What Purpose Does Technology Serve?

Technology is eating the world. We are surrounded by technology more than ever before in the history of the human race.

Most of us own multiple devices. We demand real-time everything. The public square has relocated to Twitter. So much of our lives are now virtual that “in real life” has a name. What purpose should technology serve?

I believe that the larger purpose of all technology is to eliminate human drudgery.

Any technological advancement — however big or small — reduces the dullness of human life. The industrial revolution reduced physical labour, Gutenberg’s printing press boosted literacy, the Internet made the world flat. Technology makes lives easier for people, educates them, empowers them, and frees them to experience the joys of the world.

As an investor drawn towards technology businesses, I often think about the purpose of technology, and how it shapes lives. Imagine a Bharat where every citizen gets universal healthcare; education in whichever field she chooses; a healthy and safe environment; a functional and accessible government — all tenets of a civilized society.

Technology enables this human progress. For instance, think of the democratization of access that mobile technology has enabled. Cheaper mobile phones, 4G, and e-commerce are transforming how we live. Millions of gig workers find employment with just a bike and a cellphone, boosting dozens of home-grown startups in the global market. BCG thinks the gig economy will add up to 1.25% to India’s GDP. Shopping or eating in is just one part of the story. Hundreds of millions now have the ability to pay bills, file taxes, register their vehicles, even engage with their government circumventing bureaucracy, empowered by technology. Tech-savvy Bharat will also have an empowered citizen!

With access comes inclusivity. We should be building products that include the next billion users. Vernacular internet for example is estimated to be $53 Bn. We must look beyond translating content to Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, etc., and build indigenous technology rooted in these languages and cultures serving their specific needs. For instance, imagine an e-learning company offering agricultural education about crops indigenous to the area, in a local language. Now, combine that with drone-based technology that can collect data about these crops and customize education for real-time needs.

That’s not all. The Vernacular internet opens doors to various interesting and complex applications. Tele-health can bring significant progress for rural populations. Life-saving healthcare is one part, but telehealth can empower communities with knowledge about preventive healthcare, menstrual health, etc., which can have a lasting impact on society as a whole. This will then make health insurance more welcome — perhaps making sachet variant of insurance viable to purchase at the local Kirana!

Digital payments have reached the last mile, but that only scratches the surface of the possibilities of digitized financial services. Access to debt, for instance, is still heavily dependent on urban ecosystems like credit ratings with minimal leverage to the rural population. What if someone integrates micro-finance with local crowdsourcing to enable real-time commerce!

Access to capital is a prime mover to economic recovery. If we can seed and support several small and medium enterprises across the country, expanding our economy, increasing employment opportunities. I also believe that as the vernacular economies grow, wider skill sets will be in demand, further growing the opportunity landscape. The gig economy is here to stay. We need to enable training and access to deeper pools of talent to drive employment opportunities. Technology should make this inclusiveness to opportunity more viable.

Technology has a dark side too. Data-driven technology such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, personalization, etc. brings with it myriad concerns of privacy, confidentiality, security, and ethics. As a society in itself, there is an opportunity in defining responsible use of technology.

As futurist Roy Amara famously said, “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”.

The 1.25% GDP growth that the gig economy offers is worth over 30 billion dollars a year! McKinsey projects that newly digitizing sectors — digital payments; agriculture; education; e-commerce; logistics, supply chains, and transportation; energy; healthcare; e-government services; and jobs and skills markets — can add $150 billion in incremental economic value. In a couple of years, Bharat could be a $1 trillion digital economy.

Our present and our future will be driven by technology. It’s on you and me to make sure we leverage technology to create a better, more stable, and more equitable social order in the long term.

VC @Kalaari. Committed to entrepreneurship in India. Yoga enthusiast, Daily Meditator, Occasional runner & mom of two girls.