Remembering Nani Palkhivala: The future is here, we need to embrace it

January 22, 2021 6:15 AM

On the 101st Anniversary of the legendary TCS chairman, a look at how the fourth industrial revolution may unfold and how India can cope with, and benefit from, it.

The fourth industrial revolution will envelop us at a pace and scale that is mind-boggling. It also presents an opportunity for us as a nation, to carve out a unique development trajectory by leapfrogging technologies and stepping away from conventional models.The fourth industrial revolution will envelop us at a pace and scale that is mind-boggling. It also presents an opportunity for us as a nation, to carve out a unique development trajectory by leapfrogging technologies and stepping away from conventional models.

By S Ramadorai

I cannot help but recall my own special moments with Mr Nani Palkhivala when he guided the early days of TCS as chairman of its executive committee. He was a master of time management as he was able to achieve a lot during the customer meets on his numerous visits to America. His meetings were marked by precision, not only in time but also in thought and action. He was a rare human being, with a rare intellect. Mr Palkhivala is a living legend who continues to inspire us even today. Through his association with TCS, he witnessed the changes led by the digital revolution, and I would like to imagine he would be optimistic about the potential of today’s technologies. I am sure he would have strived to make India a more inclusive community; one in which human rights and equity of opportunity would flourish.

The fourth industrial revolution will envelop us at a pace and scale that is mind-boggling. It also presents an opportunity for us as a nation, to carve out a unique development trajectory by leapfrogging technologies and stepping away from conventional models. Our society has already leapfrogged the personal computer and the landline. Disruptive, exciting, pregnant with potential, that is how I see the future in the fourth industrial revolution. Below are some of the opportunities put forward for India by this unique revolution, and we can be better prepared for it.

The fourth industrial revolution will be hugely exciting and path-breaking as it blurs the divide between devices and materials, the human body and mind; the integration of the digital and physical world. It will bring about an era where constant adaptation and adoption will be the ‘new normal’. This has been accelerated by the pandemic.

To some this may seem like an incremental or linear shift from the third revolution of the digital era, but, when the virtual, biological, and physical systems come together we cannot even predict the technological advancements it will bring. But, what we do know is that it will dramatically change our lives.

One of the most exciting scientific quests of humans is Artificial Intelligence (AI), which works on the premise that human intelligence can be simulated in machines, through software in their computers. Siri on your iPhone and face recognition on your Facebook photos are some of the examples of AI. AI has already become a part of each of our lives.

A most exciting field related to AI is robotics. We should not be surprised to be greeted by a robot on a future visit to the retail store. Japan is investing to build 30 million robots to create a workforce that can make Japan the number one manufacturer.

While the fourth industrial revolution will enable more intelligent machines, it will enable better health for all. Man’s eternal quest for a life without disease is driving the convergence of nanotechnology and biotechnology, resulting in more effective treatment and prevention of disease.

The fourth industrial revolution is revolutionising the way we manufacture things. While your home printer prints on paper or 2D, 3D printing is about printing layer upon layer to create a 3D object. The beauty of this technology is that it enables the creation of customised physical objects.

But, the one technology that has a direct impact on you and me is the Internet of Things or IoT. The internet flattened the world making ‘one world’ a reality, social networks made ‘one people’ a reality. From connecting computers and people, we are moving to an age of connected people and things, and hence, its name ‘The Internet of Things’. Potentially all our devices—our air conditioners, refrigerators, and cars—will talk to each other. In the future, we could use not just our mobile phones, but our voice, and perhaps, even thoughts to connect to a network.

Impact on India

The mobile phone impacted India in more far-reaching ways than it did in the developed nations. Similarly, India has an opportunity to leapfrog on the back of the fourth industrial revolution to create an accelerated and differentiated growth trajectory for itself.

With a population of more than 1.3 billion predicted to become the world’s youngest population by 2022, I believe the smart thing to do is to position ourselves advantageously for new things to come.

Given that many Indians residing across the world are driving this revolution, and the fact that we have tremendous software expertise, means that we can exploit these to solve developmental challenges. Currently, the fourth industrial revolution may be the last thing on the minds of most Indians. India has other issues which it is grappling with—bridging the infrastructure gap, enabling electricity and sanitation in our villages, bridging the digital divide, and improving the last mile connectivity across rural areas. We are also working to harness human capital through skill development of the 1 million youth joining the workforce every month. The government over the past two years has been on a mission mode with the launch of ambitious initiatives like Make in India, Digital India, Skill India, Smart Cities, Start-up India and Aatmanirbhar Bharat.

While such initiatives get underway and begin to solve some of the big challenges for us, namely health, education and skilling, housing, and basic amenities like electricity; it is wise to keep a sharp eye on future technologies and adopt those that could significantly accelerate impact.

The Indian government needs to mainstream such technologies by focussing on investing in them; it also needs to incentivise innovation in healthcare through Start Up India.

The last three revolutions have taken their own time to peak and mainstream, this may not be the case in the fourth industrial revolution. One may argue that it took more than half a century since James Watt invented the steam engine to become the core of industrial production. Similarly, the first computer ENIAC was developed during the 1940s, but the real application of computers and technology only started 20-30 years later.

However, the time taken for mass adoption is becoming shorter. Seven years ago, before the iPhone was launched, no one knew about ‘apps’ or a touch screen smartphone, yet today almost everyone has a touch screen smartphone full of apps and we learnt to use them seamlessly. Going forward, constantly getting reskilled will be imperative. While the government will do its part, the onus of keeping up lies equally with us. Change can be exciting if we adopt the right attitude.

The fourth industrial revolution, like all other revolutions before, reflects man’s indomitable quest to explore what lies beyond, to invent new things with new technologies, to search for new knowledge. While we must salute and celebrate that successive generations of people across the world, have made this planet a more exciting, comfortable place to live in, we must reflect upon what Mr Nani Palkhivala would have liked us to do and pass on his visionary wisdom to the next generation.

Former CEO & MD of TCS, and former chairman, Skill Development Agency. Views are personal

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