Powering the World with “India Class” Technologies

Dr. Santanu Bhattacharya
5 min readJan 26, 2020


I spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos #WEF2020 on how availability of vast amount of data, exponential technologies such as AI, and “planetary scale” platforms are transforming the lives of 100’s of millions of Indians. I made a call to action to take these technologies global, specially to emerging markets — so that not only the 1 billion Indians, but 4–5 billions people globally benefit. Here is the transcript and the link to the talk about Transformative Tech in the Emerging World!

Good morning — It’s a wonderful day in Davos.

I am Santanu Bhattacharya, currently the Chief Data Scientist at Airtel, a Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Science, and a collaborator with MIT Media Labs’ Camera Culture group. I started my career at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center on the CASSINI spacecraft mission to Saturn. I also built three startups, led Emerging Market Products for Facebook in 79 countries and 300 million users and led America On Lines Data Platforms.

Imagination in Action Summit at the TCS Dome in Davos, Switzerland, on January 21, 2020. John Werner Photography

In the past 25 years, I have been fortunate to observe two critical technology inflection points, the growth of internet and AI, at both developed economies and the emerging markets. Today I will speak about the trends that are shaping the biggest emerging market in the planet, India.

Slide 1: India is a country in contradiction

India is an interesting country, a subcontinent size of 1.3 billion people who speak over 100 languages and 1700 dialects. It’s a country with 400 million smartphone subscribers, but still predominantly has feature phone users. People also have limited ability to pay for products and services.

For the rest of the world, it might be seen as a weakness, but I would flip that argument to say it is one of India’s greatest strengths.

Any successful products and services built under these constraints in India, will have a good likelihood of succeeding elsewhere.

I have observed multiple trends and technologies emerging in India today and how we can apply those lessons globally.

Let’s talk about the first one. You, I and 400 million Indians came to internet using screens, PC, tablets or mobiles. The next billion will not do so - they will talk to the internet to access products and services. My team at Airtel X Labs, and multiple startups have made major breakthroughs to make conversational AI viable for major Indian languages.

Slide 2: Next billion Indians will come online through speech interface

India went from becoming a data poor to a data rich country in a matter of few years. At Airtel, 300 plus million users consume over 60 petabytes of data every month. Such vast amount of data has significant “public utility” — one building local solutions for speech AI and location an address accurately. These are the “exponential” technologies that is rapidly making societies smarter and better.

Slide 3: “Planetary Scale” data plus AI will drive significant economic benefits

For example, while in the developed world, delivering a pizza or accessing an emergency services like ambulance to a specific address is a normal affair, but not so easily in India where addresses are unstructured.

Our estimate is that building AI-based product for associating a location correctly for an address in India can add almost 0.5% of the GDP, or about 12 billion dollars.

Slide 4: For example, just solving the location and addresses issues using AI will add $10–12B billion economic benefits just in India

When I moved back to India from the USA, I was struck by one clear difference in the way technology development taking place in the country. There was a dedicated group of people from industries, academia, government and startups, solely focused on building public infrastructure for national digital services called India Stack. The India Stack started with Aadhaar, a unique, verifiable and foolproof identity platform. Aadhar not only enrolled 99% Indians, but also allowed many to access government income subsidies and open a bank account. In the past three years, 350 million unbanked Indians opened bank account — a population larger than the United States.

Slide 5: “Planetary Scale” public infrastructure for national digital services called India Stack — it has changed how Indian’s get their identity, open bank account, transact and more

India has also built its world class payment platform called UPI — the Unified Payment Interface.

The results are dramatic — UPI did more transactions in the past 18 months than the country’s credit card did in 18 years.

Besides uplifting 100’s of millions of people, these Planetary scale platforms are now enabling over nine thousand startups to build products and services on top — expanding the Digital economy rapidly..

Slide 6: 9,000+ startups are already building an ecosystem in India — we need to spread the planetary scale systems globally to reap the benefits and uplift people globally

At this conference where “we are committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders” my ask is to start a conversation today on how to take the exponential technologies available to the rest of the world, improving the lives of billions.

Let’s extend the Intelligence globally, making societies smarter and better!!

Epilogue: I plan to write a series of blogs on Data Science, Machine Learning, Product Management and Career Success Stories. You can follow me to get these in your Medium feed.

Next Story: The Economic Impact of Poor Addresses in India: $10–14 billion a year

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Dr. Santanu Bhattacharya

Chief Technologist at NatWest, Prof/Scholar at IISc & MIT, worked for NASA, Facebook & Airtel, built start-ups, and future settler for Mars & Tatooine