Guest Column

If you are not Artificial, you are Dead

April, 2019

In a survey on autonomous cars, a group of respondents were asked, in case the car is approaching a couple of kids on the road and in avoiding the clash with the kids, there are chances of a fatal injury to the owner. Whom should the car save?. Majority of the respondents said ‘the Kids’ without a blink. However, when informed that the occupant in the car might be the respondent themselves, not many were so confident about their answer. This predicament, cited by famous author Yual Noah Hariri in his latest book, ’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, ably demonstrates the state of Tech today. No one is debating on whether we need autonomous cars or not, its more about the use cases where it will have the maximum impact.

I used the above example to make the point that 2019-20 will be year of ‘Restraint’ as far as technology is concerned. With the growing security concern there is increased effort to limit exposure (to social media) and reduce damages (to shutdowns/malware, etc.), then on deployment of path-breaking, next generation technology. Issue is not about feature phone or smart phone, its more about are we ready for 5G. It’s not about need for high speed data or not, it’s more about how we can avoid misuse by antisocial elements. Not that there is going to be a slowdown in either the quantum of research or the funds spent on these new age technologies. However, focus will be more towards a mature and long-term impacting implementation of these technologies.

Reference in the title is of course to Artificial intelligence. Its hard to imagine any online consumer service or product, which is NOT tracking the previous usage history to predict buying behavior. Also, for any new tech product, AR, VR, Robotics and IoT will be more of a mandate than a choice. Autonomous and battery powered cars will continue to gain limelight and market share. There will be increased focus on providing charging stations and looking at mass electrification of commercial/public vehicles.

While IPOs of Lyft, Uber, Pinterest, AirBnB etc., among others, will hog the limelight in US, closer home, the sector that will be closely observed will be Ecommerce. With Amazon and Flipkart facing the double onslaught of the everchanging regulatory scenario and increased threat of Jio Retail (predicted to wipe out Amazon from India), there is clearly not much that smaller players can do, except nibble into the market share of the leaders or go ‘niche’, either in terms of product/solutions or the delivery model.

While the ominous takeover attempt of Mindtree by L&T hogged the limelight in the last quarter of 2018-19, it might be a precursor to more M&A in the IT Sector. It’s about time for some rampant consolidation in Indian IT industry. The rapid commoditization of bulk of the services, continued margin pressure and changing US Visa regulations have forced Indian IT Companies to look at Industry 4.0 and some bold and smart ideas to sustain the business.

Closer home, the likely trend for technology is to go rural. With Ecom and EdTech having taken bold steps to go to Tier 3/4 towns and villages of India, Media and Fintech companies, armed with a good network, mountains of data and vernacular solutions sets, is targeting the Indian rural consumer like never before. With its diverse populace in terms demographics and language, India is the most suited base for voice enabled search and applications.

Finally, with the draconian angel tax sorted out, 2019-20 looks quite promising for Startup Entrepreneurs. The job market being patchy, the number of students not applying for campus jobs in leading Engineering and MBA schools is at an all-time high. All these young graduates see the futility of working for 2-3 years and then jumping to the entrepreneurship journey out of frustration.

In Summary, there is enough reason to be optimistically cautious or cautiously optimistic about 2019-20 for the tech sector. With the Indian economy more and more aligned with the global happenings, one needs to account for all kinds of variances and brace for impact. While one may make big bets on new upcoming ideas like folding and curved phones, 5G network and driver-less cars, one may do so with a handful (not a pinch) of salt!!

- Hetal Sonpal,
Prominent Angel Investor and Industry Veteran