Thursday, November 16, 2017

Viewpoint: What is the future of the Indian IT sector, as most of the companies are laying people off?

This is a broad question and I will start by making a broad statement: The future of the Indian IT continues to be good. However, the future also depends on the perspectives one is coming from:
  • Employers in software services industry - Indian IT has become a $140bn industry built on a simple proposition: companies in the West can cut costs by getting tedious behind-the-scenes IT work done by cheap engineers in India. This trend and maturing of Offshoring IT Services has taken over two decades and is not going to be rolled back. Indian software service firms have become so big that the pace of growth – 20-30% year-on-year, has slowed to a more reasonable 5-8%.
  • Industry trends: IT budgets of client companies are growing steadily -as per Gartner, clients are increasing spend by about 3% a year. Clients are also increasing spending on new technologies and ‘digitization.’ Service firms are trying hard to ramp up new capabilities in emerging technologies while continuing to sustain the traditional business of application development and maintenance (ADM): this was perhaps the reason for management shakeup at Infosys (Vishal Sikka being booted).
  • Elephant in the room: Captive IT centers (link). Most of the media attention has been focused on the slowdown and layoffs at software service firms. However, multinationals continue to invest and grow their own captive IT centers. Not much data on investments and evolution in this segment are being tracked and we only have anecdotal information on growth there. Much of the experienced talent at such firms comes from software service organizations
  • For employees: Recent announcements of layoffs and slowdown at Indian software services firms indicate (link) a “survival of the fittest” trend. While this may feel a bit jarring in the short term, long term prospects continue to be good. Those with current skills and experience, especially those who can continue to be hands-on technologists will see opportunities.
Note: Links are from some of my viewpoints published in Linkedin and elsewhere

Friday, November 3, 2017

China and the US race to become world’s first AI superpower: where does it leave India?

Last week, I blogged about Tech Giants Paying Huge Salaries for Scarce A.I. Talent : Why it mattersArticles and viewpoints on artificial intelligence and its potential impact on our lives are starting to become a regular feature. Business leaders are taking note of the disruptive potential of some of these technologies, and are leaning on political leaders to build a strategic edge that the technologies can provide the nations.

A couple of widely reviewed articles are comparing the American and Chinese capabilities in the space. One was an insightful review in The Economist magazine a couple of months back (ref: Chinamay match or beat America in AI Its deep pool of data may let it lead inartificial intelligence ). This was followed by an article in The Verge “China and the US are battling to become the world’s first AI superpower

America government under its various departments including DOD, DARPA, NASA and NSF has long nurtured emerging technologies including partnering with corporate entities and startups in Silicon Valley, and actively courting academia from educational and research institutions.
Chinese political and tech learders have taken a leaf out of American playbook. These articles highlight various dimensions of China’s ambitions, supported and enabled by the government and a stated goal to become the “world’s leader in AI by 2030.”

China’s BHAG: be a global leader in Artificial Intelligence  

A policy report published last month makes China’s ambitions in this area clear.  The policy paper says that by 2020 it wants to be on par with the world’s finest; by 2025 AI should be the primary driver for Chinese industry; and by 2030, it should “occupy the commanding heights of AI technology.”

Anthony Mullen, a director of research at Gartner was quoted by The Verge saying “It’s a very realistic ambition. Right now, AI is a two-horse race between China and the US.  China has all the ingredients it needs to move into first. These include government funding, a massive population, a lively research community, and a society that seems primed for technological change. And it all invites the trillion-dollar question: in the coming AI Race, can China really beat the US?” 

China has a lot going for it in the A.I and M.L space:

  • Government funding and support – AI figures prominently in the country’s current five-year plan. Technology firms are working closely with government agencies: Baidu, for example, has been asked to lead a national laboratory for deep learning. The country has more than 40 laws containing rules about the protection of personal data, but these are rarely enforced. It is expected that the government will loosen its regulations with respect to AI firms.
  • A massive population – China has a large talent pool skilled in math’s. The country also has a tradition in language and translation research, which are basic ingredients for AI research. 
  • A lively research community - Entrepreneurs are taking advantage of China’s talent and data strengths. Many AI firms got going only a year or two ago, but plenty have been progressing more rapidly than their Western counterparts. “Chinese AI startups often iterate and execute more quickly,” explains Kai-Fu Lee, who ran Google’s subsidiary in China in the 2000s and now leads Sinovation Ventures, a venture-capital fund. (Economist)
  • Vibrant tech community - Chinese firms including giants such as Alibaba, Tencent and startups such as CIB FinTech and UCloud, are building data centers as fast as they can. 
  • A society that seems primed for technological change - A report from the White House in October 2016 noted that China now publishes more journal articles on deep learning than the US, while AI-related patent submissions from Chinese researchers have increased 200 percent in recent years.
Leaders at top American tech companies are taking note of China’s emergence in the space. Chairman of Alphabet (parent of Google company) has been most vocal  (Ref - Eric Schmidt : America needs to ‘getits act together’ in AI competition with China)

Speaking at a tech summit organized by national security think tank CNAS, Mr. Schmidt predicted that America’s lead in the field would continue “over the next five years” before China catches up “extremely quickly.” CNAS’ summit explored “technology trends, uncertainties, and possible trajectories for how AI may affect global security. Presentations and discussion panels will showcase experts on artificial intelligence, machine learning, human-machine teaming, and security policy. Furthermore, the event will help build cross-disciplinary networks between AI engineers and policymakers to design and implement together solutions to manage the challenges ahead.”

American tech companies have not been idly watching the developments: The tech oligopoly — Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft (link) – has also been actively investing in Research and Development (R&D) in China. Apple is opening an R&D center in the home of China's tech boom (the verge). Likewise, Bloomberg reviewed how “Amazon and Google Change the R&D Race

Where does this leave India?

Indians led the outsourcing and offshoring IT services race, by some accounts, capturing more than half the share of global outsourcing. India continues to be a leading destination for IT, IT Enabled Services and business Process Outsourcing (BPO) which generates nearly $47 billion in revenue.

Most large Indian software services companies have announced ‘AI services’ Infosys’ former CEO Vishal Sikka was a big proponent of AI. Under him, Infosys launched ArtificialIntelligence platform Nia. Wipro also announced HOLMES, a set of cognitive computing services for the development of digital virtual agents, predictive systems, cognitive process automation, visual computing applications, knowledge virtualization, robotics and drones. TCS bet on artificial intelligence with Ignio

A Capgemini survey conducted between March and June 2017 was based on a review of nearly 1,000 companies that are using AI and have revenues of over $500 million across nine countries. The survey report titled Turning AI into concrete value: the successful implementers’ toolkit, highlights efforts of  American firms such as AccentureMicrosoft, and Adobe, that have established innovation centers in India.  

The Indian government’s Digital India initiative has a broad agenda that includes emerging technologies. However, it is not backed by the executive support or financial commitment one sees in China or America. There is probably a semi-socialistic hangover that is afraid new jobs being created will make low-skilled workers redundant.

India is ahead of many other countries when it comes to emerging digital technologies including artificial intelligence (AI). However, Indian tech community and the government are yet to gear up to take on Americans or Chinese in the quest for AI dominance.