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Tobby Simon

President, Synergia Foundation

Anastasia Tolstukhina

PhD in Political Science, Program Manager and Website Editor at the Russian International Affairs Council

Today, India is becoming a prominent player on the global technological arena. How India is achieving this? How does this country protect its technological sovereignty in a fragmenting world? Are there any prospects for cooperation between Russia and India in the field of high-tech? We talked about this and many other things with Synergia Foundation President Tobby Simon.

Today, India is becoming a prominent player on the global technological arena. How India is achieving this? How does this country protect its technological sovereignty in a fragmenting world? Are there any prospects for cooperation between Russia and India in the field of high-tech? We talked about this and many other things with Synergia Foundation President Tobby Simon.

Today we are witnessing a global trend towards technological sovereignty. We see this taking place in the European Union, China, Russia and even the United States. With this in mind, what is India’s notion of technological sovereignty?

As a country, the general trend is to strive to follow exactly what Europe wants to follow. Basically, to protect data in our country. The Indian government claims that regardless if a company is a multinational company or not, all services must be provided in India. This is a problem, because big companies are not used to being dictated to do this. So I think, in a sense, this is like a battle of attrition. Slowly the government is trying to convince companies that Indian data must remain in India. Because data is the new oil, data is the future and you do not want to mind map your population. Today, thanks to all the available advanced tech, or by even listening to a person, you can probably profile a person: his behavior, his needs, his wants. Then you end up like a slave to something larger and more powerful than you.

You mentioned data, but what about manufacturing? What about factories? It is also important for ensuring tech sovereignty.

The fun thing about manufacturing is that it will go where you have the talent and where you were able to arbitrate the cost. There is no other rule for that. Plus, manufacturing will go where you are able to protect IP. Whether it is in India, China, or Vietnam. There are three cornerstones companies look for: is my intellectual property safe? Is manufacturing possible? Can you sell what you manufacture (are the laws of the land compliant so that there is an equal legal footing if someone were to violate my rights as a manufacturer, and be legally protected regardless of whether you are a foreigner or Indian)?

So, if we are to look at India, the IP laws in India stand out. Today, India’s population is complying more and more to IP laws, while in the past, we did not. We have our own justification for this. Now, IP must be respected. So with IP practices coming in, and these practices are the same, regardless if you are a foreigner or an Indian, the playing ground is now also the same. So, anyone can come. Even in innovation, you can join intellectual property and use intellectual property to manufacture goods. I think the regulatory guidelines on intellectual property on most valuable things are very clear now. It’s mainly the old practices that were very perfidious that everyone used to use; limit whatever somebody did not want the other to use. Governments had different rules and practices.

Considering high-tech, what are the key areas of technological development that India is focused on?

Regarding technological development, if you were to look at it generally, there is a wish list that you want to achieve. The question is, do you have the skillset? What are your strengths in fundamental science? What are your strengths in applied sciences? So, the areas that India is definitely looking at is AI, quantum computing and quantum encryptions, 5d/6d telecommunication systems, biotechnologies, etc. Also, I should mention semiconductors, which are a catchy game. First come, first serve. The first companies that had an advantage in this area are in the lead, always. People invest billions of dollars in new types of technology. So, I think it’s a standard narrative of what most advanced technologies are doing. This involves everything that has a fairly strong background in fundamental science. This is where everybody wants to go because you can make a change in the world or at least make a profit.

What steps are being taken to develop and support India’s tech industry, and how are these steps impacting India’s position in the global tech arena?

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Some steps have been taken at the governmental level. India’s government has been able to create many institutes of excellence. This includes IAT’s, India’s Institute of Sciences, Institute of Technology, the National Computer Center. Like many other countries, India has been able to create many centers of excellence, and many people come out of these institutes and work on their own innovation and findings. On the other hand, there have been people who have studied in normal schools. They also have a fairly strong share in other areas of research. So, it is not reserved for anybody special. Whoever has a bright brain has the ability to come up with new innovations. Mainly, this is because in today’s day and age we are able to apply and enforce patents. People are comfortable with filing patents in India so that they may get protection for a period of time. There is also a very good funding environment and community of people interested in investing in research. Sure, it is not as robust as that of Tel Aviv, but you have a community of people interested in these sorts of deep tech companies. True, there’s a long way to go, but I believe that the progress of any country will depend largely on what you are able to build in terms of technology. You can’t live off things that were done in the past because you will be out. Just take a look at Saudi Arabia: they could live for another fifty years with the oil that they have, but they are already starting changing. They have realized that they may not be able to enjoy another ten years because when technology moves, it moves so fast.

Obviously, today, there is a huge technological gap between the United States and China on the one hand and other countries on the other. The US and China are far ahead in terms of economic resources and investment in R&D, talent pool, education, technological infrastructure, etc. The question is, how can other countries, like India, compete with them to bridge or reduce the technological gap and foster tech sovereignty? Is this even impossible?

This is absolutely possible. Technology will not remain exclusive in the hands of a few people. For example, important technology today is in the military via drones. Who is it that mainly dominates the drone market? It's not the United States. It’s not Israel or China. It's Turkey and Iran. So, you are seeing these outlying countries coming and occupying the center stage of disruptive technology. They improvise. Knowledge has become democratized. It is no longer limited to the small the mighty. It's democratized. Today, the best innovations might come from a 14-year-old kid. Because you have enabled him with technology. Today China has invested in the right types of technology — quantum, AI, etc. That's what the Americans are largely afraid of. Others could go beyond quantum and AI; somebody else, it could be small countries that invest in this. It could be India. It could be Russia. No country is the status quo. Whoever invests in technology benefits from it. How did China do it? They put in their money into research. They invested in their diaspora. They were focused. That's where they wanted to go. Now, what is a worry for China? A big worry for China, and like many other countries in the world, including India, is going to be clean tech. Global warming. They can do whatever as much as they want, but if global warming will happen, China is gone. There is no status quo. India would also be gone. Countries and companies that can think ahead, plan ahead, and then put their critical resources to that will succeed. As for what to invest in, this will keep on changing. Nothing is going to be permanent.

How does India perceive the world fragmentizing into two techno-economic blocks (with China on the one hand and the US and West on the other)? Does India have any strategy to navigate its interests in these new circumstances?

Absolutely. First off, there will not be any sole winner — it is not going to be the US, and it is not going to be China. Whatever technology China has, it will be put to the best use for the Chinese people. What the Chinese people want is to, firstly, make sure that their economy is growing and that they are not susceptible to disruptive or invasive technologies from the outside. For example, there is Google — but they don’t want Google. They want their own telecommunication systems. They are basically protecting their culture, their territory, their mind space, and that is what the Chinese want. Even in telecommunications, they have one of the best telecommunication systems in the world. However, it is not their aim to go and promote it throughout the world. If you want it, you can take it. If you don’t want it, you don’t have to take it. Similarly, India has its own thing. For example, We have one of the best digital stacks in the world. One of the best payment systems, even better than the Chinese, as a stack. This is what most African states want. Europeans will have something else. They might be world leaders in smart cities and no one would be able to touch them in this area. Again, each country will develop its own core areas that also have a large market in that country. You will not be starting something if you only think about how you will have to sell it in China. After all, the Chinese will block you, and the Americans will block you. Once you enter another country, it becomes a question of national security. Fragmentation of the world has already started. De-globalization has already started. The fracturing of supply chains has already started. In this world, it will be very difficult to reverse it. We live in a fractured world. I come here [Moscow] today, and I can not use my credit card. It is a fractured world. Very difficult, but that’s the reality now. So what will you [Russia] do? You will develop your own systems. You will say, “Hello, I don’t need your payment system. I want my own system.” It can be through BRICS, through somebody else. In the next two years, you will develop something for sure! You will come up with it! Their [foreign] technology will pay and your scientists will suddenly say “hey, I need to do something about this “ and crack it. So you [Russia] will be an island. China will be an island. India will be an island. If our relationship is good now, you will allow me to talk to you, but if tomorrow the relationship is bad, you will not let me talk to you. You will just shut it off. Like what India did with WeChat. You can’t get it in India now. At the end of the day, it is possible for governments to simply turn off the tap.

What are the most significant challenges India’s tech sector may face in the coming decade?

I think the greatest challenge will be how fast we can build our fundamental sciences. Tech is all about fundamental sciences. It’s not about building things or the Internet. The Internet is easy. You can have a computer program think for you. What you need is fundamental science. This means deep research, deep science. This requires a very different system of education. Less reading and more thinking outside of the box. We need more world-class institutes that push for more questioning and rigor rather than just pushing for a degree. We need a greater amount of people who succeed. I think this is the same for any country.

It’s always a crisis that creates this inflection point for you to think. When everything is good, you have all you need. When you have a problem like this, like «my money has stopped flowing so I should do something», you think and act. Every crisis is a great inflection point to then make a systemic change.

There is a trend towards relocating high-tech production from China to other countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico, and India. For many, current US-China decoupling plays an important role here. Do you think India can substitute China and become a global tech power in the future in this context?

India has to become a tech power on its own. It’s not like manufacturing. In manufacturing, when things are expensive in one country you can shift to another country that’s cheaper. Move it to Vietnam, or to wherever. Technology is different, it’s about human resources and education.

As well as infrastructure…

Yes, but in tech, you do not need that much infrastructure to put an idea together. All you need is just a small lab and deep tech, and the knowledge that goes into it. This is what makes it different from manufacturing. You just need a small room and you can do huge technological work. Every country will have to find its own equilibrium where the matrix of technology is going to be directly linked to education and research, as well as your people’s commitment to pursue the research. Then comes the rest; the finance, the place to do the work. It’s all about ideas.

After all, everything started with people first.

Yes, exactly.

As for the last question, do you see any prospects for cooperation between Russia and India in the field of high-tech? If so, in what areas? What are some barriers to cooperation and what are the opportunities?

I want to avoid being too academic, so I will just say this. There is a huge opportunity to collaborate with India and Russia in all types of advanced technology. Russia is very good at fundamental science. In physics mathematics, quantum, everything related to space. Speaking of space, Russian research is brilliant. Instead of India trying to catch up, it is better to collaborate and work and develop common IP and develop common production and share the wealth. It is not possible for one country or one company to do everything. Just take a look at the best research that comes from the US. Their research labs are located all over the world. They aggregate them. They don’t rely on Americans to do research. They have the Chinese and Russians working too. They pick the best brains from around the world and give them the environment to work, live happily, provide an education, and be able to succeed. Maybe Russia and India will be different; the two countries are not the same. However, the opportunity to work together is immense. Now, what is the challenge? The challenge is largely in the fact that we are not familiar with each other. There is no trust. We didn’t study together. How can you trust somebody if you do not know them? Culturally, there is a big difference, particularly in language; not everyone is an English speaking person. The habits are different; you come from a very cold country and I come from a different country. So I think that acclimatization can happen if people study together. Particularly in the higher level schools. After two years of education you could easily make a friend. Two years, not ten, just two years tops. When you think and sit in a class, share ideas and understand each other, that creates trust. That only happens if you actually, physically, sit together. Virtually doesn’t count. Trust builds when you are playing together, when you are eating together, etc.

So that is a challenge that can be easily overcome, and I’ve spoken about this to a few people now. It's something that we can actually do, if there is a will. How did the Chinese go to America? They did not know the language, yet they succeeded. Now there are so many Chinese professors that have succeeded, and now they teach at Oxford and Cambridge. Challenges they will always be there, but there’s also an opportunity. Sure there’s a challenge, but what’s the opportunity ? What you need to do is work around it. Forget the challenge. When we start talking, everything becomes okay. When that starting point passes, then you find yourself ready and say, “hey, let’s talk.” This is definitely a building block. Everything great happens when people give some commitment to invest in time. How do you build a good sports team? You practice together. Like basketball. Like soccer. To be a good sports team, you practice together. So, if you want to create a good innovation team, you must practice together.

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