lacks knowledge of disease prevention and cure. But an ocean of such information is freely available on the Internet. Using smartphones or Internet-connected tablets, anyone can read about the latest medical advances, visit online health-discussion forums, and learn from others who have the same symptoms and provide each other with support. Villagers in remote parts of India can seek help from doctors anywhere in the world via two-way video and e-mail.
Over the last few years, sensor devices that can monitor things such as movement, temperature, humidity, gas, and pressure have increased exponentially in capability and fallen dramatically in price—and in size. There have been similar advances in micro- and nanofluidics, which use small computer chips to test for disease.
Smartphones already contain a wide assortment of sensors, including an accelerometer, GPS, and a high-definition camera. These can be connected to external sensors to record electrocardiograms and measure blood pressure, blood glucose, blood oxygen, and breathing. The Public Health Foundation of India, for example, has built a device that can perform 33 diagnostic procedures, including measurements of blood pressure, sugar, and hemoglobin; ECGs; and tests for pregnancy, dengue, and malaria. The device retails for $600, but in high volumes can be produced for less than $100.
This means that even the poorest communities can gain access to sophisticated medical care.
4. Fix education: A laptop and digital tutor for every child
Tens of millions of children in India receive substandard education or none at all. It will take years to train new teachers and build schools, and an entire generation will be left out. The only practical solution is to roll out digital tutors with the help of NGOs so that communities can uplift themselves.
To transform its education system, Uruguay started an ambitious project in 2008 to give a laptop to every child. According to Miguel Brechner, who heads this program, it has turned a privilege — Internet access and a computer — into a right. It has enabled every child to get a basic education — even in regions where teachers are in scarce supply. Children across Uruguay have become computer literate and are teaching their parents. They are writing computer code and creating apps. This is what could happen in India — and could leap even further forward.
India’s $35 tablet, Aakash, had a rocky start, but led to the production of inexpensive tablets that are being used today even by children in Silicon Valley. These tablets were first tested by students in the elite Palo Alto High School and then given away in two hackathons to poor children. Newer generations of them, with the same specs as the original iPad, can be produced in high volumes in India for less than $50, according to Datawind, the maker of the original Aakash tablets. Prices will continue to fall, capabilities will increase, and there will be many suppliers.
There are thousands of apps available today that can teach subjects such as history, geography, music, mathematics, and science. Adaptive learning platforms will tailor the learning path to the needs of the student. For example, if a child likes reading books, the digital tutor can teach mathematics and science in a traditional way. If that doesn’t work, the tutor can try videos. If that’s too boring, it can switch to games or puzzles. The digital tutor of the future will take students into holographic simulations to teach history, culture, and geography. It will provide equally good education to all children, rich and poor.
5. Clean up water sanitation
The leading causes of disease in India and the developing world are waterborne viruses. Affluent Indians spend billions of dollars annually on bottled water, but this isn’t always safe. A technology from Chile could help solve this problem. The Advanced Innovation Center (AIC) has developed a system that converts water into a plasma state through a high-intensity electrical field and eliminates microbiological content through electroporation, oxidation, ionization, UV and IR radiation, and shockwaves. It was tested in a Santiago slum in mid-2011 and has worked flawlessly ever since. After visiting Chile and seeing this in operation, I had AIC founder Alfredo Zolezzi bring the technology to the United States. It was tested for conformance to EPA guidelines by the leading U.S. authority, NSF International. It broke the scale and exceeded NSF’s highest standards. It killed 100 percent of all bacteria and viruses in the 24 heavily tainted samples that NSF tested.
Village-sized units of the plasma-based water-sanitization technology—which consume less energy than a hairdryer—will cost around $500 when mass produced. This technology is being rolled out in South America later this year and could also be brought to India. Where there is no electricity infrastructure, it can be powered by diesel generators or solar cells.
6. Agricultural automation, believe in it!
There are also great possibilities in agriculture. Sensors can be used to monitor soil humidity and optimize watering. Aquaculture can be optimized with on-farm diagnostic technologies. Dairy and farm production can be automated through CRM-like systems.
7. Let’s harness the impressive talents of the young
Schoolchildren should be provided with 3D printers, robot-building kits, and sensor components. They can be building robots that automate manufacturing; designing innovative new consumer products; and customizing 3D designs for global consumers. They can be developing sensor-based systems for diverse industries; smart-city technologies; and new home-monitoring and -automation systems.
There is nothing to prevent India’s entrepreneurs from taking the lead in developing products for India—and the world—that are as innovative as those from Silicon Valley. The playing field has leveled, and the same technology advances that are propelling American innovation are available to India. The incoming government has to give priority to removing the obstacles and to providing the technology infrastructure to let India reinvent itself.
Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke’s engineering school and distinguished scholar at Singularity and Emory universities. His past appointments include Harvard Law School and University of California Berkeley.