Authors@Google: Angela Saini

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 30.03.2011

>>commentator: Thanks everyone for coming today and for dialing in. Today we have the
next installment in the Authors@Google series and I'm very pleased to present Angela Saini.
Angela is an award winning science journalist who writes for the New Scientist, Wide, and
GQ. She's also a regular reporter for the BBC including the Digital Planet program.
"Geek Nation" is her first book. It's just been released to great reviews in Europe.
It is coming out in Asia next week, and we just found out that it's gone to number four
in the India bestsellers list today even pre-release so. It's coming out in the U.S. shortly but
if you didn't pick up the book on the way in, you can pick one up Amazon or on the Kindle.
Angela's based in London but she's flown in from New York to be with us today. So thank
you very much for coming. Without further ado, Angela Saini.
>>Angela Siani: This is a really small audience but I'm cheered by the fact that millions
of YouTube listeners will be watching it. Yes.
My book launched a month ago and I have done quite a few talks since then but never to
a very techy audience. So if this way below your I.Q. level, please tell me and I'll speed
it up and I'll find something more interesting to talk about.
I didn't really know what to talk about. "Geek Nation covers" so many themes. Each chapter
is a self contained story in its own right and there's an overarching narrative that
goes on top of it. So it's very difficult to pick out stories and have them make sense
or pick out things and have them make sense.
But one of the things that people always say to me especially if they've visited India
or they've lived in India, is, "India is such a poor country. How is it possible that this
could be a nation of geeks? How can it be possible that you are calling it an aspiring
scientific superpower? There's a huge paradox there." So that's what I want to talk about
today and I want to try and communicate to you this idea that even though India is poor
and has high rates of illiteracy and poor education, it can still have the potential
of entering the ranks of a scientific giant.
And, also at the same time, my book doesn't have any pictures in it and people have said
they would love to be able to see pictures of the places I'm describing so that's -- I'm
gonna give you a chance to have a look at some of the places that I talk about.
So there is this weird thing that India is this eleventh largest economy and yet it is
still, it still has very high rates of illiteracy. So it actually has more illiterate adults
than there are people in the U.S. which kind of puts that in perspective, while at the
same time having this huge population of scientists and engineers.
So I wanted to start by putting some kind of perspective for you on the culture, the
culture of geekiness that I believe exists in India. So the picture on the slide right
now is of Viswanathan Anand who is an Indian chess champion, actually world chess champion.
And India loves chess. It has this huge passion for chess and so I want to start just by reading
an extract from the beginning of the book in Chapter 1 where I go to this chess tournament
in Delhi and I try to figure out why it is that Indian's love chess so much.
"So the country is ranked fourth globally in the sport and chess players insist it is
a sport above the United States which is ninth." Which gives you some perspective on how brilliant
India really is at chess.
"But there's something more unusual about this scene in the chess tournament. Generally
India is not a sporting nation. In fact apart from cricket and a handful of other games,
chess is a rare exception in a land that has one of the worst sporting records of anywhere
in the world.
Take the Olympics, for example. In the history of the modern games the United States has
won 2,549 medals. Great Britain has won 737, and China 429. Even the small Eastern European
nation of Belarus has taken home 73. But you have to scroll almost to the bottom of the
league tables to find India. It sits just above the desolate central Asian republic
of Mongolia and just below Slovakia. In the whole of the Olympics history, India has won
only 20 medals. Given the country's vast population, it's a mystery that's confused sports writers
for decades.
So a few years ago, two U.S. researchers, Anirudh Krishna from the Stanford Institute
of Public Policy at Duke University and Eric Haglund from the Congressional Hunger Center
decided to investigate. A country of more than a billion people like India they calculated
should have won 157 medals at the 2004 Olympic games. But, of course, this fails to take
into account that elite sports are expensive, ruling out millions of Indians who would never
have a hope of becoming professional athletes.
Wealth and size aren't the only things that determine Olympic success either. There's
also the general level of education, people's health, and how close they live to sporting
facilities. So the researchers crunched the numbers again. Taking into account the myriad
factors that determine sporting success, they came up with a formal conservative estimate.
India should have won around 14 medals at the 2004 Olympic games they said."
Does anyone know how many they actually won?
It was one.
>>voice in audience: [unintelligible]
"And in fact no other nation in their study had such a huge gap between its predicted
medal count and the actual total. 'India did not and does not have a sporting culture,'
the veteran Indian sports columnist Rohit Brijnath explains to me frankly. Today he
works with The Straits Times newspaper in Singapore after the Indian sports magazine
he was writing for closed down. 'Personally one of the things I always felt as a sports
writer was a lack of drive among many athletes. I can't understand it. It is much better now
but earlier you only found that drive here and there in exceptions like the great 400
meter runner of the 1960's Milkha Singh who used to boast that he trained so hard that
he used to pee blood. My theory and it's just mine' he adds 'is that we're better suited
to hand eye sports like shooting or billiards or archery or thinking sports like chess.
I turned to Radisham Tuari, a 64 year old international arbiter for the World Chess
Association, for his opinion. He's been playing this game for 40 years. Watching the players
on the table next to us, he ponders the question for awhile. 'Indians well basically they have
a good liking for brainy games,' he announces at last rolling each R with his tongue. 'Yes,
and we are good at brainy things,' he continues. 'Brain makes us supreme.'"
That kind of sums up the attitude that Indians have to science and technology and academic
pursuits. This idea that sport, physical sport, isn't really necessary in order to move the
nation forward even though it might be a nice indicator of a kind of show of how much of
a superpower a country is, but what really will take them forward is academic games:
chess and if you look at the Olympiads which unlike the Olympics are a kind of a academic
contest that happen around the world among students, India actually does really well.
It's one of the champions in that.
And so one of the things I wanted to figure out when I wrote "Geek Nation" was where does
this apparent love of brainy games comes from? Why India? And why Asia as well?
India actually has a very long scientific history. I'm just gonna give you a quick,
really quick overview now. India has a very long scientific history as well as having
some of the world's leading philosophers two thousand, one thousand years ago. It was the
place where the zero was invented which you guys will probably know is a linchpin of modern
mathematics, it's very important to modern maths. It was also a big center of philosophy.
The picture on the screen right now is of the Bakhshali manuscript which is the oldest
scientific text ever found in Asia and it was found in a farm in what is now Pakistan
but obviously used to be India once. And I spent a really long time when I was there
trying to dig behind the history. There's not that much of it in the book, but just
out of personal interest, I really wanted to figure out where are these texts and where
do they lie. A lot of them have been destroyed over the years. And the Bakhshali manuscript
oddly turned out not to be in India anymore at all. One hundred years ago it was moved
to Oxford which is where I studied so I had to go back to the UK in order to see it. And
very kindly the library at my old college let me in and let me see the manuscript. It's
beautiful. What you can see here is exactly what it looks like, this kind of faded palm
leaf manuscript, a little shred. But you can see, not so much on this one but on the shred
that I saw you can see numbers in columns and little groupings everywhere and different
signs, which just goes to show that before the West had even encountered these quite
sophisticated mathematical ideas and scientific ideas, countries like India and China already
had them. The problem was, just like the Bakhshali manuscript, they all moved West and they didn't
stay in the East and the East didn't really take advantage of them like they could have,
and science and technology instead rose in the West which is why we have the situation
that we have now.
India never went through an enlightenment like Europe did. It never went through a Renaissance
like Europe did. And it wasn't India that took advantage of advances, those early advances
in science and tech. It was a royal society in London that was one of the places that
became the arena for the development of modern science as we understand it today. So this
idea that you can make a hypothesis, test it empirically, and then subject it to peer
review, which is what we think of science now, that was not what science looked like
a thousand, two thousand years ago.
So India kind of exists in this strange scientific limbo because it hasn't completely separated
these ideas of the past with modern science. It is re [bad audio] pseudoscience and astrology
and homeopathy and ideas that in the West where we've ditched to some extent or at least
we don't treat them like we treat modern science. In India, they sit almost side by side.
So, for example, I sent to the Indian Science Congress last year in January which is the
biggest scientific meeting in India and the Prime Minister comes, lots of ministers. And
in the exhibition hall, there were pamphlets on Vedic Science and Vedic Science is a type
of religious, Hindu religious science and astrology and there were panels on homeopathy.
So there is this, it does exist in this strange limbo and it's been difficult to get out of
it because that Renaissance period never happened, but they have tried.
And so now I want to go much forward in time and back about 60 years when India became
independent from the British.
So India's first Prime Minister, after the country became independent from the British
in 1947, was Jawaharlal Nehru. And these days, we always think of Nehru as this kind of charismatic,
cool leader who was a bit of a ladies' man and built this entire nation from scratch
after the British left India. But he was also a geek in his own right. He studied natural
sciences at Cambridge and when he became Prime Minister of India, he had seen what had happened
in the U.S. and he'd seen what happened in the Soviet Union and said to himself, "I want
a part of that for India. Science and technology is the way we are going to grow this country.
And we have to do it not just by investing in science and tech but also by making the
population more rational." So it was almost a call to enlightenment -- not quite because
it was many hundreds of years later. But his legacy was so huge that if you look at the
Indian Constitution now, it says on the slide, "One of the fundamental duties of an Indian
citizen is to develop the scientific temper, humanism, and the spirit of inquiry and reform,"
which is unique in constitutions around the world. We can't even imagine that now, that
all those decades ago, Indian leaders would have looked at the country and said, "This
is a birthplace of four major world religions, a very spiritual nation, yet we have to make
the country more rational and logical in the way it thinks. Even if you're not a scientist
in your everyday life, we want you to be more logical."
So Nehru carried this kind of legacy forward and it was a button that was picked up by
subsequent leaders, every single one. So he founded these huge Indian institutes of technology
which today many of the people who graduated from there in 1970s and 1980s have come to
Silicon Valley and San Francisco, have set up huge firms. So Sun Microsystems, for example,
was founded by Vinod Khosla who's an IIT graduate. And many of India's IT leaders and politicians,
technocrats, are IIT graduates. He also founded nuclear power stations, hydroelectric dams;
he invested in labs and research facilities. So he really laid or helped to lay the foundation
for what we now think of as more of a nation of geeks.
But then the question is, given this kind of geeky culture that exists and given this
investment on the government's side into science and technology, what exactly today are we
seeing in terms of results? So how far is India really at becoming a scientific superpower?
That was a big question for me. I'm a, I mean I'm a science journalist, I work mainly in
the UK, and I was skeptical when I went to India because a lot of people have said to
me, "You won't even find enough examples of original Indian science to fill your book.
There's not much going on there."
So one of the first things I did when I landed in New Delhi, that was in the winter of 2009,
was I knew the first thing had to be that I had to visit one of these Indian institutes
of technology to see what they're like on the inside. Are they really these hotbeds
of exciting innovation or are they just perpetuating the stereotype that Indian engineers are kind
of geeky, drone-like, and a bit boring and dull?
So the picture on the slide here is inside the geek factory, the Indian Institute of
Technology in Delhi. The photographs that you're going to see now, the next three slides
were taken by Tom Parker who is a Conde Nast photographer. I did a piece for GQ at the
same time as visiting the IIT and these are pictures that he took. And they're a perfect
glimpse into how these places look.
This especially: it's a dusty window or a board where a guy is writing on and you can
see a kind of shabby lecture theater in the background, and that's exactly what this place
is like. They're really shabby. I was kind of disappointed at turning up to this, what
is meant to be the most elite engineering college in the whole of India, and it didn't
have air conditioning in most of the lecture theaters which meant that in the summer, these
kids boil to death and yet they still have to turn up to lectures.
And worse than that, worse than the shabbiness and the old fashioned lecture theaters and
the lack of air conditioning, there really didn't seem to be, on the surface at least,
any kind of spirits of creativity. I mean I studied engineering and when I was there,
one of my classmates built a computer in his spare time. When I was a kid, I used to build
model rockets and engineers are natural tinkerers and there didn't seem to be this quality among
the Indian, young Indian engineers that I was meeting at the Indian Institute of Technology.
And that kind of disappointed me, although it did reinforce the stereotype and it did
confirm it.
So I tried to figure out, why is it? Why is it that these kids choose to do engineering
and yet they don't seem to have a passion for it? And part of the reason is that the
education system is so competitive.
So in 2009, almost half a million Indian students sat the engineering college entrance exams
and only 10,000 of them got a place, which just goes to show -- that's harder to get
into than Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, any of the big universities in the West -- which
just goes to show how difficult and competitive these places are. And so in order to win a
place like that, in order to pass the exams, these kids spend every evening and every weekend
in coaching classes. So almost all the students at this Indian Institute of Technology will
have been coached almost entirely through their teenage years and by the time they get
to college, they're burnt out, understandably. That passion has been sucked out of them,
if you like. They're literally spending their childhoods cramming for these exams.
And this, the picture on the slide right now is of a kid called Nishant Ranka. He's 22
years old, an engineering student, and he said to me, "When I went to the UK and saw
people shut their shops at five o'clock, I couldn't understand it. Here they're open
late into the night. Indians work a lot, lot harder than Europeans and Americans." And
he told me that he was coached before he came to college for three hours a day as well as
the nine hours he would study anyway at school to make sure he passed the exams.
And the pressure is so immense that the National Crime Records Bureau which keeps a check of
suicides, the suicide rate across India, in 2008, which is their most recent figure, more
than 2,000 students across India committed suicide because of the pressure of exams and
the fear that they would fail.
So this, the growth in IT has lead to the demand for engineers, has led to thousands
more kids wanting to go to college to study engineering, but has also lead in turn to
this kind of [BAD AUDIO] is stifled because of the competition and because it's so difficult
to get into these places. But that is changing, and it was only after spending many weeks
there that I noticed how these tiny little shoots of innovation are coming up now.
So the next slide is of, is still inside the Indian Institute of Technology. In 1991, so
when Nehru became Prime Minister of India he was very much a socialist. He believed
that India had to be self sufficient, had to do everything itself. He didn't believe
in foreign imports, not only of objects but also ideas. In 1991, that began to change;
India liberalized its economy. I'm sorry this is a really potted history, it's really quick
[laughs] and I hope you're keeping up with it.
So in 1991, the economy liberalized. MTV came in, Coca-Cola came in, but also with that
was this kind of influx of new ideas, foreign ideas. It was easier to travel. Everybody
saw more of the world, and this new generation came up. A guy at Tata Consultancy Services
which is one of Indian's big three IT firms called it "Generation WHY." So not Generation
XY but Generation W-H-Y, the first generation post-liberalization who are willing to question
and not just do rote learning or not just cram for exams but think outside the box a
And at the IIT in Delhi, I wanted to find evidence of that and luckily, fortunately
I did. It's beneath the surface and it's only just beginning to happen now which makes sense
if you think about it because the 22 year olds of now are the ones who have grown up
in this post-liberalization age, post-1991.
So the student in the slide right now took part in a contest called the Rubicon which
is a big Pan-Asian event where students have to come together and build a robot that can
do one specific human task. So things like this are happening. There's also this new
group on campus called "Technocracy" which in their spare time they're learning things
like MATLAB which is a venturing programming language and they're learning to build microprocessors.
So there's tiny, creative shoots that are coming up right now. It's very small and in
the six months I spent researching this book, I did find tiny examples of this innovation
happening all over India, but it's very small and it's very much at the beginning of a revolution,
if you like.
And I think the reason we still carry the stereotype that we do about the Indian engineers
reminds me a lot of how we saw Japan in the 1970s, 1960s and 70s: that here is this country
that is really good at copying what other people are doing, but not so good at coming
up with its own ideas. And India is in that state now, but just crossing the line in the
same way that Japan did. So these kids who are now graduating, who have only lived in
a liberalized India, are going to be the ones that think outside the box and create this
new innovative society -- the kind of society that you have in San Francisco and Silicon
Valley that is truly scientific and creative.
So what are they actually achieving in scientific terms? Now given that this generation hasn't
completely come of age yet, it's a bit difficult, but one example that I talk about in the book
is tuberculosis. So research into tuberculosis is quite wide spread in India. It's a disease
that kills two Indians every three minutes. So it's incredibly deadly, incredibly contagious.
In the West, we haven't heard of it so much or it's not so prevalent just because it's
almost been eradicated here. And it is a function of poverty. It's a function of poor health
and poor diet and low immunity, and in India, it's a huge problem.
The picture on the slide right now is of a tuberculosis clinic in Mumbai and a poor guy
being, having his chest examined by a doctor. Now I didn't go to Mumbai. I actually went
to Chennai to visit some TB hospitals. And Chennai, if you don't know already, is India's
medical capital. It's so great at medicine. It has some of the best hospitals in the world,
so good in fact that medical tourists go from the West to have their hips replaced and kidneys
replaced there at rock bottom prices, and they can stay in a fancy hotel while they're
doing it. But of course that's not where the poor go. The poor end up in places like this
and they're the majority.
So here is a deadly disease killing millions of Indians and millions in the developing
world. Western pharmaceutical companies haven't come up with a cure for TB in 40 years, a
new treatment in 40 years, which means that if you have TB, you need to take a cocktail
of drugs for six months in order to fix it and even then, you're not guaranteed of not
being contagious. And while you are contagious, the chances are you will infect many dozens
of people around you.
So the reason that big pharma don't invest in TB is like I said it's not a disease prevalent
in the West, there's not that much money for it. But in India, what they're doing is all
these disparate researchers with very small, with a very small amount of resources and
in very ramshackle labs, are trying to work on it. So I visited one researcher, for example,
in Chennai who has a lab that's so unbiosafe, has such poor resources, that you can't even
work on the TB bacterium itself because it's too dangerous. She has to work on E. coli
which is the closest to TB that she can get and do studies on safely for her team.
So what's the solution? Given that you have all these poor but willing researchers all
over India working on this drug, on this bug and trying to come up with a solution and
yet they don't have the resources of big pharma. And this is what may be the solution. It's
the Open Source Drug Discovery Project and it's run out of Delhi. It's, the government
funds it, the Indian government funds it partly with a very, when you compare it to how much
it would cost big pharma to produce a drug for TB, a fraction of the cost. And what they're
essentially doing, they call it Science 2.0 and what they're essentially doing is collecting
all the TB research from all over the country and putting it online and trying to make sense
of it in a way that might help lead to a TB drug later down the line.
One of the things that they're trying to do is annotate the TB genome, and if anyone knows,
this is a long process. It's basically explaining how the TB genome works and how it's built
and it can take many months to do it. But given that they had all these researchers,
disparate researchers the OSDD team got together and said, "How about if we ask Indian students
to each take a small section of the genome and annotate it?" So that's what they did.
They got thousands of students from all over the country, obviously post-grad and qualified
students because it's not an easy, it's a specialized job. And yet because of Indian's
vast geeky manpower, they can do this. And they got them all together and within a few
months they had annotated the genome, which is incredibly quick. They still have to verify
it and check it and make sure that it's all fine, but as a model for doing very fast biology
it's incredibly efficient.
And companies have been so excited about it. One Indian IT company, Emphasis, has offered
to give their expertise for free. So they're offering to design a semantic Web platform
where all this research can be made sense of so that they can use it to develop a new
drug. And they're fairly confident they will develop a new drug out of it.
So when I met the team, which was last spring, 2,700 people in India and overseas had registered
to be part of the group. And when I was writing out the chapter -- from 53 different countries,
when I was writing up the chapter a few months later that had gone up to 3,800 in 93 countries.
So if you look at this, India is a poor country and yet in an innovative way, it's overcoming
the fact that it has resource shortfalls by taking advantage of its huge geeky manpower
and coming up with alternatives. This is completely antithetical to the way science works.
Science, especially pharmaceutical science, is about credit. It's about keeping research
maintained within a small company or a small group so that you can make sure that you own
it at the end. And yet, these thousands of scientists are willing to give up their credit
or share their credit, dilute it and work together in order to come up to a solution
to a problem like this. Science isn't done this way and it's interesting and I think
it shows a measure of innovation in India that they came up with a solution like this
and that it is working.
And it's not just pharmaceuticals or obvious areas like biological research or medicine
where things like this are happening. The government, in the vein of Nehru's vision
for India to be a more scientific society, are also trying to harness that geeky manpower
to improve the country as a whole. And to illustrate that, I want to read another extract
from the book. This is the last one. It's from a chapter called "Geeks Rule" and it's
about a city being built in the Western Ghats. There's a picture of the Western Ghats behind
me. This an enormous range of hills just a few hours' drive from Pune -- that's the nearest
city -- but quite isolated, very few people live there.
"So the ground beneath our feet is always moving. Two hundred million years ago South
America, Africa, India, Australia, and Antarctica weren't where they are now but were part of
one enormous supercontinent that spanned the hemisphere. The split happened around thirty
million years later, after which they gradually drifted into positions they occupy today.
When this violent breakup happened, gigantic volcanic ranges burst through the crust while
vast new oceans filled the gaps that the shifting continents left behind. The earth looked like
a pie that had been torn into slices. At its edges, the land buckled and creased. In the
north of India, the Himalayas were created and when Indian's west coast finally broke
free from the island of Madagascar, another one of these geological creases became the
Western Ghats.
Today, this 1,600 kilometer stretch of high hills, blanketed in forest, is one of the
most remote places in the world. There are at least 5,000 different types of flowers.
Elephants, snakes, tigers, and cave bats all live here, secluded from the rest of India.
Zoologists who have occasionally ventured into the Ghats have found new species by the
handful. One time they discovered a dozen multi-colored types of frog, a species that
was thought to have been extinct for a century. The mountainous territory is inhospitable.
The second I cross into it civilization disappears. It's eerily silent in every direction, save
a cry from the odd makak.
And yet here in the middle of the Western Ghats, in what can reasonably be called 'nowhere'
I descend into a steep valley and find myself in one of the most advanced cities on earth.
I arrive in the evening, just in time to catch dinner at one of the first restaurants in
this half built metropolis. It's an American style diner and I'm their only customer. There
are pictures of Lucille Ball and Betty Boop on the walls and the floor is covered in black
and white checkerboard tiles.
When they bring my food, they slide bottles of French's yellow mustard and Heinz tomato
ketchup onto the countertop of my red leather booth. This could be New York in the 1950s.
But this isn't the Twilight Zone, this is a city of Lavasa.
I first read about it in an advertisement in an in-flight magazine and became intrigued
by what the advert claimed would be a metropolis governed mainly by machines. A bank of centralized
computers, I read, will control everything here from household security to the transport
network. It's a half billion dollar project to build from scratch an urban dream in the
middle of the mountains. Even the roads leading here have had to be carved out of the hills.
It's the biggest thing to happen to the Western Ghats since the cretaceous period."
So you can imagine how weird it was for me to turn up, to drive for two hours in the
night and then turn up in the middle of a hill and be eating omelets in an American
diner [laughs] with pitch black all around me and nobody there because the workers had
gone home and nobody has moved into the city yet.
So the interesting thing about this place, like I said, is that it will be electronically
governed -- that's the aim. It's completely being built from scratch. So what they've
done is during the construction they've mapped everything in layers. So everything from the
water pipes to where the houses are, the foundations, the broadband, everything has been designed
so that if there's a fault, they'll know exactly where it is and they can go and fix it immediately.
And every house and apartment in this complex, and I'll show you the complex here -- this
is a picture of the promenade at Lavasa. The American diner is near the end. This is the
only bit that was actually complete when I got there. So you can imagine just this and
then hills all around it.
Every apartment in there will have a kiosk where even if you don't have access to the
Internet or your own computer, you'll be able to use this kiosk to pay all your bills, make
complaints if you have to, communicate with other residents. It's an Internet for the
entire city. And what the temporary manager told me -- they're going to elect a mayor
once the city gets running -- but what the temporary manager told me was that this city
will, the aim is to have as few people running it as possible. Essentially it will run itself.
The geeks will rule, or the technology will rule.
But then again, this is a private development. It's really expensive to stay here. The houses
have almost all been sold now I think, but the population is capped at 300,000 and if
you want to live there then you have to pay a high price. So a lot of the people who have
bought houses I understand, are actors and actresses and IT moguls and stuff.
But the principles that you can see here are being rolled out across the whole of India
by the Indian government. So exactly the same kind of thing is happening all over the country.
If you've ever been to India, you'll know that it has very high levels of corruption
and an incredibly frustrating bureaucracy. It holds up everything. It actually cuts to
the heart of how scientists work because the corruption even travels as far as the university
level. So professors will get promoted because of nepotism sometimes rather than actual merit.
So in order for India to be a smoother society, in order for it to be any kind of superpower
let alone scientific one, it needs to solve this problem of a weak bureaucracy and corruption.
And, of course, because it is a nation of geeks, I think, they're digitizing everything
and that's their way of doing it -- geek government just like in Lavasa.
So since the early 1990s, there've been these huge state run attempts to move government
records online. This has happened all over the world for sure. In India, though, it's
happening in such a huge way, in a way that stunned even me. So things like land records,
birth records, birth certificates, death certificates, are all going online and it means you can
access them more easily. And this is where it's being masterminded.
So the picture on the screen right now is of Electronics Niketan which is the IT ministry
of India in Delhi. "Electronics Niketan" means an electronics house, so it's literally electronics
I'm not a big fan of Indian government ministries. Every time I've gone to one, it's been really
frustrating. You turn up. Usually they're not there or they knock off at like three
o'clock so you miss them, huge lunch breaks. I went to the Health Ministry many years ago
to do a story and while I was there waiting for an official, who by the way gave me no
useful information, I got bitten by a poisonous spider on my foot and my foot swelled up like
a sweet potato which is ironic given that was the Health Ministry.
So I was kind of scared. I was worried about going to this building and I left with plenty
of time, early appointment to make sure that they would see me. And it surprised me because
it was like no ministry I'd ever been to. I was shown in immediately. This place is
run like a well oiled machine. The second I got there, I was told that most of the people
working there, or at least in the unit that I was seeing, actually came from the private
sector. So they'd worked in the Indian IT industry and now they wanted to help the government
make the country more streamlined and help the bureaucracy, which is why they've gone
to work in this place. And it was incredible. They answered all my questions straight away.
So one of the things they're doing in this building is monitoring projects like Lavasa,
but also other examples of electronic governance all over the country being run on the state
level to see where the best practice is. And what they've come up with is a scheme very
much like in the houses of Lavasa, you'll have those kiosks. They're introducing kiosks
like that at the block level all across India. So a block is about five or six villages,
half a dozen villages. So every block will have a kiosk operated by, in some states,
by women. It takes very little skill to be able to operate a kiosk like that. And you'll
be able to pay all your bills there, everything.
So I visited, they're around I think halfway through the scheme and, at the moment, they're
trying to get it into the very furthest reaches. So there are some islands and there are some
states in the northeast that are very remote and inhospitable. So they're working on that
right now.
But I went to visit one of the kiosks in Jaipur, which is a city in Rajasthan on the tourist
trail. And I was a bit skeptical 'cause I've grown up in Britain where IT projects always
seem doomed to failure [laughs]. They never work and they've cost millions of pounds and
yet they never work.
And I got to this kiosk. It was a Sunday and I expected there to be huge queues or if not
huge queues, then nobody using it or really bad records. And it turned out that already
that Sunday hundreds of people across the state had already used the kiosks near them
to pay their bills. I saw one guy paying three different bills: so a power bill, a mobile
bill, and a landline bill, I think it was, in minutes. And you can't do that. You can't
even do that in Britain. You can't go to one place and pay all your bills in one place.
So it is quite incredible what they've managed to achieve.
There aren't that many stats about how efficient this program is yet because it's very early
days. But in 2008, the Ministry of IT here did a survey that found that five out of the
ten states that had computerized their land records by 2008 -- so that's just land records
which are the most contentious documents in India, by the way. Many civil court suits
are about land records. Bribes in those states had reduced, had either reduced significantly
or been completely eliminated.
Now when you take into account that, according to Transparency International, all the households
below the poverty line in India, so these are poor households in India, together pay
more than $200 million in bribes every year, the potential for that is huge. If it works,
then it's huge. And I'm not saying that it will work, but it's exciting that India is
taking those steps and making those advances and making the investment to make it work.
The thing that's making it work, of course, is that it has the geeky manpower. It's built
up an expertise in doing Western IT outsourcing projects to other governments, learned those
lessons, and brought them back and are now having those same people run the projects
So I'm nearly done.
The final thought I just want to leave you with is that India, while India might not,
if you look at the stats, if you look at the facts and figures, while it may not be making
a huge impact on scientific output at the moment, I think India's proportion of scientific
output is something as a share of the globe's is something like three percent at the moment;
so not incredibly encouraging. It is on the cusp of this revolution that's happening.
They're trying to solve the problems, the underlying problems, that will help the country
become a scientific superpower in the future. They're creating this legion of geeks that
are going to help move that forward and I really think this is what will give India
its edge in the next 10 or 20 years.
So if you look at scientific publications, yes India is very low down. But when you think
that Japan, Germany, Britain, and France have become steadily less productive since 2000
as a share of the world's output, if you look at the graph, India's output has risen every
single year like China's, although not at the same rate as China's. In 2008, it published
53 percent more scientific papers than on average in each of the five years that went
before. So it's ramping up its investment quite incredibly.
The biggest difference I think will be made by the fact that the Indian government is
planning to ramp up its proportion of GDP spending on R & D. So if you look at developed
countries and developing countries, developed countries tend to spend around two percent
of GDP on R & D, so that includes, Japan actually spends a lot more than that, U.S. spends about
that, UK spends about that. Whereas countries like Brazil and China and South Africa -- China
is increasing but Brazil and South Africa and India tend to spend around one percent.
The government has made a commitment to enter that two percent category. I can't say when
that will happen; they were hoping it would happen by next year. That's unlikely, but
it will happen soon.
The picture on the slide is of Manmohan Singh doing a V sign, but I chose it because it
was a two, two percent. [laughs]
Although I'm sure that's not why he meant when he did that.
He announced last year actually that 2012 would be India's year of science which is
great for the book, but I think also great for India.
And so finally -- this is a very almost final slide -- I love space rockets and it doesn't
really serve a purpose but I wanted to show you two pictures of space rockets quickly.
The first is, I went to the Indian Space Research Organization in the book and I saw a rocket
launch in South India which was just incredible -- not of a rocket this scale. But the first
is a polar satellite launch vehicle which is what carried India's first lunar probe
a couple of years ago which was a pretty good success. And India's plan now is to send their
first astronaut into space in 2015, which is something in terms of individual nations
only three nations have done -- that's China, U.S., and the Soviet Union. And that astronaut
or those astronauts will go up in a rocket something like this which is a geosynchronous
satellite launch vehicle. It'll probably be a bit bigger than that and so they're working
on that now, working on the technology just not, not just the rocket technology but also
making these things habitable which is actually a huge scientific challenge.
And I think this demonstrates in terms of space especially, demonstrate India's raw
ambition when it comes to science and that even though people might look at India and
say, "Why is this poor country investing so much in science and tech?" It is playing the
long game, it is thinking about the far, far future --
and that's it.
Thank you.
Are there any questions?
>>male #1: [unintelligible]
>>Angela Saini: Oh yeah we need the microphone for the question.
>>male #1: Thank you for coming. I had a couple questions sort of related to if there's any
signs of resistance or push back ?
>>Angela Saini: Yeah.
>>male #1: to this movement. For example when you were speaking of Lavasa ?
>>Angela Saini: Yeah.
>>male #1: and the sort of wide spread E-government proposals and so forth --
>>Angela Saini: Um-hum.
>>male #1: I think that's fantastic --
>>Angela Saini: Yeah.
>>male #1: I think that's wonderful to make people's lives more efficient and so forth.
But I'm also thinking there's somebody out there thinking, "Wow, that's a bureaucrat
that's not getting paid."
>>Angela Saini: [laughs]
>>male #1: Those are bribes I'm not getting.
>>Angela Saini: Yeah.
>>male #1: And I should, if I can, derail this as soon as possible."
>>Angela Saini: Yeah.
>>male #1: So as an economic reason for push back -- and the other is sort a more cultural
one and you can sort of see that here in the United States where there's sort of the haves
and the have nots --
>>Angela Saini: Yeah.
>>male #1: of technological progress --
>>Angela Saini: Um-hum.
>>male #1: and so forth and that has caused something of a religious resurgence here in
the United --
>>Angela Saini: Yeah.
>>male #1: States and other places and obviously as you mentioned India already has this great,
impressive religious history --
>>Angela Saini: Yeah.
>>male #1: and so I mean -- so one question is -- is this, is this revolution going to
be equally distributed --
>>Angela Saini: [laughs]
>>male #1: both geographically, politically, and culturally and so forth? And then again
sort of a general question about have you seen any signs of push back ?
>>Angela Saini: Yeah.
>>male #1: sort of on these movement forward.
>>Angela Saini: Yeah, actually about a third of the book is about the resistance from religious
groups and activists. There are many activists in India who believe that the country, like
Mahatma Gandhi dreamed of it, would always be this nation of farmers, that it would always
be largely agricultural place, which is completely at odds with this idea that you should industrialize
and it should become this nation of geeks. And for them it will always be a nation of
farmers, I think. So yeah, that resistance does exist.
In terms of the bribes, I mean the people who take the bribes I think will be quite
stupid to then say, "No. We want our bribes please don't do this." [laughs]
That would be quite odd, but I'm sure that there are even in these big bureaucratic IT
projects, people skimming off the top because that's the nature in places like this, and
I'm sure that's the nature in big IT projects all over the world. There's always someone
skimming off the top.
But at the same time, if it increases transparency, which is what it's doing and if reduces corruption
and bureaucracy because it reduces that distance between the person and the government and
the modes for those people to come in and become middlemen -- which they had before
and because of the Internet can't -- then I think it will at least go some way to solving
that problem for sure.
What was your other question? Was there another question?
>>male #1: Cultural aspects.
>>Angela Saini: There are, yeah. So in the book I do give example. I mean the example
I use in the book is of the debate over GM food. So in the U.S. we, GM food is very widely
grown. In Europe, there's a huge resistance to it. And in India, it's kind of half and
half. So they grow BT cotton at the moment which is resistance to boll worm and they're
trying to introduce their first BT food crop which is an aubergine brinjal, an eggplant.
And there's been huge resistance to it partly because of activists, partly because of the
way it's being done and it's thought to have been controlled by commercial interests. So
whenever a new technology comes in, I think people feel a bit reluctant about it. But
India and I think a lot of Asia actually is surprisingly excited about the new.
So I gave a talk in New York the other day and there was someone from South Korea in
the audience. And all the way through they were nodding furiously, they were like, "Yeah,
my parents made me play chess as well --
and it was exactly like that in Korea." And yeah there is, I mean in the West or at least
in Britain where I've grown up, there is this kind of skepticism and fear of new things
and technology. Whereas in India not so much I think people embrace it which is exciting.
>>male #2: How are the graduate research universities doing? You mentioned the faculty. Are the
faculty, the research faculty improving and is India doing anything to help that? Certainly
the undergraduates coming out of there are fantastic ?
>>Angela Saini: Yeah.
>>male #1: but most of the top students don't go to there for the Ph.D.s --
>>Angela Saini: No they don't. When I went to the Indian Institute of Technology, they
complained, the dean was complaining that very few students stay on to do Ph.D.'s and
certainly none of the good ones because they can earn these huge massive salaries working
for IT companies and multi-nationals. So there's just no incentive for them to do that especially
since India is not known for research. So even if you did stay on, the facilities are
so poor and the resources are so poor that you couldn't really make a mark. But that
is changing. So for example at IIT Delhi, they're introducing programs now which will
help you get funding, if not from the government or from the college then from private sources.
And providing these kinds of incentives for students to stay on and do Ph.D.'s. I really
hope that happens because that's what you need to build a truly scientific country and
that's where has India suffered all these great undergraduates go to the U.S. and do
their Ph.D.'s here and contribute to America's scientific society and not to India's. But
I'm convinced that that will change.
Are we done?
>>commentator: Any questions on the VC just before we wrap up?
No. Okay, thanks everyone. Thanks very much, Angela, for coming.
>>Angela Saini: Thank you.