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India could become global hub for data, AI work: Microsoft India President Anant Maheshwari 

India could become global hub for data, AI work: Microsoft India President Anant Maheshwari 

"COVID-19 pandemic is an event in human history that we will look back on and I think there was a massive, massive acceleration of the digital transformation of the planet," said Maheshwari

Anant Maheshwari, President, Microsoft India at BT Tech Conclave Anant Maheshwari, President, Microsoft India at BT Tech Conclave

Over the past year and a half, everything has turned digital. Zettabytes of data being generated, which is no longer a threat, but an opportunity for individuals, enterprises and government. Anant Maheshwari, President, Microsoft India in conversation with Business Today spoke about this burgeoning data boom, the data explosion we are witnessing now and how can India make the best of it. He also talks about how Microsoft is comprehending this data.

Business Today (BT): It's a data explosion that we are witnessing right now. How are organisations comprehending this data for their business growth and how can India make the most of this data opportunity?

Anant Maheshwari (AM): COVID-19 pandemic is an event in human history that we will look back on and I think there was a massive, massive acceleration of the digital transformation of the planet. Now, within this, there are two megatrends - data & AI and trust & security -- and these are likely to persist even after we are through with the pandemic because these two really got accentuated during the pandemic. The use of data and AI is absolutely at a new level than it could have ever been -- even in a few years from now if it wasn't for the pandemic. So I'll focus on the first one in the context of the question because it is a megatrend. It is the data and AI that every organisation will lead to you.

Now, in the larger context of India, and India's digital journey, there was a report that was done in partnership with the government of India and NASSCOM to really think through what is the potential of data and AI in the country, and then identify that the GDP could see an uplift of nearly half a trillion dollars due to the data and AI momentum in the country. Now that is huge for a country like ours, and also from the fact that India could potentially become a hub for data and AI work across the planet. Building on this huge IT services boom that we've already had, we can transition that into data and AI also leveraging the big startup ecosystem that we have in the country.

Now, what are people using it for, to your question, there are a lot of investments that are happening in R&D, in innovation, in skilling, and also in building very strong data governance in terms of how this has to be managed. It will be very critical to bring all of this together. And finally, it will be very important to truly bring the industry bodies, the businesses, the startup, the academia, along with the government to create a collaboration to truly drive this data and AI opportunity for India.

BT: Microsoft works very closely with the start-up ecosystem and is at the real cutting edge of this innovation that is going through this country. How is it comprehending this data and using it in your own solutions for making it better and innovating further?

AM: Across the board, we are uniquely positioned to create a data loop for every organisation, because the data that exists in their employee usage versus customer usage operations partners ecosystem, all of it needs to really come together to create value for the enterprise. Therefore data has to move away from the current position that it is in -- that is it sitting in silos in different parts of the organisation. It has to come together to truly be able to provide that predictive and analytical power that every company needs as a competitive advantage from the data.

Let me start with some examples and since we were talking about digital natives, I actually would combine start-ups and unicorns and call them digital natives. The first example I would have is Myntra. How they have truly scaled up with the power of data and AI, and working with many demand spikes and also very different supply-side constraints that they have had to live in. During the last 16 to 18 months, and then using Azure machine learning to truly understand customer needs better and even maybe moving from four fashion seasons to maybe 50 fashion seasons in the year, which is also different by every pin code in the country. So it's truly bringing the power of data to serve every customer, uniquely. If I go to the other end, an area that all of us have seen very dramatically in this time is healthcare. So, Apollo Hospital has built this AI-powered bot on Azure to enable that self-assessment that you can do, get the right level of risk assessment and centres for COVID-19, and then a lot of people. I think during these times, a lot of people had the opportunity to get out on their bikes. So I'll take the example of Royal Enfield, who uses Dynamics 365 to enable frictionless interactions with their customer touchpoints. Now if you take all of that, you will get very different ways in which data is getting used by enterprises in connecting to their customers and driving their operations.

BT: As data is the new oil, what are the risks which users should be mindful of?

AM: First of all I would say that trusted and secure technology is truly at the heart of accelerating the tech innovation in our country. But before I go there, I have to respond a little bit to your phrase of ‘data is the new oil’. I think ‘data is more like water and air’. It is everywhere and needs to navigate. If you don't use it, don't manage it, don't control it, don't massage it and clean it, then the use of data actually becomes lower. It is more about thinking of data as a natural resource.

So first up I think in a data-rich world, where data is always around us, and data governance becomes mission-critical. Because it can be used in very different ways and therefore what rules you're applying to use the data and how you process it, managing it becomes very critical. And second, every person needs to be very confident that their data is safe, and that is again very critical because they need to understand how, why, and where their data is being used. So, it's very critical to provide that transparency, level of conformance to these rules that I spoke about. Then, privacy is a fundamental human right. Your data is your data. And I think that is something that everybody needs to understand. And I do believe that during the last 16 months, we have begun to recognise this a lot more. That's why I said trust and security is that second big megatrend coming out of the pandemic.

Privacy is the real foundation for trust. And we at Microsoft, truly believe that privacy and trust is and should be built in by design. It is not something that you put as a lock on a door or window to believe that you're safe. It needs to be at the heart of all products and services. That's how our platforms and tools are designed. There are three or four principles that we apply in thinking to it. Number one, you control your data. Your data is your property, so you can access it, modify it, delete it at any point in time that you would like. Microsoft will not use your data without your agreement. And when we have your agreement, we use your data only to provide you with the services that you've asked for, that you've chosen. So, we don't use this data to massage it in some form and then generate advertising from that data. Second, you know where your data is located and how it's getting used. We give you options, very clearly on how you'd like to locate it, where and how you'd like to use it. So Microsoft Cloud Services has the widest footprint on the planet to be able to provide this flexibility, way better than anybody else in terms of how you manage it. Third, we secure your data, both at rest and in transit, with the highest levels of encryption available. And finally, I think we also defend your data. So even when the government comes to us and asks for your data, we direct them to you stating you own the databases and we are just the carriers of that data. So no direct and unfettered access is provided. A lot of this will evolve in this space as we go forward, but I think having these fundamental principles is very important because they will keep us going and creating more detailed capabilities in the future.

BT: As we go a little macro, digitisation has now impacted everything in India and the world. How can a country like India now get itself ready and what are the two or three things you think India should really be doing to get itself ready for a completely digital future?

AM: I'll take three principles, and then go deeper, to define those principles a little better but the three principles are really tech intensity, skilling, and something what we call purpose-driven digital. So let me go deeper into each one of them. I think the next decade of economic growth of India will be defined by tech intensity. Now, every industry, every sector is really driving with cloud data and AI to make every company a digital company. Now intensity as an equation, the way we call it, is you choose some platforms, like the ones that we provide, as a capability that you can build upon.

So you use that platform to get a baseline, but on top of that you bring your own skills, your own capability, your own secret sauce in a way to create your own IP, which will be your IP and every company is finding that capability, and then you kind of raise it to the power of trust. Because only when people trust the platforms that they're getting, they will use them. Now, taking examples, healthcare has seen the maximum vegan density move in the last 16-18 months and I think everybody recognises that telehealth is now here to stay. And it relies on many AI-related capabilities even for getting medical care that you would have had in the physical world in the past. So I think tech intensity is really changing the world of healthcare. Banking has also changed completely.

In the last 16 to 18 months we've seen more innovation, done by both banks, and by fintech companies. Manufacturing has really moved to the point where every company is automating and also simulating a lot with digital twins of their supply chains of their manufacturing capabilities. Education and ed-tech have been around us in the last 16-18 months and all of us are seeing it on a daily basis, as we see the young children and adults really going through a world of education which is very different from what anyone of us will experience in our lifetimes and will therefore continue to be different, as we go forward. And finally, the one area that one would have thought will change a lot slower, the public sector and government, is rapidly modernising everything around the tech architecture using cloud data and AI. So I took these multiple sectoral examples because every company, every organisation is using this latest technology to build their unique digital capability on a foundation of trust and that's the intensity, and we are really pushing to create that that intensity for every part of India, for every organization in India, with security interest at the core.

The second principle is that as density increases, you need more skill. Everybody needs digital skills. I can say all of us would have improved our digital skills by trial and error and by some training over the last 16-18 months. But that's not the way you can just run it. Going forward, a lot more skilling will need to be done purposefully and therefore the digital equity gap that exists both in access, as well as in terms of the way people are able to use it has to change. So we are really pushing hard in deep collaboration between the private and the public sector, to really provide equal opportunity and access to digital skills for everyone.

And finally, for growth to be inclusive, I called out as purpose-driven digital very critical. To bring the benefits of technology, to every part of India, to every cross-section of the society, and from small and micro businesses migrant workers, farmers to non-profits and vulnerable communities - we normally would not think of them as the first place to go when it comes to tech but I think that's where we should think of it if you truly want to make it omnipresent. And this purpose-driven digital is really the art of leveraging tech innovation, to drive societal outcomes, and this will accelerate India's journey to your question, into a digital nation, and if I have to bring it all together. And then I think I can say what drives me and all of us at Microsoft every day is to truly live our mission - which is to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more.