Every few decades, technological changes upend the environment and relative positions of contestants, be it in the field of business or warfare. In warfare for instance, technology advanced from fighting on foot, to mounted calvary, then to weaponised platforms like chariots. Its naval equivalent was progress from human rowed fast canoes carrying armed warriors to armadas consisting of scores of ships with massive sails and cannons requiring hundreds of sailors each. The advent of efficient internal combustion engines made it possible to create much faster and powerful platforms like intercontinental bombers. Jet engines opened the final frontier of space and computers ushered in the era of cyberwarfare. Progress in nuclear, biological and chemical technology made everything exponentially powerful and lethal.
Since businesses harness same technologies, they encounter similar orbit shifts mirroring the advancements in warfare but for more constructive purposes. So, whether it's the merchant caravans plying down the silk road, trading flotillas that connect the world's supply chain, airlines industry that contracted the globe or even Mr Musk's plans to inhabit Mars; all are driven by the same technological orbit shifts. The key however is that within the inflection point of these shifts lie opportunities which change the fate of organisations and nations.
The world witnessed such an orbit shift at the end of the second world war when humankind's technological prowess was at its zenith. Propellors had given way to jets, communication technology connected continents in real-time, computers were being used for battle systems integration and above all was the frantic race for the nuclear bomb.
Every major power including Germany, realised the game changing capability of nuclear weapons and raced to tame the atom. United States, however, beat the world to it and resoundingly ended the war pulverising Japan into surrender. Hiroshima and Nagasaki announced the new world order. The United States' triumph was not attributable just to its possession of superior scientific knowledge or a scarcity of talented scientists in other nations. Rather, it was the absence of a conducive structural framework that hindered these nations from capitalizing on the pivotal turning point. In stark contrast, the United States had astutely established five fundamental pillars to seize the opportunities presented by this technological revolution, which were within reach of numerous contenders.
Firstly, the US was the first to discern and react to what was then a weak signal. Hitler was obsessed with fantastical weapons projects and in late 1930s, nuclear bombs were still a fantasy. However, Einstein's letter to President Roosevelt about using nuclear power as a weapon ignited US leadership towards an impending technological shift and Project Manhattan was sanctioned immediately.
Second, while rest of the Allies and Axis powers were ravaged by the two world wars, the relatively unaffected US was able to leverage its economic and industrial strength to channelise unlimited resources into the research and development. They were (and still are) able to buy the best when it comes to innovation.
Third, the US had a robust, intellectually independent and iconoclastic education system that encouraged its students to challenge dogma. Despite prevailing racial discrimination, Project Manhattan not only had immigrants from several nations including Germany, but also women, including African American and Chinese women. The US had the strongest scientific temperament and diverse talent base, because they systematically created an environment to attract them.
Fourthly, the US leveraged national capacity in that they unified the military, scientists, academia and the private sector into a singular purpose. Despite having the resources and scientists the Soviet Union was unable to foster similar creativity because of their dictatorial culture and lack of entrepreneurial talent or decentralised innovation.
And lastly, they kept National Security above differences in leadership personas. Though Harry Truman who was thrust into Presidency because of Roosevelt's untimely death, was largely unaware of Manhattan, he took up the baton and was the one who pressed the button.
The Soviet Union took almost half a decade to catch up in nuclear capability, relying on espionage more than research and development, (two of the Soviet moles were scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project.) Though the US had beaten them by years, the Soviet project was codenamed 'First Lighting'. Despite US assistance, UK took almost ten years to attain nuclear capability and France needed 15. China and India attained the milestone two and three decades later respectively.
This powerful combination of the brightest talent, scientific and technology temperament, audacious venture capital with structured and sustained government support, ensured US dominance in virtually all technologies till date where she continues to hold the pole position in the value chain. The orbit shift of artificial intelligence offers the potential to change that.
To seize this potential, India must adopt an integrated approach that focuses on intellectual property creation. This entails investing in research and development producing cutting-edge algorithmic tools, rather than skilling schools teaching usage of those tools. India possesses one of the world's largest, most diverse and richest sets of data points - which are like seeds to a data farm. We also hold the keys to one of the richest growth markets in the world. Insights into which have applications in fields as diverse as public health and nutrition, preventing wastage of resources, optimising energy usage, genetic research, national security, financial propriety, governance and countless others.
Despite having some of the best minds, India missed fully exploiting the IT and subsequent technological revolutions like robotics and chip research and manufacturing. If we miss this one too, then we will be left drawing succor from surrogate pride of Indian origin foreign citizens helming companies creating value for those countries while we work on hourly wages. There doesn't seem to be much intelligence in that.
Raghu Raman is the founding CEO of the National Intelligence Grid and bestselling author of Everyman's War