Independence Day: Tech legend Raj Reddy on India’s 75th anniversary

Ritu Jha-

Dabbala Rajagopal “Raj” Reddy, born 10 years before India’s independence, is an Indian-American computer scientist and a winner of the prestigious Turing Award. Prof Reddy is a pioneer of artificial intelligence and has served on the faculty of Stanford and Carnegie Mellon universities for over 50 years.

He was the founding director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. He was instrumental in helping to create Rajiv Gandhi University of Knowledge Technologies in India, to cater to the educational needs of the low-income, gifted, rural youth. He is the chairman of International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad. He is the first person of Asian origin to receive the Turing Award, in 1994, known as the Nobel Prize of Computer Science, for his work in the field of artificial intelligence.

Indica spoke to Prof Reddy on the occasion of India’s 75th anniversary of independence. “We ought to be proud that, after 75 years, we have a functioning democracy,” he said. He also mentioned how after many decades of running a socialist, leftist economy, the Indian government under then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao removed all the shackles on the economy and liberalized it, leading to many years of prosperity and wealth-building.

“None of us was wise enough at the time,” he said. “We had a leftist, socialist system which aimed at helping the people at the bottom of the pyramid. But the question that we ought to ask is how to lift people from poverty. We have some unique opportunities going forward. We have been able to overcome the language barrier because of technology and this is a turning point.”

Prof Reddy said that the government’s National Translation Mission (an initiative to make knowledge texts accessible in all Indian languages) will hopefully have a significant impact. “People like me cannot speak Hindi and many others who cannot speak my language, but all of us should be able to communicate,” Prof Reddy said.

He said that while illiteracy creates divisions, you can still use voice-based technology to communicate. “This will require digital literacy,” he said. “I have been advocating we should have basic minimum digital literacy. I have been advocating that the digital literacy drive must begin at kindergarten and that every child should be given a smartphone.”

He disagrees with the socialist policies of the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, but he admits that in the 1950s, their primary responsibility was to lift millions of people from poverty. “They had to uplift poor and tax the rich to death. But that did not work. There was too much regulation and the vision was leftist. They could have permitted multinationals with some conditions, including that you pay the same wages to people here as you in your home country. That required very visionary leadership.”

Prof. Reddy said the challenge that India faces is to educate 300-400 million He said he holds the British responsible for India’s backwardness in literacy. “Before independence, because of dire poverty and neglect by the British, more than half of India’s people were illiterate. The problem could have been solved by teaching the alphabet in their local language.”

Nutrition is another challenge, Prof Reddy feels. “Most people in the villages have access to food, but they are not necessarily eating high-quality food,” he said. “Another challenge is the caste system, one of the big problems even in the US we are facing now. I remember very well that when I was a kid, if I touched an ‘untouchable’, I would have to wash up before I could touch my mom. It’s real and that is what many are facing even today.”

Which is why, he said, he is proud of India’s caste reservation system. “That has not worked as well as it should have, but some jobs are reserved for scheduled caste and tribes and the backward castes. This has helped millions from these communities to get educated and build a decent life for them and their families.”

He added, “I think we need to have reservations forever but we need to ensure that seats are reserved for people whose families do not have anyone that has graduated thus far.”

He added, “I am not sure we should be proud about the population growth, because that is a big problem. But we could soon become the second- or third-largest economy. At present, we are definitely among the top 10. I hope we get there soon.”