Emerging technologies and the role of technology communities in India #
Over the last decade the rise of platform economy and digital platforms have pushed the boundaries of software adoption in everyday life. Large parts of the population across the world are now networked and continue to use some form of software application in their day-to-day lives. The production and consumption of these technologies involved large ecosystems of technology communities adopting certain forms of platform technologies, and creating an ecosystem of applications. The era of platform computing is probably at the end of its evolution, with technology communities excited about what is next with Web 3.0 and the potential rise of virtual reality with metaverse and other emerging technologies.
Technology communities play a key role in the development and promotion of new emerging technologies. Not everyone is interested in the same technology and evangelists often choose a variety of technologies for different use cases. These divergent views have always existed in the technology communities with their adoption and creation of different technologies and licences. It is probably the opportune time to talk about the next evolutionary technologies as the world around us changes rapidly.
1. Semiconductors and Open Hardware #
The present geo-politics are promoting India as an alternative to China for the world’s supply chain requirements. The rise in demand for semiconductors with digitization induced by Covid-19 and US sanctions on China have created supply chain issues within the semiconductor market. The rise of the new open source instruction set RISC-V is allowing new players to enter the semiconductors market opening up new opportunities. There is already a vibrant ecosystem around the RISC-V architecture with adoptions across the world promoted by several organizations part of the RISC-V foundation.
In India, IIT Madras and C-DAC have developed microprocessors called “Shakti” & “VEGA[https://vegaprocessors.in/index.html]” based on RISC-V architecture and are promoting its manufacturing and adoption. C-DAC and MeITY are already promoting these microprocessors among various academic institutions, skilling the next generation of engineers. The current version of microprocessors can presently power smart-cards, IoT sensors, motor-controls and robotic platforms with active development for the next generation series of microprocessors that could meet our domestic requirements. For India semiconductors is a long-term strategy; we are only witnessing the early days of the investments in the sector.
The domestic availability of microprocessors and future manufacturing capacities of semiconductors is going to have a long-term impact in new products being domestically designed and manufactured. The rise of the Global Open Hardware movement and increasing availability of electronics manufacturing capacity in India can help fuse new life into maker communities and promote open hardware ecosystems.
2. Drones, Robotics and Automation #
The Indian government is placing a huge bet on a domestic drone industry to improve its logistics and defense capacities. Several e-commerce firms are interested in both drones and robots for delivery and warehouse automation. There are already pilots being carried out by food delivery firms to use drones for delivery and robots to automate food production. The 10-minute delivery goal being set by food tech firms is primarily to push for automation in their supply chains. While there are numerous private companies and research institutions working on autonomous drones and problems around them, there is a need for a vibrant community that can push for new standards, protocols and other open source drone software like PX4 for adoption.
Advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques are allowing companies to take the next step towards building robots. Warehouse automation is taking place and is heavily being pushed by the e-commerce sector. Consumer robots are already entering households for vacuum cleaning and kitchen appliances. While industrial automation has always been prioritized by manufacturing firms, consumer automation is gaining more focus. Kitchen and restaurant automation is already here with automatic machines that can make dosas, rotis and pizzas at scale.
As this sector advances, there are many computational and mechanical challenges that need to be solved. A vibrant community in this sector can promote the ecosystem, as well as ensure that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. In terms of software development for robots, the Robot Operating System (ROS) already has a vibrant open source ecosystem that promotes knowledge sharing and best practices within the industry. There are some developers and makers who are already promoting ROS among various educational establishments and communities.
3. Healthcare and Life Sciences #
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of the health sector and its fragility were clearly visible. India is making significant investments in healthcare and intends to promote the sector. COVID-19 compelled people and doctors to consult through telemedicine, forcing people to digitize and go online for their healthcare needs. Telemedicine is being seen as an opportunity to make doctor consultations easier and also help people in the rural areas to access medical care. Through the launch of National (Atal) Digital Health Mission (NDHM) 1, there are plans to digitize all electronic health records and promote investments in healthcare infrastructure.
There is a clear lack of medical infrastructure for testing and emergency services in India. This lacuna became visible during the pandemic. Now, the Indian government is also promoting manufacturing of medical devices in the country with a new medical devices policy incentivized using production linked incentive schemes. Advances in Internet of Things (IoT)and Open Hardware designs are also expected to play a role in enabling manufacturing cost-effective medical equipment. While there are government-led initiatives, COVID also pushed open hardware communities to make affordable medical equipment. Open Hardware projects like Opentrons, OpenPCR, Oxikit helped demonstrate affordable healthcare/medical devices that can be built anywhere in the world.
Beyond healthcare, advancements in life sciences will also be a major factor in the upcoming decade. Newer technologies like mRNA, flow chemistry, microfluidics can help with new drug production, medical testing, diagnostics, DNA & RNA sequencing, pharma testing and research. Microfluidics are 3D printable, and are expected to decrease cost of healthcare diagnostics significantly. There is scope for tech communities to promote and address the challenges in medical infrastructure issues and access to healthcare by helping design and promote these new evolutions.
4. Quantum Computing #
Quantum computing is seeing several recent developments with the US National Institute of Standards and Testing (NIST) paving the way forward by announcing standardization of four Quantum-Resistant Cryptographic Algorithms. While this is an ongoing process and people can participate in it, the algorithms will eventually become the de-facto standards for general encryption and digital signatures powering the quantum web. The technology has evolved significantly with IBM announcing the world’s first quantum computer in 2009, and with every major Big Tech firm promoting their ecosystems for quantum computing through open source libraries.
In India, the Government has already announced a National Quantum Computing Mission and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) already has a Quantum Computing Applications Lab. The Quantum Computing race is forcing investors and nation states to invest several resources in this direction. The United States is already making plans to prepare an employee workforce for quantum computing and promoting the technology through initiatives like “World Quantum Day”.
The real applications of Quantum Computing are yet to materialize with a lot of hype being sold across the world. But it is expected to help us solve problems across sectors and has the potential to shape techno futures of our societies. Geo-politics are also playing a big factor, with India expected to play a major role in software development for quantum computing. Apart from the Big Tech promoted communities, there is also a small and growing community of open source quantum computing foundations. Within India, no major community seems to have emerged in this sector, even while educational institutions are already training the next generation on the fundamentals.
5. Space #
There is a new space race that has pushed private firms to the forefront with SpaceX leading this race. Every nation is promoting their own domestic private sector for space. During COVID-19, India deregulated the space sector by allowing private sector investments. According to the Economic Survey 2021-22, there are at least 40 space companies which applied for permissions with the Department of Space for operating in the sector.
While there are efforts by every country to have the largest share of the space race, there are efforts to also create commons and to ensure space remains accessible to all of humanity and not create colonies for the new east India companies. Libre Space Foundation is one such FOSS organization promoting FOSS in space backed by the European Union. They already have developed several FOSS projects like PICOBUS for deploying PocketQube Satellites, Cronos - a hybrid-fueled sounding rocket, SATNOGS - and Open Source DIY satellite ground station - that are available to everyone without any form of knowledge restrictions. There are efforts by several hobby communities in the sector building various open source components for satellites, rockets and ground stations.
Model Rocketry hobbyists have been playing with smaller rockets that can actually launch satellites into lower orbits. Space is an important sector to keep an eye on, and invest resources to cultivate a community of space enthusiasts. In India, there are several space communities who are already educating people on this front. More adoption and evangelism for commons in this sector will really do good for humanity.
6. Energy and CleanTech #
The IPCC report on climate change has serious warnings for humanity with catastrophic challenges for the planet. Every nation is planning towards a future where humanity goes through some serious challenges. To achieve the goals set for a planetary future, arresting the problem of pollution and rise in new energy demands needs to be directed to renewable energy. Even with all our best efforts, it can be hard to reverse what has already been done. India recently submitted its long-term low carbon development strategy and one needs to look at its impacts on acceleration of development and sharing of various clean-tech technologies.
The evolution in solar technologies and other renewable energy solutions are becoming economical enough to adopt them for current human needs. While there are large scale industry and government plans for manufacturing of Electric Vehicles (EVs), solar panels and other renewable energy sources, when it comes to climate change, it is also human behaviour and lack of sustainable practices that will be a major cause for concern. There is a need for human energy and efforts beyond the market and national plans that are required to really address the climate crisis. Technology communities have attempted to build low-cost, open source energy solutions and improve adoption. But much more needs to be done in this space.
Robots, Drones, Life Sciences, Space Technologies, manufacturing capacities are all expected to play a major part to tackle climate change. While the future is exciting and we don’t know what exactly is in store with all the latest emerging technologies, this isn’t an exhaustive list of all the emerging technologies. The post is rather a call for the tech communities in India to keep an eye out for the future, and plan for better techno futures that we have been denied so far.
This op-ed is authored by Srinivas Kodali. Kodali is an independent researcher and civic hacker.
For an explainer about NDHM, see https://has.gy/Eg9Z ↩︎