Exponential growth in the information technology domain marked the dawn of the 21st
century. Continuing expansion in computing power will further ensure that newer and better technologies will continue to emerge at a pace faster than any other time in human history. The term ‘emerging technology’ can be defined as development of either a new technology or continuing advancement of existing technologies which may be widely available within the next few years. 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 5G wireless communication, stem cell therapy and distributed ledger are a few examples of such technologies. Significant economic, social and military benefits can accrue for India by investing in emerging technologies and provide an impetus to its aspiration of being a major player in a multipolar world order. However, it will need to proactively address constraining factors such as India’s lack of quality education and its underdeveloped research and development (R&D) infrastructure to derive maximum benefit resulting from development of emerging technologies.
India has announced several reforms and initiatives over the past few years to enhance its research and policymaking capacity in the emerging technology domain. In 2015, National Supercomputing Mission
worth ₹4,500 crore ($600 million) was launched to install 73 indigenous supercomputers throughout the country by 2022. National Mission on Quantum Technologies & Applications
worth ₹8,000 crore ($1.1 billion) was announced in February 2020 to oversee the development of quantum technologies for communications, computing, materials development and cryptography. India’s Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has also established several dedicated laboratories
focusing on futuristic technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum and cognitive technologies, asymmetric technologies and smart materials. Additionally, Indian military is reportedly developing
advanced military systems such as directed energy weapons (DEWs), optionally manned combat platforms and swarm drones. Furthermore, Ministry of External Affairs recently (MEA) created
a New, Emerging and Strategic Technologies (NEST) division to deal with the foreign policy and international legal aspects of new and emerging technologies and for facilitating proactive Indian participation in global technology governance forums.
Significant economic, social and military benefits can accrue for India by investing in emerging technologies and provide an impetus to its aspiration of being a major player in a multipolar world order.
There are two broad approaches to research in the emerging technology domain. The first includes developing theories and scientific principles that form the basis of emerging technologies while the other approach focuses more on translating these theoretical constructs into products with commercial and industrial applications. Usually, universities and academic institutions take the lead in projects based on the first approach while professional research laboratories focus on the second approach. Unfortunately, foundational infrastructure pertaining to both these approaches have been chronically underfunded and gaps must be addressed to facilitate development of a vibrant research ecosystem in India.
India’s higher education sector comprises of both public and private players, but public universities are most sought after by students primarily due to their affordability. However, their intake capacity is a fraction of the annual demand. Even though governments have been establishing newer educational institutes at a faster pace, significant disparity in supply and demand remains. Primary reason for this mismatch is inadequate funding for the education sector. In 2018, India spent only 3% of its GDP on education which is half of what Kothari Commission has recommended. In the last decade or so, private sector has stepped in to fill this supply mismatch and several new colleges and universities have opened all over India. However, they consistently underperform on several metrics and often cite governmental overregulation as one of their primary limitations.
Primary reason for this mismatch is inadequate funding for the education sector.
Currently, Indian universities lack financial and functional autonomy in crucial areas such as deciding their own fee structure, course offerings and freedom to hire faculty at competitive pay scales. These restrictions disproportionately impact private universities as they can’t turn to public exchequer for financial support and are forced to initiate cost-cutting measures leading to deterioration in quality of education. This is evident from the fact that a 2019 survey
found that only 47% of Indian graduates were considered employable. However, regulatory changes proposed under the new National Educational Policy (NEP)
aims to reduce overregulation and provide significant autonomy to educational institutions. Furthermore, India’s efforts to attract top-ranked foreign universities to open campuses in India
is a welcome step as it will benefit students by introducing healthy competition in the Indian higher education sector. This may also stymie the trend of graduates from top public educational institutions preferring to look at universities abroad for better educational and research opportunities and seldom return to India, often choosing to work in their host countries instead.
Along with higher education, research and development (R&D) infrastructure in India also demands sustained focus. Majority of scientific research in India is conducted at public-funded educational institutions such as IISc, IITs and AIIMS or at specialised organisations such as ICAR, ICMR, CSIR, DRDO and ISRO. However, these organisations too face problems of limited capacity and inadequate funding. India spends only about 0.65% of its GDP on R&D activities which is less than a third of expenditure by China. Even this investment is often prone to inefficient spending and duplication of expenditure due to siloed approach common in governmental organisations. Nevertheless, India’s proposed overhaul of its public grant system where the current practice of various ministries giving research grants independent of each other will be replaced by an integrated process under the National Research Foundation (NRF)
and it has the potential to foster an efficient public research ecosystem.
A hybrid public-private approach in the emerging technology domain where technology is developed by public sector and its commercialisation outsourced to the private sector could help in efficient utilisation of public recourses.
For a country of India’s size and at its stage of development, relying primarily on public expenditure for R&D activities will lead to inefficient use of limited resources and delay in capitalising its vast potential. A hybrid public-private approach in the emerging technology domain where technology is developed by public sector and its commercialisation outsourced to the private sector could help in efficient utilisation of public recourses. Recent successful test-firing
of privately manufactured Pinaka rockets after transfer of technology from DRDO should give India confidence in this model. Furthermore, India’s decision to allow private investment in previously restricted sectors such as space, defense and semiconductor manufacturing along with a liberalised FDI policy can attract foreign companies to invest in India.
Startups have also emerged as hubs for cutting edge research on emerging technologies. Several startups in India and across the globe are working on developing practical applications using artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and nanomedicine among many others. They are a cost-effective way to attract investment as global capital is constantly on the lookout for promising ideas to invest in. In contrast to projects by large multinational corporations, startups require some handholding by the government. Often, this involves extending some incentives and ensuring a predictable regulatory environment. Inducements such as corporate tax exemptions or tariff exemptions on imports of specialised machinery can encourage Indian youth to form startups and nurture their entrepreneurial spirit. Indian experience with its successful home-grown startups in ecommerce and financial technology sectors should provide policymakers confidence to proactively encourage startups in the emerging technology domain as well.
Inducements such as corporate tax exemptions or tariff exemptions on imports of specialised machinery can encourage Indian youth to form startups and nurture their entrepreneurial spirit.
India has no dearth of aspirational human capital and ranks 48th
globally on the Global Innovation Index. India must capitalise on its vast potential to improve its performance. Ad-hoc research initiatives and infrequent budgetary allocations would not suffice if India is to develop a vibrant research ecosystem. It needs to commit sustained investments from both public and private sector in improving education and R&D infrastructure across all levels.
The emerging technology domain presents both challenges and opportunities for India. However, it can overcome challenges by sustaining its reform momentum and seize opportunities by making it easier for scientists to innovate and for companies to manufacture. These technologies have the potential to provide India with an opportunity to leapfrog into the next generation of technology. Just like it leapfrogged into mobile telephony, skipping landlines and like its leapfrog into becoming a country with a vibrant financial-technology ecosystem from being a largely unbanked country until only a few years ago.
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