Silicon Valley often hosts world leaders, but rarely gives them the rock-star reception that it is planning for India prime minister Narendra Modi this weekend. Seats for an 18,500-person event where he will be speaking, at the SAP Center in San Jose, disappeared within days, and tens of thousands more could have sold. The Silicon Valley Indian community is especially abuzz. Companies such as Google, Facebook, and Tesla are rolling out the red carpet.
The euphoria arises partly because Indians here are still optimistic that Modi will transform India — after decades of economic stagnation under socialist governments. But his greater appeal to the tech community is that he is one of the world’s few truly tech-savvy leaders. He has mastered social media and has more than 15 million followers on Twitter — second only to President Obama among world leaders. And Modi has declared his intent to build a Digital India: a knowledge economy that delivers key government services electronically, connects all parts of the country with high-speed Internet networks, and ensures its populace is digitally literate.
Considering that India has already become the largest growth market for smartphones and will, by the end of this decade, add more than 500 million Internet users, it is not surprising that the CEOs of Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Adobe are lining up to meet with Modi. They need to ensure that there will be no regulatory roadblocks in India, which will have a market twice as large as the U.S. market. But my hope is that Modi’s visit goes beyond the star power and that he gets to see the can-do attitude of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs. They are using exponentially advancing technologies such as sensors, artificial intelligence, robotics, medicine, and 3D printing to change the world, and these technologies can also help transform India and uplift its population.
Here are some examples of what is possible for India — and what Modi needs to support:
Smart cities: Modi has talked a lot about smart cities, but what he refers to are cleaner and more efficient cities — not what we talk about in Silicon Valley. Using the advances in sensors, for example, it is possible to build technologically connected cities that monitor things such as traffic patterns, air quality, noise, radiation levels, and water quality. These sensors can manage pollution, waste, parking, traffic congestion, security, and almost every other aspect of a city’s functioning. The cities won’t cost billions of dollars, as the original smart cities did that Middle East countries tried to build, but millions of dollars. Indian entrepreneurs can start building smart neighborhoods and then scale these up to the city level.
Sharing economy: Uber showed Indian entrepreneurs that app-based ride-sharing was practical even in India’s chaotic cities. But Uber targeted elite, high-end customers and got many things wrong. The bigger opportunities are to share rides in three-wheelers, bicycle rickshaws, and buses. Technology can also facilitate hiring of workers in the informal economy — laborers, technicians, maids, and painters — and tractor-sharing on farms; jhuggi rentals; bike-sharing; and seed swaps. Indian entrepreneurs are trying to build their own versions of these technologies, but they will need the government to streamline cumbersome regulations.
Health apps, devices, and genomics: Medical devices as accurate as those that western hospitals use are now possible by connecting inexpensive sensors to smartphones and tablets. A few Indian startups have already created better and more practical technology than I have seen in Silicon Valley. Forus Health, for example, has developed a portable eye-screening device called 3nethra that can detect eye pathologies such as cataract, diabetic retinopathy, and cornea-related problems.
Health Cubed has built inexpensive powerful medical devices that are in use on 2.5 million people in north India to measure blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate, blood hemoglobin, and urine protein and to diagnose diseases such as HIV AIDS, syphilis, dengue, and malaria. MapMyGenome analyzes genome data to provide insights into the genetic bases of various aspects of individuals’ health, including traits, lifestyle, drug responses, inherited conditions, and diseases. Combining these technologies with telemedicine will enable hundreds of millions of villagers in India to receive timely and affordable health care.
Education: No matter how hard it tries, India’s government will not be able to fix its public schools in time to educate the more than 100 million children in towns and villages that are currently without adequate educational facilities. The only solution lies in technology. The inexpensive smartphones that Indians are now buying can also be used for education. Thousands of applications available today can teach subjects such as history, geography, music, mathematics, and science. Indian entrepreneurs need to build versions of them in local languages and create adaptive educational technologies that tailor the learning path to the needs of the student. Government needs to revise its curriculum and work hand in hand with entrepreneurs to offer digital education as a backup to the failing schools.
Agriculture: Technology is opening up possibilities for dramatically transforming India’s highly inefficient farms. Sensors can be used to monitor soil humidity and optimize watering; aquaculture can be optimized with on-farm diagnostic technologies; dairy and farm production can be automated through CRM-like systems. These can be connected to the smartphones that the farmers already have and can also provide them with education and support.
Turning children into innovators: Schoolchildren in Silicon Valley have the opportunity to play with 3D printers, robot-building kits, and sensor components. These printers and kits are not expensive. Providing every village with these will enable children to build robots that automate manufacturing, to design innovative new consumer products, and to customize 3D designs for global consumers. Children can develop sensor-based systems for diverse industries, smart-city technologies, and new home-monitoring and -automation systems. Yes, children in villages can now build these technologies — and they will learn them faster than adults do.
My hope is that Modi will take back with him a grand vision of the future — an understanding of what has become possible. Indian technologists in Silicon Valley have risen to the top ranks of tech companies and now start 16 percent of the Valley’s new businesses. Modi’s challenge is to inspire Indian entrepreneurs in India to innovate to the same degree.
Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University.