I watched that video about Urmila at the event and I cried. Not because I was sad, but because I could see how such a simple thing can change someone’s life. It was a powerful moment.
This was the 5th edition of Google For India and the first one that I attended. Prior to this, I wasn’t even aware that something called “Google For India” even existed. Well, never too late I suppose! We got there bright and bushy-tailed at 0945 hrs. The commercial vehicle strike affected pretty much everyone’s morning plans – those coming from outside Delhi borders that is.
“These fellows never start on time.” someone complained in the waiting area, while sipping on coffee and chomping on poha.
Like any Google event, this one was crowded. People milling about looking at the exhibits, taking photographs, making videos, connecting to WiFi, reserving goodie bags, chatting with Googlers and other known faces. Attendees were categorized into Googlers ( Google employees ), Media and Delegates ( Bharat and I were delegates ).
There was a massive breakfast spread, which, I believe, was the main reason why not a lot of people were complaining about the delayed start. And then there was a massive lunch spread in the middle of the day, which seemed more crowded than breakfast. Bharat and I left after grabbing lunch, so we’ll be able to share what happened only till about 1pm.
Briefly, Google has plans for India. And that’s quite the understatement.
Google is setting up a Research Lab in Bangalore. An Artificial Intelligence Research Lab. So, that means more jobs, among many other things of course.
They’ve launched a service called PhoneLine. Most of India uses 2G mobile devices, which cannot access things like the INTERNET. So, how do you “google it na!”? With the PhoneLine service, you can “call up” the Google Assistant. I think I must’ve said “HOLY SHIT” more than a few times when this was announced on stage. The possibilities are incredibly incredulous. ( Note, there’s a less dramatic and more strategic analysis of these announcements by Bharat as you read further. )
There was a LOT to absorb. A LOT of things that Google launched. If you would like to sit through the entire presentation, you can watch the broadcast here.
Complaint from me
One of the complaints that I have – and have heard others express the same – is the loss of serendipity. One of the joys of the internet was that I’d be looking for a particular thing, say X. When I searched for X, I’d also find Xa and Xb and maybe even Y. It was like physically visiting a library or having a conversation with someone who knew more. You never knew what you’d find. Sure, services like Jobs will recommend something most suited to a candidate but what about something they might not have ever considered because it’s not something they were allowed to stumble upon? After my B School education, I didn’t know I could code websites for clients in the US, do branding design and design logos for clients in Europe, blog about innovation and creativity and eventually make a career as a professional blogger. I fell into these things as one led to the others. I’m not sure that so much algorithmic involvement in my life is something I want. I’m already quite annoyed with platforms like Instagram that assume I want to see a certain type of content even though I want to see a chronological feed of what my friends are posting. But no. The algorithm decides for me and I’m not ok with that.
From a more big-picture perspective, here’s a bit of what Bharat has to say.
Ever since its debut in 2015, GoogleForIndia has become one of the sub-continent’s most talked about tech events. This year was no exception with the tech behemoth making some astounding announcements.
Covering each product in detail would be beyond the scope of a single blog post. The intent here, is to capture the essence of Google’s strategy whilst looking at the very “human” stories that their products elicit..
A telling feature of developing economies, especially those that struggled with a colonial past, is how they tend to skip early, fundamental tech and go straight to mature versions. For instance, many parts of India never witnessed land-line penetration and went straight to cell phones. VHS and DVD barely registered in the sub-continent but streaming took over the market near instantaneously. Seems like the best form of “support” that Governments can offer here is to just get out of the way.
As such, it leaves the playing field open for companies that can see and fill the gaps. The balancing act for these companies is to service these gaps while also still providing economic incentives to stakeholders. Good intentions alone, don’t pay the bills.
The human stories that products like Google Lens, Bolo and Spot have shared with audiences, generate a lot of emotion but the true impact will be felt long term. From a strictly strategic point of view, this ticks all the right boxes.
- Low Capital Investment ( relatively speaking )
- Compelling Human Narrative
- Long Term Societal Impact
- Easy to Scale
Let’s just take the case of BOLO.
Learning apps of this nature aren’t exactly new. Apps like DUO LINGO and MEMRISE came to this particular party fairly early. What’s different with BOLO is the focus on Indic Languages, which is a sizable market on its own, from a purely financial standpoint.
But, combined with the power of Google Lens, and the Vodafone / Idea Cellular PhoneLine AND the Job ( seeking ) app? That’s a special kind of leverage.
It is one of the more fundamental features of modern-day tech. Not just the potential for vast sweeping change but the sheer scope of it. It all comes back to that word that Silicon Valley cannot get enough of : scale.
Imagine a family in some little village in Uttar Pradesh.
An illiterate mother who can’t read, can instead track her child’s progress in school using Google Lens ( which reads out the report card to her, in Hindi ). Assume that her child is a girl of 8. Her school does not have the resources to teach her English effectively. But BOLO can. By the time she is ready to graduate high school, say 8 years later, she is not just aware of English but comfortable in it. ( Don’t forget that the app itself is getting better over time – learning with her, about her – and hundreds of others like her. )
By the way, proficiency in English is one of the biggest, if not THE biggest factor in escaping poverty. BOLO has essentially given this young child, a key to a door of possibilities that would otherwise have remained inaccessible forever.
Whilst this was happening, she’s been consuming English content on the web. Watching Youtube in English, for example. She’s now heard of something called “programming” or “AI”. Maybe, BOLO ( or a different app altogether ) can teach her coding. ( The majority of self-learning content of this nature is in English. ) By the time she is ready to enter the job market, Google already has a good idea about her skillset and can suggest something appropriate via the Job app ( currently planned as part of the Google Pay app in India ).
Or, if she’s not interested in a job, she could start her own small-business and use the SPOT Platform, with G Pay integration, to her advantage.
Google will inevitably get more data on the family as it uses the Phone Line service and other apps / features that we haven’t even seen yet.
The whole family’s trajectory has effectively been nudged towards upward social mobility. Without the need for any additional social programs or Government intervention. Without this tech, this little girl’s most likely future would be that of becoming a mother at 16.
Take that story and multiply that by about 730 million ( which is roughly the number of people without Internet access in India today ) and extrapolate the results over a decade. Consider what that does to a village. A city. A country and, eventually, the planet.
This kind of transformative potential is something we haven’t seen since the birth of the Internet. And that’s not a statement I make lightly. It will not be all sunshine and roses, mistakes will inevitably be made. Not to say anything about the monopolistic control this could give to just one corporate entity. But, smart money says, the pros will far outweigh the cons.
To (mis)quote Cypher from The Matrix,
“Buckle-up Devaki ’cause Kanpur is going bye-bye!”
( That’s the end of what Bharat had to say. )
An Introduction to the Apps and Services that were launched.
The BOLO App
( Download here from the Google Play Store ). I’m considering the possibility of bettering my Hindi and maybe even dabbling in Urdu. How cool would that be? It would be “cool” for someone like me – but for someone from a village, who gets to learn English, which improves the prospect of their life, it’s more than just “cool”.
Irshad and Hussain for the Google Phone Line Service.
Currently, Google has launched this in partnership with Vodafone and Idea Cellular and I’m hoping they will expand this with other cellular network providers like Aritel and Jio, to truly reach as far and wide as possible. Basically, you can call 0008009191000 – toll-free – and access the Google Assistant, even from a 2G mobile device that has no Internet access.
From sharing sports and weather updates to helping with college homework, Phone Line is making information accessible for thousands of Indians in Kanpur and Lucknow.
— Google India (@GoogleIndia) September 19, 2019
The SPOT Platform
Hell, I want to get a SPOT for KhaosPhilos and sell my art on it. I have already applied for early access using their website, and I’ve received an email telling me that they’ll get in touch with me as soon as it’s available more widely.
For previous stories and features with and about Google on this blog, see #NAINAxGOOGLE.
Bharat Joshi writes about technology, games, movies and politics on his own blog LexValidus.com