AI tech as a force for good?

The notion of “inclusive innovation” is gaining increased attention as new technologies and breakthroughs, while enhancing development and convenience, bring about inequality and social instability.

The latest talking point is artificial intelligence, where scenarios being discussed point to an even more unequal and destabilizing future for many. However, R.A. Mashelkar, an Indian science guru and a major prophet of inclusive innovation, believes the future with AI will not be as bleak as many people think.

“Any new emerging technology has its pluses and minuses,” Mashelkar told the Nikkei Asian Review during a recent trip to Japan, as he was invited to speak at a symposium on inclusive innovation. The 76-year-old renowned scientist believes the value of technology depends on “how we use it for the good of the people.” For him, AI is another technology that “could be used either way.” One positive use for AI is in education. “We can use [it] to give access to education for the less educated children,” he said.

Mashelkar is an Indian National Research Professor. The title was instituted by the Indian government in 1949 to honor distinguished academics over 65 years old who have made outstanding contributions in their fields. Mashelkar is known for his research on the thermodynamics of swelling, super swelling and shrinking polymers as a chemical engineer, and later for propagating the importance of innovation as the head of his country’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, leading 38 labs in the country for over a decade.

His views on AI reflect his belief in inclusive innovation, which he has been promoting since 2008. In essence, it is “more performance from less resources for more people.” It was derived from the words of Mahatma Gandhi, such as “The fruit of science must reach the poorest” and “There is enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed.” He calls it “Gandhian engineering.”

The concept is gradually gaining traction. As Mashelkar explains, “Income is rising and so are the aspirations, but at the same time, challenges of inequality are rising very rapidly, and that leads to social disability, which is of great concern.”

But how does inclusive innovation work in practice? He expresses it in a word: “assured,” an acronym of seven key factors — affordable, scalable, sustainable, universal, rapid, excellent and distinctive. To make it fully “assured” of success, it has to involve innovation not only in technology, but also in business model, system delivery, workflow, process, organization and policy. He added, “Disruption requires extreme affordability … not to decrease by 10%, it has to be 10 times less to change the world.”

The recent example he raised is JioPhone, provided by Reliance Industries subsidiary Reliance Jio Infocomm led by billionaire Mukesh Ambani. The service entails a free voice call with a data plan as cheap as 49 rupees (69 cents), per gigabyte, but comes with 4G connectivity, allowing users to watch YouTube videos as well as make video calls. This was made possible by the deep pocket of the tycoon, but Malshekar said, “I want to emphasize that it is not about stripping products and services to make them cheap somehow. It is about high quality at affordable prices.”

On the other hand, Malshekar points to Tata Motors’ Nano as a failed case. The compact hatchback car with an original price tag of 100,000 rupees ($2,500 at the time), seems to be a textbook inclusive innovation, but the company put “affordable at the front end and excellence at the back end. Nobody wanted a cheap car.”

Mashelkar sat on the board of both Reliance Industries and Tata Motors, while serving as chair of the innovation council at Reliance.

The concept of inclusive innovation is rooted in a firm belief nurtured by his personal background. Mashelkar lost his father at the age of six and was raised by illiterate mother. “Two meals a day was a big problem for us, and I went to school barefoot until I was 12,” he said.

He almost had to give up school, but was helped by a Tata Group’s philanthropic trust, which provided him with 60 rupees a month for six years. It was enough to put him through school.

“Despite the fact that I was very poor, I got access to education, thanks to what Tata did. If there is one Mashelkar, then there could be millions of Mashelkars,” he said. He took this further to push through the concept of “despite income inequality, create access equality.”

The concept relates to corporate social responsibility as well. Both are about “doing well and doing good at the same time,” making disruptively innovative services affordable.

In India, Mashelkar has a reputation as a “dangerous optimist.” He admits he is extremely optimistic, which comes from his being a poor boy on the street who grew up to be a top scientist.

As for the future of AI, Kai-fu Lee, chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, predicts in a bestselling book that “AI will dramatically exacerbate inequality on both international and domestic levels. It will drive a wedge between the AI superpowers and the rest of the world, and may divide society along class lines.”

Lee elaborated: “AI naturally gravitates toward monopolies. Its reliance on data for improvement creates a self-perpetuating cycle: better products lead to more users, those users lead to more data, and that data leads to even better products, and thus more users and data. Once a company has jumped out to an early lead, this kind of ongoing repeating cycle can turn that lead into an insurmountable barrier to entry for other firms.”

Amy Webb, adjunct assistant professor at New York University, pointed out during a session with Lee at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that only nine companies will control the future of AI — six American (Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, Apple and Facebook) and three Chinese (Baidu, Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings). “The challenge is that there are relatively few people making decisions on behalf of us all … while their technologies touch virtually every individual and business in the world,” she warned.

But Mashelkar is solidly on the optimists’ side. “I personally feel that robots took away the drudgery of physical work. AI will take away drudgery of the mental work,” he said. “Many say data is new oil and AI is the new electricity. The important point is there is unequal distribution of electricity today. There shouldn’t be unequal distribution of AI.”

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