Digital Public Infrastructure: Modi and Gates in Conversation

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s engaging conversation with Bill Gates covered a range of important subjects. We bring you excerpts of the interview with a focus on India’s digital revolution, advent and use of AI and data protection and benefits thereof. They touch upon the relevance of taking into account a country’s Green GDP in evaluating success and uniting a country as vast as our in the face of a global pandemic.

Modi: We had extensive discussions before the G20 summit and you’ve likely noted, the summit’s proceedings took various turns. I believe we have now aligned with G20’s core purposes and objectives bringing them into the mainstream, I hope your first-hand experience echoes this sentiment.

Bill Gates: The G20 was more inclusive. And so, it was fantastic to see that India in hosting it really raised things like digital innovation and how this south, south collaboration can be far more than just the dialogue with the north that can actually be system that improves health. And, our foundation is so excited about the positive results that you’ve achieved here in India that we’ll be a partner in trying to take that into many other countries.

Modi: You are right. During the G20 summit in Indonesia, representatives from around the world expressed their curiosity about the digital revolution we have spearheaded. I explained to them our foundational approach is that we have democratized technology to prevent monopoly. It is by the people and for the people and we have committed to ensure that emerging talents from within the community can continuously contribute and enhance its value to foster trust in technology among people.

Bill Gates: In areas like digital government. India’s not only adapting technology, but it’s actually leading the way. What are some of the things you’re excited about?

Modi: Health, agriculture and education. India has built 2 lakh Ayushman Arogya mandir health centres in villages. These are linked directly through modern technology with the best hospitals. Initially the patients wondered how can they be accurately diagnosed without a doctor physically examining them but later they understood with the right technological instruments even a doctor sitting hundreds of kilometers away can indeed diagnose them correctly. So, people’s confidence is increasing. This is the power of digital platforms. And secondly, education, I want to provide the best education to children. I want to use technology to bring quality education and fill in the gaps. Additionally, we are working towards aligning content with children’s interest in visuals, storytelling and we are creating that kind of content. Even in agriculture we are bringing a big revolution where I want to change the mindset.

Bill Gates: In one of the themes, I think India brings to technology is that it should be available for everyone actually, lifting up those who need it the most.

Modi: When I used to hear about digital divide in the world, I used to think that I will not let anything like this happen in my country. And digital public infrastructure is a big requirement in itself. Today I want to extend this digital facility to all our villages. So, I think that is a very big target group. Women are more open to adopting new technology in India. I have launched a program – Namo Drone Didi, empowering 15,000 women led self-help groups with drones and this has two goals. Firstly, I would like to make 3 crore women ‘lakhpati’ Didi in Indian villages. So, I want to make that psychological change and make a big impact. Secondly, I don’t want women to be limited in the same age-old tasks and hand them technology instead. I need to modernize agriculture and make it scientific. It is running very successfully.

I spoke with many people from African countries, I told them that I am ready to help you in this because it gives equal opportunity to everyone and its main point is to democratize. Even during Covid, we had the CoWin app to book your slot and also get your certificate within seconds. It was open source; anyone could use it. In my experience, digital technology has significantly benefitted our country. India will be the leader in the 4th industrial revolution through digital advancements.

Gates: I think the key point is that the digital infrastructure keeps getting richer. A lot of people know about the identity system and the digital payment systems, and that the government, by taking virtually all the government payment programmes now and digitizing those, that alone saved a lot of money. And it created access on a more equal basis. But now as you’re moving into the different areas, advice for farmers registering their land, tutoring for kids and the health records, connecting all of those, that’s kind of a second phase. And we’re just at the beginning now, the third phase where these advances in artificial intelligence will come on top of that and make the value even better.

Modi: You are right, AI is very important. Let me share an exciting use of AI. During G20, we leveraged AI extensively. Our G20 campus featured AI-based solutions for language interpretation. We equipped all chauffeurs with a mobile app enabling seamless communication with guests. It had a built-in translation for all languages.

Now, I am using my NAMO app and its very useful.

Gates: I would love to hear your view on how India sees AI?

Modi: Labeling AI merely as a magic tool, it will lead to great injustice. If I am relying on AI due to laziness, that is wrong too. Instead, we should compete with AI and challenge it and strive to surpass its capabilities.

Gates: It’s early days in AI and I think everyone who uses it in the same day, you’re surprised at how good it is. And you’re also surprised at how bad it is. It’ll do things you think are hard and then it’ll fail to do somethings you think are easy. You know, I started my trip here in Hyderabad which was a nice occasion because Microsoft is celebrating 25 years in the country. And that’s been such a fantastic experience. So, I was definitely challenging the team there. Hey, we have to make the accuracy better. And for now, it’s like a copilot. It helps suggest things. But the final we still have to review that even though it may make us a bit more creative and a bit more productive. You know, it seems like AI’s a huge opportunity. But there’s some challenges that come with that. How do you think India will approach that?

Modi: Addressing the challenge AI presents, I’ve observed that without proper training there is a significant risk of misuse of such powerful technology. I’ve engaged with leading minds in AI, I suggested that we should start with clear watermark on AI generated content to prevent misinformation. This isn’t to devalue AI creations but to recognize them for what they are. Deepfake, in a vast democratic country like India, the misuse can initially deceive people leading to possible uproar. It is critical to acknowledge that deepfake content is AI-generated and mention its source. We need to establish some do’s and don’ts.

Gates: In the AI world, data is so important, and yet people have concerns, privacy concerns. How do we strike the balance there?

Modi: Data security remains a paramount concern and while India has a legal framework in place, public awareness is equally crucial. For instance, in our country, I have initiated storing all university certificates on the cloud to reduce cost and fulfill various needs efficiently. Today, aim is to improve the ease of living of our citizens.

Gates: Data definitely is going be very exciting that we’ll be able to preserve privacy and still learn a lot from the data. Like, which crop should you plant if we get all the data from the farmers without their names so we don’t invade their privacy, but giving better farmer advice or seeing here in India, the top 10% of teachers are so good and saying, okay, what are they doing? And how do we spread that to the other people? Or even if there’s some new nutrition approach, sometimes it works and sometimes not. And so, because you have the medical record, the ability to kind of track and say, this is working very well, or this isn’t you know, we can be a lot smarter without threatening individual privacy.

Modi: There are two critical perspectives to consider. Firstly, we need to educate the general population on the importance of contributing quality data, and the need for both precision and clarity. Secondly, data owners must be informed about the intention behind data requests. The priority should be given for research and they too should provide clear assurances regarding the use of data affirming that it serves a global benefit and promotes the welfare of the general public.

Gates: I think it’s interesting that some of these digital systems create efficiency by getting rid of the middleman. And that’s super beneficial.

Modi: I often express a desire to lead a government that particularly for the middle class becomes virtually invisible from their daily lives, eliminating any unnecessary governmental intervention. For those in poverty, who genuinely require government assistance, it should be readily available in abundance.

Gates: In 2015, one of the great things we did together was you came to Paris for that mission innovation. That was fantastic.

Modi: Our perspectives on climate change align closely, and your contributions have been notable proactive. During that period, Obama, you and I and the President of France met and discussed our strategy. Regrettably, our efforts did not progress significantly. However, post G20, the atmosphere has fostered a collective resolve towards climate responsibility. A foundation we laid together with your involvement being instrumental, I’m optimistic that these efforts will flourish.

India has fast tracked use of renewable energy: solar energy, wind energy, we are eager to accelerate in the nuclear sector. Similarly, our ambitions extend to making significant progress in green hydrogen. Green hydrogen boat will run from Kashi to Ayodhya to support the clean Gange movement.

Gates: Well, India brings to climate change a rich history of caring about the environment. How do you see connecting those?

Modi: Reuse – recycle are second nature to India. The jacket I am wearing is crafted from recycled materials, using scraps of cloth and recycled plastic to create this fabric.

Gates: The innovation both here in India and the world is coming along are the goals that we set. You know, staying below 1.5 degrees, we probably will miss that. Even two degrees isn’t going to be so easy. And the thing you and I really emphasized in Paris is the need for innovation. If the green approach can be made as cheap or cheaper than the old approach, then the adoption will be very good. If it’s more expensive, it’s not clear who’s going be willing to pay for that. Should the rich countries pay for that. It’s not fair to tell India to slow down, building basic infrastructure just because the West had those emissions.

Modi: I believe we should adopt a two-pronged strategy. First is innovation and the goal should be to evaluate environment friendly and climate friendly innovations. To this end, India has established a corpus fund of Rs 1 lakh crore in this budget. Inviting the younger generations to contribute innovative ideas, offering interest free loans for 50 years to support these innovations. There is another important thing we need to focus on is our lifestyle. That’s why I started Mission Life. It urges people to take action towards environmental protection and conservation. We need to make our life choices and measure progress in ways that are friendly to the climate.

Gates: I’ve been interested in your discussions about Green GDP. Tell us more.

Modi: I believe that the world should develop the concept of Green GDP to measure. For example, how much of our GDP is a Green GDP or out of overall employment, what’s the ratio of green jobs out there. We need to change terminology globally.

Gates: Now getting consumers involved in this, where they prefer the product that’s the clean product. When they’re buying a car when, when they’re buying any product and changing their food consumption, even if they don’t go all the way to be a vegetarian they can eat less beef and more chicken or less chicken and more fish. You know, they can moderate quite a bit. And we know that also has some health benefit as well.

Modi: Not only that. I believe even in vegetarian diets improvement is needed. Such as including millets. It can grow on barren land, with minimum water and no requirement of fertilizer and it’s a superfood. It is also increasing the income of the small farmers.

Gates: Well, during the pandemic, it was fantastic that the vaccines got invented and India made a lot of those. Sadly, in many countries, the fear of vaccination and even rumours about vaccines became a big problem. And you had actually very little of that here in India. So, I’m curious, how did you manage the communication and why do you think it came out better here?

Modi: It’s a great question. Firstly, I emphasized that our fight against the virus involves everyone. This is not virus vs government; it is life vs virus. Secondly, I began to communicate openly with the nation from day one. I publicly followed all Covid-19 protocols to gain people’s trust. I made clarion calls to clap, light a ‘diya’ despite some ridicule, it was crucial for me to unite everyone in this fight. Once the intent was set of protecting themselves and others around, it turned into a mass movement. In democracy, collaboration and education drive progress and take people along with you. And this played a significant role in the success of our vaccination campaign where people did not resist. In the future, we aim to encourage vaccination for all girls to prevent cervical cancer and put funds towards local research as well.

There was more to this conversation, which we are editing for reasons of space. Read more on the Youtube channel of PM Narendra Modi.

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