Challenges in Science and Technology


Sam Pitroda

It is indeed a great privilege to be invited to deliver the 19th Dr. Vikram Sarabhai Memorial Lecture, I thank the organizers, especially Praful Anubhai, who called me here. I am delighted to see so many friends. It is always good to be back home. I have jotted down ten, twenty points, which I would like to share with you. The topic I have selected –‘The challenges in Science and Technology’ – may perhaps be too broad and too vague for many in the audience. I would like to pay great tribute to Dr.Sarabhai at this point in time when we are going through liberalization, privatisation and globalsation; It could be a good idea to review science and technology once again, put it in the right perspective, reflect on what is going to come ahead of us and how we have done in the past. I do not have lots of figures and charts or statistical information. I am going to speak more from my heart about the purpose, the process and the people.

Dr.Sarabhai was a leading personality with an unique blend of science, social consciousness, entrepreneurship, energy, enthusiasm, vision and value. It is hard to find an individual with proper blend of all of these unique qualities. His contribution to science and technology is well-recognized world over. He has given India a great deal of strength in space, atomic energy and communication, which happens to be the field I specialise in. I saw him when I was eighteen and a student of physics in M.S.University, Baroda where he came to deliver a lecture. I had at that time just about five microseconds of interaction with him. Never in my wildest imagination did I think that thirty-five years thereafter I would be coming to Ahmedabad to deliver the Vikram Sarabhai Memorial lecture. I will talk about the challenges in science and technology in two levels global and national.

At the global level I would like to focus on images of the twentieth century that come to my mind, its relation to science and technology. Look at general trends as I see it today as we enter the 21st century, talk about three or four key technologies of the future and then identify ten key global changes that I down the road for the next twenty, thirty years to come. At the national level, I would like to examine what has happened in the last 45-50 years after independence, look at the scene today in science and technology and thereafter identify ten key issues that I see as challenges for future in science and technology

When I think of 20th century, I look at three important phase’s colonization, national freedom and global markets (free economy and globalisation of trade and technology). The images that come to my mind reflect Holocaust, Hiroshima, Apartheid, World War, poverty, ignorance, Environmental Blunders and Quest & Desire for peace and prosperity at all levels. In the 20th century we have also effected a major transition, moving from the capital-intensive industrial base to knowledge intensive information base. These images reflect a whole lot of developments in technology in this century. The greatest strides have been made in electronics, and biotechnology. Electronics has essentially transformed the global scene in the last seventy years, whether it is microprocessor, fibre optics, satellites, television, telephones, computer information or medical instruments. Everything today that has to do with electronics has become pervasive. On an average, today in U.S. homes, many of the equipment’s they use incorporate a motor-blenders, washers, dryers, garage door opener. Etc.. whose presence people won’t even realise technology has become so pervaisve that we are into even conscious of the fact that is around us all the time. The DNA and the entire molecular biology has opened whole new set of opportunities. Look at transportation. For my father who lived in a village and never saw a train it was very difficult for him to conceptualise what trains would be like and so, in his first travel form Halward to Viramgam he was trying to visualise what the train would be like, who would be pulling it, how he would sit, how many people would be there, etc, which he used to describe to me. For him, it was fascinating. Now, he says: “I came to U.S. in 747”: look at the transformation in one’s lifetime. What has happened to all of us in the last fifty years in absolutely remarkable, but once again we take all these things for granted.

Unfortunately in the 20th century technology has been used for destruction as well as for development. Lot of time, energy, money and resource’s have gone into building defence infrastructure. This colonial mind-set carried with us lot of baggage’s. World War divided countries into ideologies and we created iron curtains and walls and started spending billions and billions in building defence warheads. Scientists spent their lifetime in building nuclear bombs, missiles, space wars, star-wars, ignoring at the same time fundamental development. It was an unique mixture of destruction and development that the scientists were asked to work on. Quality of life as a result has suffered. The standard of living has increased but I have my own doubt about quality of life in many areas

Most of the research in science and technology in the 20th century was funded by government programmes.-weather it was for basic science or for application of science . When President Kennedy said that he would like to take man to the moon, it required tens of billions of dollars and there were fall-outs of this research into microelectronics, calculators and things like that which people don’t even recognize. Government funded research has delivered whole lot of technology for destruction on one hand and development on the other. In the process, I also find, I also find, especially in the Western world, that people are disconnected. Communication technology is supposed to connect people: it is beginning to connect people to machines, but not people to people. A young kid in U.S. knows how to deal with computer networks but does not know how to play with his next-door neighbour, so technology does bring in some level of problems. Some use technology, some abuse technology. The main idea behind technology has been to increase comforts, helps us in doing things outside of our body, but unfortunately for many developing countries technology is seen as something exotic fancy, foreign, alien, sexy and not necessarily problem solving. Technology is problem solving and there is technology in everything we do. Many of my friends in social science always criticize me saying” You are attacking” “Of course I am. That’s all I know”. “You look at things only form the view point of management and technology”. ”Well, that is the only pair of glasses I wear” But the same people use telephones computers, watch TV, and travel on aeroplanes without accepting the fact that they are indeed enjoying the fruits of technology in their day to day life.

I see the following important trends in technology based on what I have seen in the 20th century:

Ø      Everything is being miniaturised, from micro-motors to micro-electronics.

Ø     Ever technology is pushing for productivity, and efficiency in all sectors, and is used to increase these.

Ø     Technology is being used to reduce cost. Only by reducing cost you can bring technology to the doorstep of many more people

Ø     Technologies are becoming environment friendly. People are now becoming conscious of environment friendly technologies in everything they do. For example take the ‘Yellow Pages’. In the city of Chicago, there are about six million telephones and the telephone directories (three volumes) if stacked together, will be 1.5 feet in height. Just to print and distribute 8 million of these directories to each, imagine the number of trees that are cut every year! Do we really need it? Who uses those Yellow Pages? Now, all of sudden we are conscious of all these things when it is too late in many cases.

Ø     Standardisation : Only through standardisation you can increase markets, reduce cost thereby giving accessibility to large number of people

Ø     In technology, people are now beginning to recognize the importance of time. Time has become a very very important resource and people are learning to link time and technology. In time inventory, there is a classical example. You are trying to optimise time and time is becoming a great weapon for competitiveness

Ø     Technology is increasing comforts as a result, a whole new ‘leisure industry’ is being developed. And there are products for the ‘leisure industry’

Ø     There is an increase in automation to increase productivity, reduce cost and eliminate labour (thereby creating unemployment)

Ø     Technology is going to be so pervasive that we will, over a period of time, not even recognise that all these complex technologies are around us, in our pockets. People are talking about ‘electronic cash’. They ask, ”do we really need to print all these money? If we don’t need to print directories, why do we need to print all this money?”. Later on I will talk about a patent that I have just filed.

 These are the trends that I see. And based on these trends, I see ten challenges for technology at global level.

1.      To convert the entire defence and destruction based industry to sustainable development: This is going to be very very difficult task. In Russia I find that all those huge plants are sitting idle nothing to do: no orders. Their mind is all set only for defence industry and they just don’t have ideas on how to transform this industry building Tanks into, for example, Telecom. This is happening not just in Russia but it is equally true for America. While developing world is increasing expenditure on defence, same people now who have cerate peace world over are selling defence equipment to poorer countries who can’t afford. So, there is a big challenge her to bring this out in front and recognize the fact that this going to be the biggest challenge in the next 50 years, to transform and convert defence industry into sustainable development

2.      To expedite the application of technology to meet basic human needs: We have not paid much attention to the technology applications for drinking water, literacy, immunization, housing, sanitation, mainly because all of these technologies in the last 100 years have developed in the western world. And there is nothing Eastern about any of these technologies. Not a thing, Japanese have not invented anything. Indians have not invented anything. East that talks about the glory of the past has zero contribution when it comes to innovation in science and technology in the last 100 years. We don’t like to say that because it hurts our pride. But these are the facts of life.

As a result, all of the technology has pushed developments in areas other than basic needs because those who develop technology, their basic needs are already met. Those who need to worry about sanitation drinking water etc either do not have the tools to do it or don’t have the desire or pressure to do it. Those who have the technology have no need to it. For example today when the world is talking about liberalization and privatization in Telecom there are 4.5 billion people in the world who have no access to telephone. Only twelve countries out of two hundred in the world have universal telephone services. I visited Africa recently and I have seen the poverty there. Africa has green lush jungles where you can assume that there is so much wealth, but what is missing is the element of technology. So, the challenge is going to be expedite this process to bring technology in these areas so that in the next 30-40-50 years, basic human needs are met all over the world.

3.      To create cost effective community assets for energy, environment and other        infrastructure: There is nor enough investment in community assets when it come sot technology. I gave you the example of ‘yellow pages’. Do we really need to cut millions of trees to produce Yellow pages are the kind of questions we would be asking now.

4.      To take technology closer to people; science education; and this whole relationship between tradition and technology: Whenever technology comes in, you have this conflict with tradition. For example, in Africa, I am told that there are more than 50 million women with female genital mutilation in 1995. This is because of the tradition. While I was driving through Malawi, I saw loads of people. Upon enquiry, I was told  that in the town next door some 10 to 15 kms –there is somebody who has a vision who gives you a drink which will get rid of AIDS. And so everybody is going to him-hoping that they will never get it. How do you fight this kind of ignorance? But then how do you educate? Whenever you have this transition form tradition to technology, it generates lot of tension, turmoil and this is going to be a major challenge in the years to come.

5.      To narrow the gap between countries of the North and the South: For example, Telecom, which is supposed to bridge this gap, is actually widening it between North and south. Because of Telecom, developing countries are going to be 20 years further behind. This is hard to imagine because while we are worried about basic telephone services, Western world is looking at the whole lot of new services to integrate computers, communication, broadcasting. And that is going to transform their institution’s work. All jobs are going to be re-engineered and redefined. This gap is of great concern to peace and prosperity of the future. If we don’t take care of it, it is possible that tension will be created beyond our imagination.

6.      To create resources: Now that the government is pulling out and everything is being privatized, where is the money going to come from for science and technology? Is corporate funding going to fund the right kind of project? Government does not have enough money for science and technology all over the world, Private people are saying, “Are you going to produce results tomorrow afternoon? If you don’t, why should I fund you? I am not interested in hypothetical, esoteric, basic research which is so very fundamental to technology”. So, funding for the right kind of research where you don’t see result for 50 years, 100 years down the road, is going to be a big challenge for the future.

7.      Technology management: We know very little about good management in science and technology, Scientists say, “Don’t mange us”. “We are doing blue sky fundamental research, you can’t bother. We don’t produce results; why should we?” And there is going to be more pressure to produce results and you will have to evolve new set of technologies for science and technology because government funding, which you had in the past, will not guarantee the luxury you had in the past, and private people will push further and further for results.

In the process, there is going to be information overload. Today, because knowledge is doubling at the rate of every five years, there is just too much information. When I get on the INTERNET to find something, lots and lots of information come to me and I have very difficult time deriving knowledge out of it. People will give you lots of information but not enough knowledge and that process of taking knowledge out of information is very very time consuming. This is going to be another major challenge, to create knowledge from information and action from knowledge.

8.      Employment: Technology is indeed reducing employment. People talk about going from agricultural to industrial age, where agricultural productivity has increased so much that with 3% man power in agriculture you can feed 10% or whatever the number is. And people say that lot of unemployment has gone into industrial sector. Now there is another phase where industrial sector is going down and information sector is coming up. Unfortunately, it is not coming up fast enough. We are not creating jobs in the service sector fast enough while we are eliminating jobs in the industrial sector rapidly. Through automation, so many different jobs, which we were expecting to come to the developing world in the 90’s, have totally vanished. In the Western world delaying is going on where mangers and supervisors are not needed. Pyramid organisation are bring broken systematically with the result that people in their 40’s and 50’s don’t know what to do because they had been trained to only supervise, and suddenly they have nothing to supervise on, I have a friend who runs a company that we own in US where there are 200 employees and the Chief Executive only. There is no organization chart, no secretary no typist, no supervisor, and there are 200 people reporting to one man. It is almost like an orchestra and one conductor with accompaniments. Everybody with different instruments is playing the same tune. In this kind of a structure it is very difficult to add people. This delaying is going to cost lots and lots of jobs over a period of time through it has not begun here as yet.

9.      To create global information infrastructure that everybody talks about, with an understanding that it does not remain rather than G-II, G7-II. There was a meeting in Brussels last month where Vice President of USA, Al Gore spoke. Thereafter we had a meeting in Paris where I gave a key note address and my message was:” I am worried that G-II is going to remain G7-II because developing world is not party to what is going on in building global information infrastructure”. These are the highways of the future where sitting at home by telecommuting you will be doing a whole lot of things and managing billions and billions form your bedroom. What role do we have to play in this kind of environment is going to be a very big challenge at the global level for the future.

10.   Tenth item that is going to be most demanding is: Re-engineering of all the processes and all the jobs that we know, that we have created in the 20th century: I believe that every job that we created in the 20th century is going to get transformed into the 21st century. Doctors will be performing surgery sitting in New York on a patient in Africa. It is happening today where, on a screen, you are doing something here and controlling a needle in Africa sewing somebody’s chest or performing a surgery. Lawyer’s job, Account’s job, teacher’s job is going to change. Just look at the primary education. It has not changed since at least several hundred years. You still have a teacher duster, chalk, blackboard, little classroom, a bunch of children and may be, a stick. This has not changed in the Western world also. The same children today at the age of three or four are on the computers talking to their colleagues, manoeuvring through networks, playing Nintendo games. Then they go to the classes at the age of seven and when a fifty year old teacher like me starts teaching them A,B,C,D, they feel insulted. They sit there as they have no voice and get frustrated. They can’t express themselves that “I am being insulted by this teacher, I am not interested in this blackboard”. So, what you will see in the next 10/15/20 years is a new learning tool where sitting at home you will learn everything and by the time you are seventh you will go the seventh grade (and not the first grade)

The whole education system is going to be reformed where you wont need to go to college to get a degree; sitting at home you get a better education. People will then ask: “What about interaction between human beings?” Well, that you can do outside of college. All old traditional ideas that we have, will be broken, Questions, examinations, perhaps, may be thrown out of the window. Reengineering is going to affect every job. It is also going to affect the government. I firmly believe that because of G-II, governments are going to be marginalized world over. They will have very little role to play because interest groups will network together. Local issues will become international issues. For a dam being built in India, the pressure will come from US, UK, Brazil because all of the environment lobbyists will be on the network and you will not have the luxury of keeping local issues intact for the local communities.

To me these are the ten most important challenges as I see it in Science and technology for the future.

 I will just give you a glimpse of what is going on in the world.


I know of people who are questioning the whole concept of light. They are examining why the lighting bug keeps on giving light without any input. “What is the genetic make up of lightning bug? Can we break that and then inject every tree so that when it is dark, the trees can glow”? I know of a professor in MIT who is working on a tree, which will grow six feet every month. You can cut it and you can have your own power plant in the back of your kitchen. I know of a scientist who says: “What is this whole idea of refineries? Why do you pull oil out of the well? Have a pipeline, ship it somewhere and then the huge infrastructure involving lot of energy, to refine oil. It is crazy. What if I take one glass of something put it in the oil source so when the oil comes out, it is already refined. Why have I to do it above ground, why can’t I do it under the ground?”

Another scientist says: “Why is this whole problem of protein deficiency? I am going to develop something, a spoonful of which when given to the new born child will form a special lining in the stomach and no matter what you eat, it will make protein out of it”.

Wild research is going on in the world, some of these things are already laid out. It might take 50-60 years to get visible results. I tell my children: “When we were growing up, we unconsciously assumed that the life span is 60 years: 20 years to study, 20-30 years to work and 10 years to enjoy and talk about the past before you die”. I said, “Don’t make that mistake. Your life span is going to be 120 years because by the time you are-80-60-70 years down the road technology would have changed to a point where it will keep you alive for 120 years. So break up your phase 40-40 and 40. “We have to think differently because of technology. But it is very hard to come out of the traditional mould of thinking.

Science in India today has come a long way since independence. Science has played an important role in India’s self-reliance-led strategy for development. You have made contributions in building infrastructures such as CSIR laboratories, Atomic Energy, Space Research (a contribution Dr.Vikarm Sarabhai made) building several major National Laboratories. Green revolution was a great tribute to the Indian scientist. A country, which considered a basket case by rest of the world, all of a sudden is ready to feed one billion people. Unthinkable! Unheard of! These are the positive sides of science and technology in India.

Look at what we have done in defence sector in the last 50 years. We have indeed made a lot of progress. Unfortunately what we do is not enough. Sometimes I wish we had paid more attention to female literacy and infant mortality, then we would be sitting here with only 500 million people (and not 960 million) and as a result all our gains would be visible. Unfortunately, lots of our grains are not visible because our numbers get added so very fast that all the gains we make get wiped out.

India is now going into a different phase. We are adding new strength to be a global player, and as a result, out entire science and technology base must challenge with a focus on globalization, competitiveness, liberalization, and privatization. This is a very big challenge. We recognize that the cold war is over and new challenges must be faced such that, with entrepreneurial drive and initiative, coupled with technology and good delivery and distribution system, we can bring products and services to millions of our people in rural and urban areas. Unfortunately, many of us are concerned that we are in a great danger of mistaking consumption as development. You have to be very careful in defining development. To me, development is the creation of wealth community assets, goods and services for the benefit of large number of people at competitive quality and affordable cost’. To achieve this, you need very clear-cut policies on investments, infrastructure, growth and social equity. Science and technology is not only essential for development but it is indispensable for sustainable development.

The vision of science and technology in India must have in front of us the vision of India, but unfortunately I find that we do not have a shared vision of India as a nation. We all have or bits and pieces. If I ask a hundred people what do you want India to be, I don’t think we will have a common answer. Everybody has his own vision of India. This is the country of ‘million mutinies’. It is hard to build a foundation of science and technology without a very strong vision of a nation: What do we want the country to be? And it is not very easy to develop a vision. I am one of those who believe that ‘Vision requires values’ If you don’t have values, you cant have a vision. Not that we don’t have values but there is something missing when we begin to develop national vision. Vision must be quantifiable, and it should be such that you should be able to articulate it to a larger number of people and break it down into small little pieces for people to act on, and then be able to put them together as a whole package. We neither have a good vision nor do we have good communication policy or framework for that vision. Science and technology, as an result, requires lot of restructuring.

The first thing is to review where we are, what do we have, how many projects, what are we doing, and thereafter structure priorities in science and technology. We continuously need to focus science and technology for human needs because we have the responsibility in the world with the kind of manpower and intelligentsia that we have. When you have 950 million people you are bound to have 9.5 million smart one. Nothing you can do about it. Other countries don’t have the luxury we have because of our numbers. So we have to take the lead when it when it comes to applying science and technology to basic human need. Countries in Africa need to look to s and work with us, as opposed to looking to the Western world for solutions to their problems. They always look ‘up’ rather than looking ‘sideways’. This was my message to everybody in Africa. I said don’t go on looking up. Haven’t you learnt your lessons? There are others in this world you can look to for help. But you have this mental block: you assume that the help comes form White and the North, it can’t come from Brown. When I go into meetings with lot of my American friends, I tell them, “I am arrogant, I can afford to be one. The only thing I don’t have is your skin. I am brown, so I have got to be arrogant. There is nothing that you know that I don’t know. What I know in Telecom will take you a lifetime to learn. You can’t match my intelligence”. And a lot of people get turned off. I really don’t mean it but I am making a statement. The point is that we as a nation have a moral responsibility, because of the large mass of poor people that we have, to look at science and technology go expediting that process

We need science and technology for infrastructure, for modernization of existing institutions, some of which according to me are totally dead. Our universities are totally destroyed. We are not willing to face the facts. Institutions are politicised, and they are no longer institutions of learning’. Shame on all of us that we have got to such a stage! Bright children need to bribe to get admission when it should be their birth right. What kind of society are we getting into? We are creating this facade in front of us and ignoring the real problem, not facing up to the challenges. Some institutions will have to be closed, burnt and new ones will have to be created with new people, new challenges. Do we have the will to do these kinds of things? Human Resources is our great asset. Are we really capitalising on it? Industrial R &D would be more demanding now with liberalisation, privatisation, and industries will have to learn to put in added funding for R&D. Our industry does not do any R & D at all according to me. ‘They will have to bite the bullet and put the money on the table’ if they are going to survive

We must learn to create intellectual property. We have institutions of innovation but there are no innovations. We have very many forms, but no substance. I look at number of patents we file and say that a nation of 960 million people can invent so much? It’s not possible. We do have a large base in our tradition of science and technology whether it is medicine, herbal plants or you name it. But we have not been able to capitalise on it. Intellectual Property is my favourite subject and I will take a few minutes and give you an idea on the patent that I promise you.

After heart attack and after the death of Rajiv Gandhi, I went to US to spend sometime with my children. While reviewing my life, all of a sudden I realised that in the past eight years I had not filed any patent, which was a shock to me. “May be”, I thought, “time has come for me to recognize that my utility is over. May be I am obsolete. May be, I am nothing to add any more!” So I said to myself: “Is it possible for me to file ten patents in the next twelve months? Let’s see if I can do it. If I cannot do it, I must then accept the fact that it’s O.K. – you had your time, it is no longer your time”.

One day I realised that my wife was using 25 credit cards (like everybody else in the US). Every month, you get 25 bills, write 25 cheques, use 25 envelopes. So I decided to examine the whole business of credit card. I told my lawyer to get me all the patents on credit cards. I got 140 patents. I went through them, Zeroed in on 30 patents which sounded interesting, studied them ---German, French, Japanese, American --- and realised that when people think of credit cards, they only think of plastic cards. So I though that everybody is one the wrong track when it comes to inventions on credit cards. So I said, “ I am going to come up with a new credit card with a big Liquid Crystal Display (LCD). If I touch at one point, It will be American Express, another point will be Visa, another, Mastercard and so on. All my cards will be in one card electronically put in”. Then I realised that in the US, every year, 80 billion takes place, and for every transaction, three pieces of paper get prepared- you get one, the restaurant keeps one and the third goes to the credit card company. 240 billion pieces of paper float around every year. Somebody has to hold it, somebody has to fold it. So, I said,’we are going to write a receipt inside the card itself’. If your lunch bill is $30.20 you sign it and keep it inside. You can store 1,000 receipts in the card.  You then go to your PC, dump it and get all your analysis. Then you can go to your bank and down load cash. You can down load traveller’s cheques. You can spend it as you go along. I spent lot of time, hired a lawyer and filed a patent nine months ago. I am now waiting for the patent department to come back.

These kinds of things are creating values in the western world where ideas are more important for generating wealth and not assets. Assets have no meaning. It is the mind that creates billions. You don’t need anything. Your need paper, pencil and yourself. One day I was watching TV somebody called me on phone. We have a box called –caller ID where the number of party calling is displayed. I was too lazy to get up as the caller ID we have is in the kitchen. Sitting there I though then that would it not be nice to have the caller ID on television itself. So right that evening, I designed the circuit, filed the patent and got a patent. I now have a patent which says: “while watching TV whomsoever is calling you, his name and number will come on your TV screen. If you want to answer, do it otherwise don’t answer”.

All kinds of things are happening. I have designed a weighing machine, which talks to you, gives you your analysis. I have also designed a golf club with an electronic sensor in it. The world is full of new ideas to be explored but the poverty is that of the mind. New technologies will have to be created as part of the wealth creation process, but as a nation we cannot do everything. We must learn to do things only in areas where we are good at, as otherwise we will spread ourselves too thin. No nation today is capable of doing everything. We must prioritise all our activities and then decide on what it is that we are going to focus on.

I hope that in the time I had, I have given you an overview of what are the challenges we have to face in this century. This does not have lot of analytical background but just ‘off the cuff’ based on how I feel about them. “If it was that important, it must come to my mind, it could not be that important”. I have not much to say in terms for thought process. I have done through my outline and I hope I did convey to some of my concerns. I believe that the challenges I outlined at the national and global level are the real challenges that we will face. Time will tell us. What we really need is ‘people’. I think, the purpose is very clear, the process is very clear, where are people to do it: Which brings me back to Dr.Vikram Sarabhai. We need people like him dedicated, committed, concerned and courageous, people with 50 different qualities in one human being (and not just10, 20 qualities). You have got to be educated, experienced, honest, sincere, committed, with values, with vision- all these have to be packaged properly in one human being. We need more and more of those people. We have them, we need to build them, create them, pump them up, give them the charge, leave them alone, trust them, turn them loose, and allow them to make mistakes. We don’t need to criticise everything everybody does which we are good at. If we focus on the right kind of people, I think, process and purpose clarity would help us, and would be able to deliver the results that we need.