India @100: India can and will lead in solving global problems


I am confident that India’s entrepreneurs will work hand-in-hand with its scientists to take advantage of all of these technologies and opportunities — and become a developed country, leading the world in innovation, by the time it reaches 100 years of Independence

A woman checks her mobile phone as she walks past a mobile store of Reliance Industries’ Jio telecoms unit, in Mumbai, India, July 11, 2017. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade

At a meeting in Palo Alto, United States (US), with biotech leaders on October 14, Rajesh Gokhale, secretary of the department of biotechnology, discussed the advantages that India provided in medical research: A vast population with many needs, an abundance of scientific and technical talent, and the government’s willingness to remove obstacles to innovation. Gokhale spoke of new policies to ethically and safely implement technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9 and the ability to launch major clinical trials in months rather than the years it takes in the West.

The Silicon Valley executives agreed that India can lead the world in medical research, as it leads in information systems, digital payments, and in producing vaccines and generic drugs. This is because of the exponential advances in technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), computing, robotics, genomics, and sensors, which are now inexpensive and available to entrepreneurs and researchers worldwide.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launching 5G services in India at Pragati Maidan Oct. 1, 2022. Photo: videograb Twitter @narendramodi

The CRISPR technologies are a new gene-editing system derived from bacteria that enables scientists to edit the DNA of living organisms, making it feasible to eradicate hereditary diseases, revive extinct species such as the woolly mammoth, and design plants that are far more nutritious, hardy, and delicious than those evolved through natural selection and epigenetics over hundreds of thousands of generations. Imagine banana and mango plants that could thrive in the desert of Rajasthan. That is what may be possible. The challenge has been that the CRISPR technology has been unregulated, leaving start-ups fearful that any innovations would be banned as genetically modified organisms (often rightly), a problem India has solved.

As far as medical research goes, what Gokhale talked about was exactly what I recommended to Prime Minister Narendra Modi when I met him in Kevadia, Gujarat, in October 2019: India could launch the largest clinical trial in world history, genetically sequence patients and make the data available to researchers. India could become the global hub of medical innovation, because, with its size and scale of research, it can do what the US can’t. With no legacy companies, infrastructure, and interests to protect, it can rethink and dramatically advance medical research — and make it more equitable for all. And, such a project is being implemented across India by Karkinos Healthcare, which is working on integrating and upgrading India’s cancer care system and gathering the data and bio-samples needed to cure cancer.

That is because this is a data problem. Symptoms, diseases, genes, and proteins are all linked in a complex web. The key to curing a disease may lie in analysing these data for correlative patterns. Human beings have difficulty seeing such complex patterns, but that is what AI excels in; and it’s what India’s technologists can use to analyse the massive data that the Indian population could provide.

It’s not only in medicine that AI may provide breakthroughs; it has advanced to the point where it can analyze large sets of data and help improve decision-making in every sector, from agriculture to finance and transportation. The same tools used by engineers at Google and Microsoft, and government research labs, are available to start-ups everywhere.

FILE PHOTO: Students pose in a group with banners featuring Mars and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientists (R) as they celebrate India’s Mars orbiter successfully entering the red planet’s orbit, at a school in the southern Indian city of Chennai September 24, 2014. REUTERS/Babu/File photo

Robots are beginning to do the jobs of humans in factories, grocery stores, pharmacies, and making deliveries. The humanoids of science fiction, too, are becoming a reality. The actuators and sensors necessary to build robots that resemble Rosie from The Jetsons or C-3PO from Star Wars are already commonly available and inexpensive. AI will soon take a few more leaps forward and provide these with the capability of acting intelligently, just as we’d imagined them. There is no reason that Rosie, or Ritu the Robot, can’t originate from Jaipur — and speak Hindi or Marwari.

India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk III-M1 blasts off carrying Chandrayaan-2 from the Satish Dhawan space centre at Sriharikota, July 22, 2019. Indian Space Research Organisation/Handout via REUTERS

Today, industrial robots can thread a needle and work hand-in-hand with humans. They can do almost every assembly job and pack the boxes in which the goods are shipped. The opportunity for India is twofold: To become a manufacturing hub for Asia and to help the West bring manufacturing home from China. It doesn’t make sense to ship raw materials across the globe to have them assembled in a faraway land and then ship them back. India has to start learning new manufacturing technologies, set up low-cost manufacturing centres to undercut China, and then show the West how to do the same.

A major opportunity arises because American businesses aren’t geared up to take advantage of manufacturing robots because they don’t have the know-how. This is where India’s outsourcers could help. They could master new technologies, help American firms design new factory floors and programmes, and install robots. They could provide management consulting in optimising supply chains and inventory management. And, they could manage manufacturing plant operations remotely. This is a higher margin business than the old information technology (IT) services. Americans would cheer India for bringing manufacturing back to their shores rather than protest at its having taken their IT jobs away.

Inside Laurus Labs’ active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) manufacturing unit in Visakhapatnam, India. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Dhiraj Singh.

These are just a few examples of what new technologies are enabling. In the next decade, we will also see 3D-printing household goods, entire buildings, electronic circuits, and even our food. We will design new organisms that improve agriculture and clean the environment. We will be delivering our goods — and perhaps even transporting ourselves — by drone. We can also build futuristic cities, which use only renewable energies, are clean and self-sustaining, and provide incredible comforts.

I am confident that India’s entrepreneurs will work hand-in-hand with its scientists to take advantage of all of these technologies and opportunities — and become a developed country, leading the world in innovation, by the time it reaches 100 years of Independence.

Vivek Wadhwa. Photo: Linkedin

Vivek Wadhwa is an academic, entrepreneur, and author and tweets at @wadhwa



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