Not just businesses, individuals stand to benefit from data: Infosys co-founder Gopalakrishnan

CHENNAI: Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan has said that the real opportunity in data lies in benefiting citizens – not just corporations – and protecting them from the vulnerabilities inherent in the digital era.

Gopalakrishnan heads the committee formed by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) to look at non-personal data and recommend a regulatory framework to handle such information.

These data could include aggregated data, derived data, anonymous data, ecommerce data, AI training data, etc. — for example, the traffic data collected by taxi aggregators such as Uber and Ola, consumption data from food aggregators like Swiggy and Zomato, search data from Google and ecommerce data from Amazon and Flipkart. The business data can be anonymised so as to ensure individual privacy. The aggregate data on consumer behaviour will help in formalising public policy.

Gopalakrishnan, who was in Chennai over the weekend for an IIT Madras Alumni Association event, spoke to ET. Excerpts:

Where does the opportunity for India lie in data?
I strongly believe–not just I many others too– India has a huge opportunity to leverage data in every aspect: data will be very important in providing credit, better banking services, healthcare, education, retail and ecommerce. Everywhere, the efficiency can be improved; services levels enhanced. It is not just the companies benefitting, the individual also benefits. For example, in an outbreak of dengue, they [doctors] can test it immediately. If I can eliminate dengue, then I can check something else. This is where data helps an individual. It has tremendous value in providing an individual better service, decision-making opportunity and value.

Where does the debate around data privacy and protection stem from?
If you look at the companies that are most valuable, there are two sets there. One set is the creators of technology like Microsoft, Apple and the others. The second set is companies that leverage data like Amazon, Google, and Facebook. The second, I think will, expand now.

Because, when you look at where the value in the economy is – in the agriculture era, the value was in the produce. In the manufacturing era, the value was in factories, production; in the digital era, the value was in IT, producers of technology. Now we are moving to the data era.The value is not anymore in the physical goods. Unfortunately or fortunately, data knows no national boundaries and can be transmitted without friction. So how does a nation create value from the data of its citizens? How does a nation protect the data of its citizens? That’s the question everyone is grappling with.

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What are the threats likely in the data era?
Say, for example, my credit card gets stolen. It could be stolen by somebody sitting in some remote corner of the world. I will go to the local police station and complain. First of all, they should have the mechanism to figure out what happened. Once done, what will they do? What recourse do they have? This is why there has to be a new frame work created because we operate as sovereign countries. All our rules, policies and citizen services are built around the concept of a nation-state. This is true across the world. Now, governments should be enabled to deal with this. CEO of Twitter’s account was hijacked. That means everybody is a potential victim.

Across the world, there is talk of anonymising data: stripping data sets of personal attributes of individuals and gleaning meaningful inferences from the data points. What are your views on that?
The reason for anonymised data is very simple. There is public benefit in sharing data: For example, let’s take example of dengue again. Data is being recorded across multiple clinics but there is no data at an aggregate level to tell us how many incidences there have been today.

Now, we don’t want to share the data about the individual but at least if we can get the incidence rate today, that is valuable information. If there is a way to populate a common database for, say, the incidence rate of dengue in Chennai and populate it to find out incidence across the country from data sets from other places, then proactively we can take action.

On studies suggesting possibilities of retrieving personal data from anonymised data sets:
“Yes. one can triangulate and identify a person. I think our concept of privacy/identity will go through a change because we are voluntarily disclosing who we are because we want certain services… Till now, we were able to get the services without identifying who we are. But now, because our lives depend on online and digital services, may be there has to be an identity in the online world: you cannot do a banking transaction without identifying yourself. KYC [Know Your Customer] has become so strict now. So over time, all this will happen.

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Where are we in this process of transition to gaining a digital identity?
We have understood the value of digital technology. We are trying to understand the value of data. As data becomes more and more important, rules and regulations will evolve around our personal data and how we own that data.

In the physical world, I know exactly what properties I own: Nobody can walk into my house — not even the government without a warrant. I think over time, property rights will be clearly established in the digital world. This is the transition we are making. So, even if your identity is disclosed, your health insurance cannot be denied. So, that will be a rule the government sets. Today, that doesn’t exist and hence you are scared to disclose your identity, because you are afraid you will be denied that insurance. But, if the government policy clearly states you cannot be denied health insurance even if I know there is something wrong with you… that’s the transition we are making: How the industry must responsibly use your data and respect your privacy. Today, it is not codified and hence the worry.

What are your thoughts on the state of the economy and concerns of a slowdown?
There is a slowdown but I believe it is part of a cycle, caused domestically and some global, like Brexit, China-US trade war and so on. There are challenges in India, too. This has happened over the last 2-3 years, not recent. The NPA crisis in banking flowed into credit not being available for investments, and consumer sentiment got affected and so on, a chain of events. It will get corrected one by one. We must grow and we will. We have grown five times in the last 25 years, and we have had multiple governments and I’m very optimistic that we will grow.

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There has been a debate over the downturn as being part of an economic cycle or a reflection of structural stress in the economy. What are your thoughts?
It’s both: For example, there is a transition to BS-VI happening in the automotive sector. So consumers are saying I will wait for the BS-VI to come: it’s like somebody announcing a new phone is coming and the existing models will slow down; they will wait for the new model. That I see is cyclical, because when the BS-VI comes, people will start buying. I feel people will buy cars and the industry will bounce back. Initially there was concern if one can use a BS-IV car post April 2020 and now that’s been cleared. These are cyclical things.

The bigger challenges lie in the structural issues: Agriculture is one. About 15-16% of the GDP employing about 40% of the people growing at 2-4% whereas the overall economy has to grow at 7-8%. So, in all parameters—productivity, number of people employed and growth rate— agriculture is a challenge. I think a lot needs to be done there, and it has to be done carefully, because if you increase automation and bring in technology, people will lose jobs. So we need to think: we need to increase productivity and create rural jobs and rural entrepreneurs – convert farmers into entrepreneurs so they run their own food production activities.

Again, agriculture is just one of the areas where there is a structural challenge; there are others too.

Incentivising industry investment is of utmost importance. It is something that even advanced economies do because that is truly the start of an economic cycle that creates wealth and jobs.

Look at IT: very profitable, still growing and world-class. But they are transitioning by investment in AI/machine learning. Investment by industry is a continuous process. You may ask why should a government incentivise them? Because it is a competitive world: If Bangladesh is incentivising garment manufacturing, the industry will go there because they look at how efficiently they can produce. The government’s work is based on public opinion so there is role for all of us to create that public opinion that government must incentive investment.


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