'Spoken Web' can bridge India's digital divide

newsmaker Director of IBM India Research Laboratory believes voice-enabled Web portals can unleash "untapped potential" of country's rural communities.

newsmaker As the director of IBM's India Research Laboratory (IRL), Gurudath Banavar leads a team of researchers that aims to make a positive difference not only to the business community, but also society.

Banavar, a big proponent of mobile Web, harbors many innovative ideas that he hopes can bring state-of-art technology to poor people, at the least possible cost.

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, the IBMer discusses the latest research at the IRL that the IT giant believes can transform businesses, as well as the society at large.

Q: What kind of R&D activities is undertaken at the IRL?
Banavar: Since its inception in April 1998, the lab has been driven by one mission: to advance state-of-the-art breakthroughs in IT through research in software and services. Over the year, the IRL has evolved by exploring areas like Blue Gene, speech recognition and services.

We focus on real-world innovations. For instance, the IBM Mobile Web initiative--which is driven out of the IRL and incubated in IBM's eight global labs in six countries--includes technologies such as Spoken Web, or voice-enabled mobile commerce.

Spoken Web, I feel, has the potential to bridge the digital divide. It is about a world-wide telecom Web of 'VoiceSites', which are Web sites accessible over voice, and situated on a telephony network, rather than the Internet.

While it is true that the mobile phone cannot do everything a PC can, it is a more reasonable first step into the digital age for developing countries.
This is compelling for people who don't have access to the Internet, or are not able to read or write. Anyone with access to a phone--mobile or landline--will be able to access the Spoken Web.

Anyone can create a site on the Spoken Web using a voice interface. We believe this will enable the creation of significant new content in the voice-enabled Web portal that will help village communities offer their services and products to the world at large. The user needs to dial a toll-free number to utilize villagers' services.

Billions of poor people worldwide have immense untapped potential. Spoken-Web innovation from the India Research Laboratory will unlock this potential by bridging the digital divide.

What's the source of ideas for the researchers?
Our researchers work closely with global colleagues in top university labs, regularly publish papers , and foster collaborative relationships through fellowships, grants and shared research programs. As a result, they gain rich insights and ideas from their real-world association.

In India, the IRL makes use of IBM's University Relations Program to provide support to faculty and students from leading schools such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Indian School of Business (ISB), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). We also sponsor faculty awards and host academic visitors from the top universities such as University of Texas Austin, University of Maryland, SUNY-Stony Brook, for extended stays.

In your view, what are the strengths of the IRL? How would you rate the scientific talent in India?
Our researchers have a deep passion for developing globally relevant innovations that bring a positive difference to business and society.

Our main differentiators are our rich talent pool, a unique culture of innovation that allows cross-pollination of ideas from a wide array of scientific disciplines, and a deep understanding of end-user technology. More than 3,000 scientists spread across IBM's eight research labs work in close collaboration to develop globally relevant innovations.

India offers outstanding researchers in computer science, and related areas, who want to work on real-world problems leading to solutions that make a direct and measurable impact.

Tell us about some technologies the India lab has recently rolled out.
While its list of achievements runs long, the IRL has rolled out technologies such as Sensei (a Web-based, interactive language learning technology), Business Finder (a next-generation, real-time, presence-based mobile resources management technology) and SCORE/EROCS (an information management technology designed to help HDFC Bank rapidly enhance customer care and identify new business opportunities).

The lab is also working on establishing a standards-driven, secure and cost-effective infrastructure to coordinate healthcare information through a system that includes central, state and local governments, as well as private providers, for over 1 billion people in India's rural and urban locations.

Is the IRL working on any path-breaking societal innovations?
We have been effective in driving societal innovation. For instance, the IBM Desktop Hindi Speech Recognition technology understands and transcribes human speech with little use of keyboards, thereby helping people unfamiliar with computers. Using this technology, the IRL and Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) recently announced the development of Shrutlekhan-Rajbhasha, a Hindi speaker-independent, continuous speech-recognition system.

Last year, IRL Bangalore unveiled the Resiliency Maturity Index (RMI), which is a framework for building resilient enterprises capable of managing simple power and network failures, to massive breakdowns from terrorist attacks, natural disasters and pandemics.

IBM India also recently launched its first ever Human Ability and Accessibility Centre in India, which aims to make technology and information easily accessible to people with visual, cognitive and motor disabilities in India. These technologies can unleash the value of an untapped talent pool and contribute enormously to raising individuals' overall quality of life.

Some say that mobile phones, and not PCs or laptops, can bridge the digital divide. What's your view on this?
While it is true that the mobile phone cannot do everything a PC can, it is a more reasonable first step into the digital age for developing countries.

They are cheaper, more portal and their extended battery life is suited to regions where access to electricity is lacking or non-existent. The infrastructure needed to connect wireless devices to the Internet is easier and less expensive to build. There are also no learning curve, no literacy barrier and no technical-support challenges to overcome. There are no costly and burdensome applications to load, maintain and update.

But, most of all, mobile phones have already been chosen by the people. The growth of mobile subscriptions in developing countries has been explosive. IBM's Institute for Business Value predicts the number of mobile Web users will grow by 191 percent between 2006 and 2011 to reach 1 billion. Mobile Web is an incredibly lucrative growth opportunity for businesses. Digital cash transactions, telemedicine and mobile banking are already gaining popularity in many regions.

Mobile phones are evolving too, offering many aspects of the PC. We are already seeing emerging technologies coming to mobile phones, including tiny devices that can project images from the cell phone onto a wall, and innovations that can overcome the small screen and keyboard size.

In fact, mobile phones are used in education around the world. For example, in the United Kingdom, grade-school students use cell phones to take pictures and produce videos as part of a geography class.

Swati Prasad is a freelance IT writer based in India.