Sunday, November 27, 2011

De-globalization and Re-localization: Towards One Economic World

The growth of all developed countries had been in a large measure due to such countries driving their industrial and economic growth based on not only strong internal consumption but also aggressive overseas exports. The exports from developed countries typically comprised technologies, capital goods, raw materials, components and finished goods to other countries. In recent years, the developed economies have started to support their faltering economies by outsourcing their production to low cost emerging economies while the emerging economies started adopting the developed countries' model of export led growth. In the meanwhile, the global financial volatility of the last several years continues unabated. In fact, it is spiked up by the growing public debt of several developed countries and collapse of domestic demand-supply bases in such countries coupled with unpredictability of exchange rate regimes. This has, in turn, cast a serious shadow on the relevance of export led growth models that are sought to be pursued by the emerging economies.

There are, of course, significant differences in the characteristics of the developed and developing economies. The developed countries are characterized by flagging demand and low job creation, especially in the manufacturing sector, in a demographic shift towards the aged and an economic mix dominated by services. The developing countries are characterized by surging demand and high job creation, boosted by a demographic shift towards the young but constrained, however, by poor quality of infrastructure and huge urban-rural and rich-poor divides. The export led and foreign investment led models of growth of emerging markets are threatened by the economic uncertainties faced by the developed economies. This has depressed demand and increased the global financial volatility which has, in turn, affected investment flows. There, however, seems to be little appreciation by policy makers and industry leaders of the emerging markets on the risks to their growth models. The emerging markets seem to be chasing the overseas chimera while ignoring the domestic growth needs. There is a need for both developed and developed countries to re-prioritize the globalization and localization models.

Viability motive in developed countries

As the Eurozone crisis demonstrates, developed countries are committed to sustaining current living standards affected by lower incomes and lower savings with lower costs of products and services. Their emphasis is on searching globally for the least cost sources even while continuing the approaches to develop new products and new markets. While product development has no doubt accelerated in the last two decades in the developed economies the acceleration has not been a determinant of greater gross incomes. The impact of enhanced innovation is reduced by the shorter product life cycle. New products typically substitute the previous generation products rather than co-exist. With the consumption driven society facing incomes crisis, the strategic mindset of the developed markets is focused on sustaining viability through cost competitiveness rather than through value enhancement.

The strategic mindset of viability at any cost (actually at the lowest cost possible!) reduces the innovation levels due to reduced investments on research and asset modernization. At times, the unceasing quest for the lowest cost also impacts quality as demonstrated by the problems faced by certain product categories due to imports from certain countries. The financial orientation is compounded by an analyst and investor mindset which relentlessly focuses on quarterly results, especially corporate profitability and shareholder returns. This emphasis, no doubt, trains the managements to conserve resources and minimize waste but it also makes them risk, investment and innovation averse while driving them to globalize to outsource and reduce costs. It requires significant leadership strength to fight against the dominant trends and reinvest for growth. It is a moot point if the state of frozen growth faced by the developed countries needs to be thawed by government incentives, industry actions or firm level competitive moves. In all probability all are required in unison.

Growth motive in developing economies

The emerging markets, especially China and India, have been notching up high rates of economic growth for the last several years. In fact, it is said that the unrelenting infrastructure development and competitive manufacture have made China the most important partner for several developed economies. India has also been treading a similar path, albeit with a lag. However, global adversities and local inflation are slowing down growth in emerging economies. The impact has been two fold; reduced investments from developed countries serve to reduce new project formations in emerging markets while increased inflation in emerging economies affects the cost-competitiveness of products and services. There is, however, no predictable outcome of the changing equations given the unpredictable movement in exchange rates. As corporations in emerging markets are buffeted by these several adverse trends, export-led growth becomes a somewhat shaky model.

The emerging countries seek to bolster their competitive position in the changing scenario by opening up the economies even more. India, which has gained significantly from the opening up of the economy to foreign investments, has been facing some criticism for not opening up the economy even further to make India an even more favored destination for foreign investments. There is, however, equally a pushback from certain quarters based on concerns arising out of land use, import-led project creation, squeeze of small and micro enterprises, exploitation of indigent farmers, and so on. In the absence of an objective discussion, the subject of further economic reforms is tending to be more polemical than technical. Some examples such as the current foreign direct investment policy for pharmaceuticals, sale of Cairn oil business or new policy on foreign direct investments in multi-brand and single-brand retail are indicative of the controversies relating to quick policy fixes devised from time to time to keep the emerging economies growing at a fast clip.

Market-led or factor-led?

Emerging markets have to rethink their development and growth strategies. For India, in particular, although opening up of the economy brought in excellent benefits of outsourcing in the past, a similar strategy may not provide similar results in future, at least on the same scale. If the first phase of reforms brought to the fore the relevance of India’s factor inputs (technical and managerial talent; human and corporate side of free enterprise), the second phase could provide a much larger menu of options based on a switch to market based growth. This is because factor-led growth focuses on making global products cheaper using India’s low cost factor inputs and conversion economics. Many times this could be only for captive consumption through directed development. Depending on the standing of the sponsors, the factor suppliers or the conversion specialists would prosper. Even then, most production in the factor-led model enables viability to global developed markets rather than to the domestic markets.

Market-led growth on the other hand focuses on the huge domestic demand of the emerging economies that remains untapped. It would provide additional product scope and manufacturing scale to the base levels of the factor-led model. The domestic market would have additional products at appropriate value points, often developed through creative science and frugal engineering. The additional scale and scope thus obtained would also have collateral positive impact on the basic global products of the sponsor. The policy regime of India (whether of 100% EOUs or SEZs), however, provided incentives and tax breaks only to export production and sale. Any domestic sale by such companies would draw equalization of duties and taxes, hiking up the pricing of products for the domestic tariff area. In one sense, penalizing the domestic market with higher prices is inequitable, and deserves correction in the current phase of reforms.

De-globalization, re-localization

At the core of the new paradigm for balanced growth of the Indian economy must be a balanced emphasis on globalization and localization on a 50:50 ratio, as a general guidance. This means that every enterprise must seek to cater to global markets and local markets equally. The advantages of this mindset shift for the Indian enterprises and economy would be enormous. Those firms that are steeped in antiquated products and sheltered under low value points with 100% local market oriented production will start understanding and absorbing global technologies, in terms of products, processes and quality. Apart from achieving better revenue status through the newfound export orientation, such enterprises would also be integrating the new technologies for the local market, achieving better competitiveness in the local markets. The economy would obviously benefit through additional export revenues from the hitherto wholly domestic oriented units and the expansion of the local market with better products by such firms.

The 100% export oriented units would conversely dedicate 50% of their capacity for serving the local market. This would enable such firms access the vast and growing Indian market and achieve business stability, even if accompanied by a pricing compromise required for the domestic market. Such a move to allocate 50% of the capacity for the domestic market would benefit the enterprises in terms of a capability to develop and manufacturing products that suit the challenging Indian market. It would also enable the enterprises be better equipped to cater to other emerging markets. The economy would significantly benefit from the availability of global product range in the country without resort to costly imports. On an overall basis the 50-50 approach would also address the concerns of the developed world that outsourcing to emerging markets is all about low cost production; they would appreciate that the new approach secures market access too.

As a corollary to the 50:50 approach, emerging countries should also insist on at least 50% localization as a target, whatever be the product. This would enable the development of the industry even in high technology segments. For example, import of luxury cars on a completely built-up (CBU) basis would be modified to partial import and local assembly based on semi-knocked down unit (SKU) basis. While such approaches were there in the past, notably until the 1990s, they did not result in any significant gain as the demand did not exist for such high end products in India. The demand profile in the liberalized India is significantly different, and has its place for high end products. This would provide the requisite base for local component and manufacturing support for high end products too.

Policy regime, paradigm shift

The more balanced globalization-localization paradigm advocated herein offers multiple benefits as outlined. It brings economic development on to a more balanced platform globally, and provides stability to all economies. The emerging markets, however, need to put in place certain policy prescriptions to usher in this change on a sustainable basis. For example, the 100% EOU and SEZ policies may have to be modified to provide for allocation of 50% of capacity for the domestic markets as a target. Correspondingly, such production should not also be levied additional duties in the event of sale to domestic tariff areas. In order to ensure greater transparency and stability, a new 50-50 export-local policy regime should be brought in. The policy would help the Indian industry far more than individual sector reforms could help. There is also no need to be concerned that 100% EOUs and SEZs would have greater tariff advantage as a level playing field would be created for the hitherto wholly domestic units too.

Along with the intellectual property protection regime that is now in place in India, the new 50-50 policy regime should induce innovator firms in all industries to locate the production of their patented products also in India. This would enable the Indian public have access to patented products, especially in the healthcare sector and obviate the need for measures such as compulsory licensing. The innovator firms as well as the global consumers would have the benefit of lower cost development and production of generic as well as innovator products in India. While at first look the suggested 50-50 policy prescription may look threatening both to overseas firms and domestic enterprises, the principles of equality, technology and market access and level playing field that support the new policy prescription would provide tangible and sustainable benefits.

One economic world

Eventually, economic development would seek a global equilibrium. The developed world has seen limits to growth and profligacy. The emerging world which is tasting the first fruits of liberalization and prosperity would soon discover its limits to growth due to gradual erosion of competitive advantage. An ability to cater to domestic as well as overseas markets equally, and a capability to contribute at least 50% of local value addition would enable the Indian enterprise stay stable and competitive. The approach would enable the foreign enterprises be equal corporate citizens in the local markets providing global products competitively to local markets while benefiting from the talent and cost arbitrage that India offers. The de-globalization cum re-localization paradigm would lead to an equitable One Economic World, providing a rightful competitive position to emerging countries such as India.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on September 27, 2011

Friday, November 25, 2011

Space, Time and Effort Management (STEM): A Paradigm for Resource and Performance Optimization

Maximization of performance is a goal avidly pursued by administrators, leaders and managers. Eventually, they discover that maximization tends to bring in other costs that erode the apparent benefits of resource utilization and performance maximization. For example, addictive workaholic behavior without any life balance dimineshes a person's energy levels eventually. All-night studies sap the energy and creativity of aspiring students. Pursuit of revenue maximization per se at any cost has landed many corporations suffer in terms of profitability and even quality. Clearly, unidirectional pursuit of singular objectives in today's multidimensional world leads to suboptimal results.

The world has occasionally discovered, but also has consistently sought to ignore, from time to time, that the earth's resources are finite. Building high for more dwelling accommodation per unit area has been as unhelpful as drilling deep for more massive fuels per unit of industrial and social activity. While concepts such as carbon credits and green building have helped focus attention on newer avenues of conservation, the world continues to splurge money and exploit resources. As a result, several campaigns have been launched by several corporations to confirm their sustainability standing. However, we need to incorporate the essentials of meaningful conservation and true optimization, both as bottom-up and top-down approaches.

Base, apex

The base of conservation lies in an understanding of the principle of finiteness. Expansion of wants and desires from the very young age characterizes a madly consumption society. While consumption is necessary to expand economic activity and drive growth, extravagance and waste are wholly deleterious to the society, diverting scarce resources to redundant production and consumption. The principle of "one need-one item" was the basis of a frugal society of the past. While it would be anachronistic to expect a slip-back to caveman days, there is clearly a need to avoid "buffet spread" culture that seems to dominate all activities and across all sections of the society. Potentially, it would commence from the very early schooling days with lean backpacks but with weighty knowledge.

The leadership pendulum swings between enviable and unenviable positions. In good times, the leadership has the luxury of high living to attract talent while in bad times it squeezes itself and the organization dry. In some cases, leadership focuses on visible cost reductions but ignores the relevance of strategic value additions and plays down the impact of invisible time and effort losses. Responsible leadership views space, time and energy in a stable fashion, in good times as well as difficult times. Large airlines like Kingfisher would not have faced the current crisis had the leadership been appreciative of the fundamental drivers of competitiveness in the volatile airlines industry.

Pull to optimize

The success of the famous Toyota Production System in particular, and the Japanese National System in general, is based on conservation. Compact buildings, single column flyovers, underground cities, over-the-ground bullet trains, avoidance of car transportation in weekdays characterize the national space management ethos. Night time construction, upgrade of machinery, pull-type demand and production planning, just-in-time deliveries and stocking, low inter-machine spacing, multi-level layouts typify wise use of space, time and effort. Interestingly, the Japanese system teaches us that if we plan our space prudently, we will automatically be enabling an optimal use of our time and effort.

To be able to effectively utilize the pull system, several hackneyed concepts such as large shells for future growth, build to inventory, stock to saturate, produce to drive share, and high work-in-process need to be jettisoned. The financial cost of profligacy in industrial infrastructure strikes at the very roots of industrial competitiveness. There may not be one-glove-fits-all solution though. In some cases, vertical planning of space would be ideal while in other cases horizontal expansion could be the solution. To be able to achieve optimal results, however, optimal planning of space, time and effort would need to be the foundation of all industrial and service design.

Conserve more, utilize more

There are essentially two options of space conservation; either compress the space to match optimal utility or expand the space available to generate optimal value. The tablet computer is a great example of the note book computer real estate being cut by half without affecting the functionality. As an extension, if the note book computer has to be better utilized in the space department, at the minimum three displays can be incorporated; the frontal large screening and the base key pad could have two small screens on either side of the touch pad. Or, the bottom base can also be converted into a touch display cum querty screen. Even automobile makers are now rethinking their design paradigms, combining compactness with luxury features. The latest advertisement of Audi, famous for its large, luxury cars, extols the virtues of smallness stating that small spaces need big thinking!

At the core of conservation lies the strategic thinking on the needs. Apple has demonstrated how few models with minimalist designs could achieve market dominance which multiple models with extravagant designs were not able to achieve. This is not to suggest that we need to return to the days of Henry Ford's single automobile or that every product can be multi-functional like an Apple product. Beneath all the extravagance, however, lies the fallibility of chief product designers that attempts overlaying buffers and modules in a please-all effort.

'Operanomics', beyond ergonomics

Extending the example of automobile industry further, it can be seen that the Japanese simple and lean thinking has achieved massive operational flexibility without affecting production scale or productivity. In the 1970s, the popular Western concept for machining of an automobile engine was the machining centre which performed customized multiple operations on the cylinder block and cylinder head with the help of dedicated jigs and fixtures and tools, rotating the two components around vertical axes of the machining centres. This, however, meant that different machining centres had to be designed for different blocks and heads depending on the number of cylinders, bore and stroke and the external dimensions. Apart from the huge dedicated investments such approach entailed, it also made low volume production unviable.

The Japanese hit upon a simple but ingenuous idea of unit operations to tackle this issue. Under the unit operations concept, the machine tool would only do one operation, for example honing of the cylinder bore. While apparently the unit operations approach may seem to ask for more machine tools, the inherent flexibility to turn out cylinder blocks of multiple dimensions and sizes enhances the investment efficiency and competitive advantage of the unit operations approach enormously. Adopting this Japanese approach, a leading Indian automotive manufacturer could manufacture four different series of diesel engines, having wide dimensional disparity and cubic variation from 4 to 10 litre capacity, in one simple machining line.

The Japanese concepts of optimal space, time and effort usage also led to replacement of long lines of sequential machining with one operator per machine to compact horse shoe lines of unitized balanced operations with one operator manning many machines. The skill in this approach lies in splitting the total cycle into unit operations and also balancing the unitized operations to synchronize movement of the workman from machine to machine within the overall line and individual machine cycle times. Examples of other operational economics involve creation of conveyor lines and work spaces around human ergonomics, use of gravity to move parts, color clustering of parts per model, error proofing of components and assemblies, and rapid changeover of giant press tools and fixtures. In addition, the Japanese system never fights shy of stopping a line if it has problems. Here again, the Japanese have an underlying concept of space; the line problems are not to be solved in distant offices but are actually solved closest to the problem area - on the line itself!

STEM, an optimization paradigm

The fundamental building block of all engineering knowledge is the concept of space. An ability to visualize and dimension in space needs to be a virtual intuitive forte of a good engineer or a designer. Over the years, however, the dimension of space rather than the functionality of space started taking control of engineering perspectives. The Japanese society, cramped as it is for space, has given a new meaning to functionality of space. Along with optimal spatial planning came the benefits of optimizing time and effort as a virtual corollary. A well planned facility, which is compactly designed, will be a natural enabler of good ergonomics.

Spatial planning is not all about squeezing things in. Where required, as in the case of highways, roadways, transit points, ports and certain other infrastructure projects spatial planning is all about expansiveness to accommodate future throughput and sustain productivity. It is also about holistic spatial development of core residential or business districts with all amenities and support services built in. USA is a great example of expansive, futuristic spatial development triggering and sustaining orderly growth for decades. The aim of spatial planning must be to optimize transaction times and costs through accessibility.

In order to give a fillip to such thinking, architecture needs to be incorporated as a core course of all engineering curricula. Ergonomics must be expanded to encompass whole lines and facilities as opposed to limited study of optimized man-machine interfaces at individual man and machine levels. Forecasting techniques must focus not merely on demand outcomes but also on activity and churn levels. For example, malls must be designed to offer choice with contiguity, shelf space with footfall estate and display splendor with spatial optimality. Process design must integrate technical elements with ergonomic optimality and productivity efficiency. Machine tools and accessories must be developed to support versatile manufacture with rapid changeovers. Complexity of whole systems must be addressed with simplicity of unit operations.

Human engineering through STEM

Engineering must go beyond providing brilliant technical solutions. Engineering must merge the machine factor with human form and facility infrastructure with social sustainability. Emerging markets such as India and China have traditionally played on the liberal land factor to attract investments. Land, however, is finite. There are already pressures related to extravagant land allocations to developers and miniscule land utilization by them. Understanding of STEM as a paradigm would enable administrators, managers and leaders seek a balance in land allocation and usage. In a larger perspective, STEM leads to resource conservation as a guiding principle all design and development work.

Toyota Prius hybrid car is a great example of human engineering and environmental sustainability where energy and motion are mutually substitutional and synergistic. The value of such pioneering development is being emulated years later by car manufacturers such as Hyundai who swore only by fuel driven cars and debunked hybrids (see their admission while launching Sonata Hybrid car recently). Space compaction, time compression and effort saving when they happen together go beyond conservation of resources; the phenomenon leads to energy recycling. The first step to spur the thinking of young engineers and wise leaders towards sustainable resource conservation is STEM as outlined in this post.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on November 25, 2011

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

From Social Networking to Nation Building: Five Points of Positive Transformation

The last decade has been an epoch making decade for social networking. Initial e mail chat and messenger platforms got soon overwhelmed with more powerful and people-savvy social network sites such as Facebook, Orkut, Twitter and more lately Google+. The power of these new social networking platforms is enormous. There are at present over two hundred social media sites. Amongst these, the Top 15 account for over 1.3 billion estimated unique monthly visitors as per the surveys. Facebook alone has reportedly over 700 million user traffic per month while Twitter has 200 million user traffic per month. The newly launched Google+ has signed up 32 million user traffic in just 4 months of launch. With the ownership and use of moblile and smart phones growing rapidly, with tablets taking on new media connectivity roles, and with the social media sites directly linked onto smart phones and tablet devices, it is easy to imagine that social networking would have nothing but an exponential growth rate in the years to come.

In addition, these social media networks have become wonderful vehicles to connect with and follow leaders from all walks of life. Equally significantly, Facebook and Twitter have become platforms for business communication and marketing too, with virtually every big corporation having a Facebook or Twitter account. Given their enormous potential for instant and expanding connectivity, these sites have been carriers of landmark events and happenings around the world. They have also been the triggers and propagators for certain unique political and social movements that have swayed the world in recent times. Though there have been privacy and other concerns relating to some of the sites, it appears that social networking has come to be established as an irreversible phenomenon of this decade, and probably of the several decades to come as well.

Underlying motivators

The enormous popularity of these social networking sites has been due to five basic behavioral underpinnings of the new age intellectuals. The new generation has an unprecedented urge to connect and communicate, and the social media, devices and sites have been perfect platforms for that. The author of this blog post has identified five essential drivers of individual dispositions and behaviors. These are: See the Face, Share the Past, Explore the Uncertain, Bridge the Distance and Form the Community. Each of these five trends has significant implications.

See the Face

The new Gen-X individual is neither shy nor discrete. He or she loves to be seen and heard. He or she has few privacy concerns, if at all, and revels in disclosures that profile him or her on multiple dimensions. This enables a level of trust and transparency that leads to virtual friendship in most cases, despite the real threats of misuse of privacy data that exist.

Share the Past

While past is no predictor of future, one's past is a great builder of future bonds. The social networking sites, especially Facebook, have as their unique proposition an ability to mine the past to suggest connectivity. Equally, the social enthusiasts post their past experiences and photographs on their walls, providing a solid foundation of shared experiences and evolutions on which new superstructures can be built.

Explore the Uncertain

While the adage goes that face is the index of the mind, any entrant to social networks is essentially an adventurist. He or she would be connecting with persons whose real antecedents and motivations can rarely be accurately verified. That said, what the patrons of the social networking sites bring to the table is a willingness to explore the uncertain, an essential requirement of the quest for progress.

Bridge the Distance

With the growth of social networking, distance has ceased to be a separator. In fact, one may hypothesize that the farther one is the closer one becomes. The ability of the hardware technologies and the power of the operating systems of the modern connectivity devices and platforms have together made audio-visual meetings a common place happening. Text the Talk is the new mantra that keeps the new generation connect seamlessly across boundaries and oceans.

Form the Community

All these behavioral trends naturally help the users of social networking sites become communities based on certain dimensions of their choice. The power of these communities lies in their common diaspora as much as in their diversity. These communities, therefore, tend to be philosophically robust with cross-cultural and cross-functional enrichments. In many ways, these communities tend to be modern age icons of unity in diversity.

Social moorings, national perspectives

Given that the social networking phenomenon has unleashed such a massive transformation in global connectivity it is apt and opportune to explore what else can be done with the enormous "social energy" that is created. No doubt, this phenomenon has led to the individual participants discover more meaning in their lives and the business participants achieve greater reach in the social base. At the same time, like the energy of the mighty oceans, the energy of the formidable social networks is often idled, if not wasted, through non-value adding activities. Social scientists even hold that these have become obsessive diversions from other productive activities while some medical specialists hold that the Internet addiction to be a clinical disorder. That said, neither the march of technology nor progress of connectivity can be undone; rather creative ways must be found to channel the enormous social energy on the Internet that is the order of the day.

One very relevant channel to direct the social energy would be national missions initially, followed up with global visions. As some of the recent social campaigns have shown, the young and the intelligent have a huge stake in how societies, economies and nations would shape up. This requirement can only be more profound in India than in any nation given that India would have the youngest and largest demographic profile globally for the next several decades. The vision of India racing to be the third largest global economic power by 2035 is tempered by the multitudes of social, economic and industrial inequities and constraints that India has to grapple with.

Rational thoughts, national missions

One can think of several national missions which the social networking communities can contribute to. Enhancing online education, including support systems for parents and educational institutions, especially at primary and secondary levels could be one important, in fact the first and foremost, national mission. Providing market and technology outreach for micro and small enterprises could be a second critical mission that could promote self-reliance and entrepreneurship. Development of national policy initiatives and programs based on community experiences could be a third important mission. Open source collaboration for upgradation of industrial products and business services could be a fourth mission. Cultural transformation to attain the highest levels of national comparative advantage in terms of innovation, quality and productivity, on the lines of Japan, could be a fifth vital mission.

Making India an equitable, safe, ecologically conscious welfare state could be the sixth important national mission. Women empowerment in all walks of life and enabling them to assume leadership roles in the business and industry could be the seventh mission. Agrarian uplift, enabling the indigent farmer, manage a positive rural economy is the eight mission. Geriatric care with healthcare taken up by voluntary and government contributions is very much a need of the hour. And finally, balanced child nutrition, including, free food for all indigent day care babies and school going children would boost the nation's health and literacy levels even further.

Five points of transformation

The ten national missions may seem overwhelming at first sight but can be tackled by mass voluntary drive of the educated and employed population, which characterizes the core of the social networking movement. This, however, requires a paradigm shift in the approach to, and use of, social networking. We have considered that the current social networking phenomenon is driven by five individual behavioral patterns: See the Face, Explore the Uncertain, Share the Past, Bridge the Distance and Form the Community. While these would continue to drive the social networking phenomenon, expansion of the network to create even greater levels of social energy and focused channeling of the social energy to national missions would require five additional behavioral underpinnings. These are: Absorb the Mission, Share the Passion, Innovate the Future, Bridge the Divide and Institutionalize the Change.

Absorb the Mission

It is important that socially conscious and nationally driven social citizens of the Net give wide exposure to national missions. The Times Group of India launched a Teach India awareness and voluntary participation campaign to a considerable degree of success. The above ten national missions with further detailing could become significant value propositions. Collaborating with the social networking sites for additional infrastructure and visibility support can help the social netizens see and absorb the national missions.

Share the Passion

If the current social networking is driven by an enthusiasm to connect and belong, the national missions can be fulfilled only by a passion to contribute to national upliftment. This would require that the networked citizens understand and analyze their own competencies and capabilities and are fired by a passion to share these with the needy country men and women. Such passion should be shared by the discrete communities so that the ability to contribute is reinforced.

Innovate the Future

Visibility and passion need to be supplemented with innovation to fulfill the missions. Conventional thinking and traditional structures as well as existing products and services are unlikely to be either time-efficient or cost-effective for social netizens to contribute. Creation of dedicated portals, tie-ups with device makers, development of customized products, dissemination of case studies could all add up to a powerful impact. In addition, more open source technology platforms could provide a great fillip to national innovation.

Bridge the Divide

National missions ought to fulfill two important purposes. Firstly, they must enable, empower, and enrich the downtrodden and needy members of the society, strengthening the social firmament. Secondly, they must reinforce the competitive and comparative advantages of the nation on par with the best in the world. The first objective to a large measure would support the second objective but the second objective would also require a much larger spread in the industry and the economy. Clearly, network communities must channel themselves into dedicated missions as well as target groups to achieve optimal impact.

Institutionalize the Change

Nation building cannot be a onetime initiative in time. Given the global coupling and given also the endeavors by other BRICS and MINT nations to compete in the global arena even while the developed blocks of USA, Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan seek to retain their edge, nation building has to be a continuous movement. Also, each positive change must be institutionalized and new changes systemically integrated. Korea is a fine example of fulfillment of national missions and their institutionalization thereof.

Finite time, infinite options

One of the striking features of the modern day globally networked world is the myriad number of industrial, business, social and economic options that arise each day. The world is also characterized by an increasing emphasis on entertainment, media and services. As a result, manufacturing and agriculture seem to be losing their share in the economy. At the same time, a greater proportion of the young and mobile population is getting increasingly obsessed with lifestyle activities and entertainment technologies. While even such leisure time activities require and generate their own cascades of industrial and economic activities, it is important that a nation maintains a balanced mix of all sectors. The socially networked youth also requires to develop its own balance of aptitude for multiple technologies and avocations.

Under the paradigm suggested herein, the social netizens would need to display an innovation, quality and productivity driven mind-set of nation building through fulfillment of critical national missions. Rather than merely be overawed by the time consuming and entertaining nature of the social networking technologies and sites, the young generation should, at the minimum, use a certain part of their 'facebook' time for nationally productive activities and at the optimum question themselves as to why the smart, cyber-navigating generation of India cannot have their own Facebooks, Twitters and Google+s for national competitiveness.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on November 22, 2011.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Indian Mission for Artificial Intelligence Networking (IMain): A Futuristic Paradigm for Progressive Healthcare

The paradigm of human healthcare could undergo a dramatic transformation in the years and the decades to come. Just a few days ago, Toyota Motor Corporation (Toyota), the world leader in automobiles, unveiled robots and robotic devices that assist elderly and disabled people perform day to day activities. Previously unthinkable tasks such as climbing the stairs by aged people with knee immobility or getting out of bed for bedridden people could be soon a matter of realization rather than hope. Toyota is confident that these new robotic developments are not going to be mere technological showpieces but would actually be smart companions that would be commercially available. This marks a new height scaled by engineering which consistently has been crossing new milestones in diagnostics and minimally invasive and non-invasive surgeries (the latest ones being the ultra-precision scanners, directed radio knife for oncology and ultrasound surgery for uterine fibroids). One may imagine that engineering strides would continue to lead to an unforeseen improvement in the lives of patients and the needy.

At the other end, research into regenerative medicine continues to make steady progress. Regenerative medicine is the process of replacing or regenerating human cells, tissues or organs to restore or establish normal function. This field holds the promise of regenerating damaged tissues and organs in the body by replacing damaged tissue and/or by stimulating the body's own repair mechanisms to heal previously irreparable tissues or organs. Regenerative medicine also empowers scientists to grow tissues and organs in the laboratory and safely implant them when the body cannot heal itself. Because a person’s own (autologous) cord blood stem cells can be safely infused back into that individual without being rejected by the body’s immune system — and because they have unique characteristics compared to other sources of stem cells — they are an increasing focus of regenerative medicine research.

Indian medicine, regenerative potential

India has the doctors’ hands that cure like the best from anywhere else in the world. Indian doctors have also demonstrated the ability to utilize the best of scanning and surgical devices to enhance the efficacy and certainty of surgeries. There is a view that the Indian hospital infrastructure is so grossly inadequate and the availability of doctors and beds is so woefully low that it makes little sense to focus on the futuristic areas of medicine. While there is an element of truth in this, every inflexion of technology offers the opportunity for developing and emerging countries such as India to leapfrog into cutting edge technologies. There are nearly thirty institutes in India such as L V Prasad Eye Institute which are conducting successful research into use of stem cells for various degenerative diseases. Given India’s population spread, disease burden and medical expertise, regenerative medicine could be a great new area of research and application for healthcare in India.

Importantly, regenerative medicine has the potential to solve the problem of the shortage of organs available for donation compared to the number of patients that require life-saving organ transplantation, as well as solve the problem of organ transplant rejection, since the organ's cells will match that of the patient. The use of cord blood stem cells in treating conditions such as brain injury, cardio-vascular ailments, Type 1 Diabetes, stroke, eye repair and hearing restoration would grow in future. As several clinical and pre-clinical studies currently underway demonstrate, cord blood stem cells will likely be an important resource as medicine advances towards harnessing the body’s own cells for treatment. The field of regenerative medicine can be expected to benefit greatly as additional cord blood stem cell applications are researched and more people have access to their own preserved cord blood.

Indian technology, mechanical advantage

At first glance, India could be perceived as a nation that has to be dependent on imported medical technology for perpetuity. However, Indian technology has also its pluses, especially in mechanical, metallurgical, machine tool, automobile, component and aerospace domains. While the machining and casting precision levels have not been up to exacting standards essentially due to lack of precision tooling and die technologies, mastering precision is not an insurmountable goal for the Indian industry. With its Jaipur foot, India has shown that it has the ability to provide low cost solutions for enhancing patient mobility. There is, therefore, significant scope for the Indian industry to participate in the healthcare robotics revolution. What India clearly misses out is on the semiconductor and micro-electronics technologies which it could balance to an extent by the software technology skill sets that would be extensively required in robots and robotic devices.

The Indian private and public sector corporations to date have focused only on basic and consumer industries. The aspiration to engage themselves in newly developing technologies has been somewhat on a low key. This is demonstrated by the reluctance to develop high end products (for example, luxury cars, precision forgings or cold rolled steel) even in the industries where Indian corporations are strong. However, of late there has been a clear glimmer of hope. Tata Motors’ turnaround of Land Rover Jaguar and development of new high end models with Indian components indicates that Indian industry could secure a niche in complex engineering if it sets it heart on the goal. This could, however, require large conglomerates and government corporations to dedicate certain portion of their research and manufacturing expenditure to high technology products.

Artificial intelligence, natural competency

India would have a natural, national advantage in developing products of artificial intelligence, an essential facet of robotics. Robotic devices help patients who have some level of mental ability to understand how to overcome physical disability with robotic assistance. More often than not, seriously ill patients would require caretakers to help them take robotic assistance. Artificial intelligence could be one technology that could help patients comprehend their needs and cope with their disabilities, and also enable doctors, nurses and caretakers fulfill their responsibilities more accurately. Artificial intelligence is more than a computer providing a set of programmed instructions or a series of question and answer sessions. Artificial intelligence that is relevant to the healthcare sector requires real time analysis of the patient’s faculties and comparing them with what should have been a healthy person’s faculties and guiding the patients as well as the robots through the gap bridging.

Artificial intelligence would be helpful to the larger universe of doctors, nurses and caretakers as well. Artificial intelligence could also vary in its scope and application based on the disease state of the patient. A patient affected by Parkinson’s disease would have needs that are different from those of a patient affected by epilepsy, for example. The deficit in faculties varies significantly across disease states. Artificial intelligence could also provide significant reinforcement to devices that are implanted in a patient to regulate his or her physiological state such as a cardiac pace maker or a diabetic insulin pump. Sensory technologies play a major role in developing a patient baseline and a target health line for artificial intelligence. Given the billions of information bytes and logic sets that would need to be captured and codified even in a modest project of artificial intelligence, the Indian information technology industry could play a major role.

Multiple disciplines, singular focus

From complex mathematics and sophisticated engineering to involved psychology and intricate neurology, virtually every discipline is required to develop a viable platform of artificial intelligence. Unlike any other discipline, artificial intelligence has no particular unifying theory. No direct correlations and influences are possible either. Bird biology may not be very relevant to aircraft design but human biology could be quite relevant to healthcare artificial intelligence. Amongst all diverse approaches developed for artificial intelligence, from programmed logic to random simulation, mathematics and statistics with integration of neurological science and human behavioral logic provide a useful approach. Developers are now seized of methodologies and tools that could add even empathy and emotion to artificial intelligence to mimic human intelligence and behavior as much as possible.

A major challenge in artificial intelligence relates to storage and computing power. This has been overcome to a large extent; even otherwise the computing power of computers would continue to grow exponentially. What could limit artificial intelligence is the sheer plurality of behavior of human mind. Even billions of programs could prove unequal to the individual shades of variation in human behavior. It is, therefore, necessary that while deploying as many disciplines as possible to develop viable platforms of artificial intelligence, developers should go deep into specific fields. For example, initial focus could be on disease conditions which have faculty deficit rather than total faculty absence. As the discipline of artificial intelligence proves itself it becomes easier to integrate the learning into newer devices for more complex diseases such as stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.

Indian potential, capable entities

India has probably several advantages to become a centre of global excellence for artificial intelligence. India traditionally has had one of the strongest bases for mathematics and statistics, which is now fortified with multiple disciplines of engineering, especially software engineering. The strategy to become a global power in artificial intelligence has four components for India. The first is the building of supercomputers that can process billions of calculations. The second is the multi-disciplinary programming effort required to create the artificial intelligence. The third is to integrate artificial intelligence with a host of advanced diagnostic and surgical devices to enhance the capabilities of physicians and surgeons. The fourth is to establish an optimal interface and governance between the patient, doctor, nurse, hospital, and caretakers. In each of the four areas India can be take up visionary research and development.

India has demonstrated its capability to build supercomputers such as Param and SAGA with TeraFLOP computing capabilities. As Japan’s latest supercomputer development (K computer doing 10 quadrillion calulations per second) demonstrates, there exist no limits for computing capability. To succeed in the domain of healthcare artificial intelligence, however, India may need to take the supercomputing revolution to the desktop and mobile computer fields, besides networking the central supercomputer to a host of servers. With reference to the multi-disciplinary programming, there are several institutes in India that are dedicated to advanced mathematics, computer sciences, biological sciences and medical engineering as well as medical institutions dedicated to certain disease streams. These institutions can collaborate to develop the thinking and execution for artificial intelligence.

The networking of the above two capabilities with medical diagnostic and surgical hardware would be challenging given the fact that all such equipment is produced only by a few global leaders in medical technologies located in the developed world. That said, GE has been a pioneer in trying to explore the Indian advantage in developing new medical devices in India. India would need to create a value proposition for such equipment majors as the preferred partner for artificial intelligence. Despite the tremendous progress made in imaging of the body, interpretation of the results continues to be a human dominated. In today’s busy medical world, the doctor devotes only very little time to analyze the hundreds of images taken per patient. Artificial intelligence can help the doctors extract the full value of the sophisticated imaging for achieving precision cures. This leads to the next step of limiting cure to the extent required, selectively and precisely, again with the help of artificial intelligence.

Palm reading, body scanning

Several pieces of mythology and fiction have come true in real life over the last several decades and centuries. A dramatically transformed healthcare scenario where science and technology deliver regenerative, reconstructive and reinforcing options for human life would also come true one day. The world over, and across civilizations, palm reading has been popular to understand what the future foretells in terms of health and longevity, among others. In future, hopefully, body scanning backed by artificial intelligence would be, as easy and commonplace as palm reading, and would be a far better predictor of longevity and health. This enhanced predictive capability coupled with robotics and regeneration would make the world a better place to live and enjoy life, for sure.

In terms of developing a total healthcare ecosystem, comprising the patients, doctors, nurses, caretakers and hospitals, based on equipment integrated with artificial intelligence, India can create a model of futuristic healthcare. Today’s poor healthcare services need not deter India from taking a giant leap into this domain. It would be appropriate for the Government of India to develop a nationally networked program of artificial intelligence for specific diseases as a national technology mission. These need to be centrally funded as immediate commercial returns are difficult to envisage. India has some of the best leadership brains that are being utilized in conventional areas such as aerospace, defense, atomic energy and unique individual identification number as well as in various medical, scientific and engineering disciplines. Some of these leaders can be brought together to kick-start the Indian Mission for Artificial Intelligence Networking (IMAIN) for a new era of more assured healthcare.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on November 6, 2011