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How tech is helping reimagine business, unlock productivity

In ‘Against All Odds’, authors argue artificial intelligence/machine learning will have the most profound impact on humankind

Inauguration of the IBM 370 at IIT Madras, in 1973. (COURTESY IIT MADRAS HERITAGE CENTRE)

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India’s tryst with computing for over six decades has placed us in a unique position of strength and at the start of the next phase in the evolution of Indian IT. We are all curious to know what comes next. Predicting the future, however, especially the future of technology, can be a tricky affair.

In the comfort of hindsight, we can wonder how they did not see something that was so obvious, but such is the power of technology to blindside and disrupt. On a lighter note, we may be closer to our mark in technology forecasts perhaps by revisiting what science fiction writers envisaged—predictions by A.C. Clarke about geosynchronous satellites for communication, by Douglas Adams about real-time audio language translation, and by George Orwell about a world of surveillance have all come true.

By Kris Gopalakrishnan, N. Dayasindhu and Krishnan Narayanan
By Kris Gopalakrishnan, N. Dayasindhu and Krishnan Narayanan

We are in the middle of the fourth industrial revolution. After the world first utilized steam power to mechanize, then used electric power to mass-produce, and next harnessed electronics and IT to automate, it is now leveraging a mix of technologies like AI, IoT, robotics and genomics to reimagine businesses and unlock human productivity. According to Barclays’ analysts, if human productivity was 100 units in 1765, when the steam engine was invented, it increased to 1500 in the 1960s, and doubled to 3000 in just five decades thereafter.

Also read: How Artificial Intelligence is being used to save whales

From among all the technologies shaping IT today, AI/ML will have the most profound impact on humankind. Consider some AI-enabled innovations from the automotive and healthcare industries. Autonomous vehicles use AI/ML techniques to offer various levels of driving automation—from automatic detection of obstacles in the path and avoiding collisions, to assisting humans to drive. Stanford University researchers developed an ML algorithm that offers diagnoses based on chest X-ray images. It can, in a restricted context, diagnose up to fourteen types of medical conditions and is able to diagnose pneumonia better than expert radiologists working alone.

While AI/ML is showing promise in many contexts, we may need to tread with caution. AI/ML models are not entirely without some inherent bias. Till recently, the general reason for the bias was attributed to fact that the IT research and industry community is predominantly male and socio-culturally homogeneous. However, a recent multidisciplinary study from Stanford reveals something more fundamental—ML algorithms may be learning from society’s deep-rooted biases that are ingrained in the data used to train them. For instance, adjectives such as ‘intelligent, logical and thoughtful’ are found to be associated more with men than women in general writing, a bias that has improved only since the 1960s.

Thus, an AI system fed on earlier writing as training data is more likely to picture a man when describing an intelligent person. Similarly, studies have shown that popular social media apps using facial recognition ML algorithms to detect emotions of a subject in a photo consistently scored African-American faces as angrier than Caucasian-American faces. The AI systems showed this bias because they were not adequately trained on faces with darker skin colour. It is our responsibility to ensure that the emerging technologies are used appropriately. We need to ensure greater diversity while selecting AI and ML professionals. We also need to work on methods that can caution us about the inherent biases in the data used to train AI/ML systems.

What does the march of emerging technologies mean for India? We should harness technologies to meet the needs and aspirations of Indians, especially the underserved and those at the bottom of the pyramid. Azim Premji articulates his aspirations for Indian IT in the future: ‘Owing to large-scale urbanization, digitization, skill development and automation, I hope India paves its way into the coveted club of advanced nations of the world. The Indian IT industry is bound to play the role of a growth engine. Concepts like digital, cloud, automation, artificial intelligence, smart systems and green IT will witness their peak utilization in 2040, and I see an affordable version of these solutions absorbed into the market.’

Also read: How Artificial Intelligence is progressing in mental healthcare

Excerpted from Against All Odds: The IT Story Of India by Kris Gopalakrishnan, N. Dayasindhu and Krishnan Narayanan, with permission from Penguin Random House India.



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