March 24, 2018

Speaking at Artificial Intelligence Conference, in New Delhi

Thank you very much Mr Jamshed for organizing this very important engagement with experts from the artificial intelligence field, with all our bright young officers from across the Indian railways, across different divisions or different areas of operation of the railways. I think it’s not only traffic, we have people from across.. thank you Mukeshji for coordinating and making this whole programme lively, getting some of the best experts to come in and speak to our colleagues. Thank you Badri Narayan for reporting the affairs of the day, the repertoire can be replaced by artificial intelligence. I only hope you don’t plan to now start replacing Ministers by artificial intelligence.

And here this nation is actually struggling between Electronic Voting Machines and going back to paper ballot on the other hand, and the world has moved on. That’s the very unfortunate state of affairs in a country which aspires to be a superpower, which aspires to be amongst the developed nations in the world that rather than looking at engaging with modern technology, learning from the best in the world, seeing how we can serve the people of India better, there is a mindset and I won’t be surprised if that mindset also would prevail in government, in our own organisation for that matter, in large measure.

I still remember when computers were introduced in India, all the talk of job losses and what will happen to all the accountants and all the people who write the books of businesses. I think today the world wants to look at human progress to levels which were never heard of before. And, in fact, Stephen Hawking, who is no more with us, but truly inspirational leader of the technology world, had articulated artificial intelligence very appropriately when he said that artificial intelligence is likely to be either the best or the worst thing to happen to humanity. The choice is ours, whether we want to look at it as something which will be the best thing that happens to us, or we are going to make that as something which we deride or we look down upon and fear for the worst.

The other day the honorable Prime Minister while speaking at a programme had actually articulated it quite well. He said should the nation, should India and all of us Indians be intimidated by advent of new technology, by artificial intelligence, machine learning, the 4th industrial revolution, maybe the 5th now, I don’t now, we lose track. Should we be fearsome or should we embrace it and see how that can become a tool under our control to help us do our job better, to help us work better, to help us serve better. And if we as the railway family looks at our own self, our own organisation, I think there is a lot that we can do, there is huge amount of opportunities for artificial intelligence to help us serve the people of India better, help us truly become an engine of growth that the nation looks up to the railways to be. And in some sense, if one was to try and bring down the story of artificial intelligence to two words, what we are talking of is possibly just Trains with Brains. In a sense, if all that we are doing is done slightly more smarter, slightly more intelligently, we can transform the Indian railways and all the work that each one of us is doing.

Ultimately, whether artificial intelligence is useful or not, is successful or fails, is going to depend on human intervention. Let nobody be under a wrong impression or fear that artificial intelligence will override human capabilities or human involvement, because all of artificial intelligence is based on as many of you rightly pointed out on some data, some analytics superimposed on it – I believe, I am no expert on artificial intelligence, but my simple mind tells me that artificial intelligence can make choices based on a certain programme or based on certain data which it analyzes, based on historical perspectives and come up with some possible solutions or some possible outcomes. And they can be both, the good and the bad, as Stephen Hawking rightly said.

Take for example, the autonomous vehicles; there is a big movement worldwide. Not necessarily the most intelligent thing to do in India, but countries with very low populations, but who have developed very rapidly and where getting a car driver is a luxury and where people also don’t want to lose the amount of time that they spend in the car in driving, but would rather have the car move automatically so they can use that time for whatever activity they want to do. You have this technologies moving towards autonomous vehicles, vehicles which are driverless. They are programme-controlled, and they are programmed to look at all possible scenarios and options and possibilities.

On the one hand, this can be used very gainfully for the good of that society, eliminating the need of a driver. It will also be probably much more safer, because risks of human failure, or risks which are associated with limitations of the human activity or carrying our activities will get reduced significantly. But again, in the Indian context if we try to bring it in, not only will we be removing a large workforce who is today working as drivers, is gainfully employed, and their cost benefit analysis comes in, the autonomous vehicle and the costs associated with making an autonomous or an automatic vehicle, driverless vehicle add more cost than the cost associated with having somebody drive your car. So each country will, of course, plan its own affairs with the cost benefit analysis done whenever we are introducing technology.

But then again, in the Indian context, large population, a lot of uncertainties on our roads, our trains are often suffering because the elephants come onto the track or a cow may come onto the track and the whole system may get into a problem with an accident or some such problem. Now in the Indian context, the driverless car instead of becoming safer may actually not be able to factor in a animal running onto the road suddenly, something which they don’t have to factor in while preparing an autonomous vehicles programme, maybe in Ireland or maybe in Canada.

So each country and each organisation will have to prepare its own expectations out of artificial intelligence, and which is why I said the tiger will ultimately be ridden by the human being only. Artificial intelligence, its relevance, its outcomes will all be driven by you and me, but whether we look at it as an opportunity or whether we look at it as a problem is for us to decide. We believe, and this government very strongly believes it’s a great business opportunity for the nation to provide our youngsters, our next generation with jobs on technology, technology upgradation, newer ways of doing things, making life easier for the people of India, better delivery of goods and services to our people, eradicating poverty, misery, better healthcare. We believe that artificial intelligence, if we ride it well, if we engage with it intelligently can actually help us transform the future of our nation, and then correspondingly each of our organisations.

In fact, I am sure many of us must be using Google Maps nowadays. I have not made a journey these days from Point A to Point B without my colleague opening Google Map to tell me what amount of time it will take and whether there is an alternative way to travel to my destination. So there is good chance that five or six times out of ten I travel to the airport using a train, a metro nowadays in Delhi. Five or six times out of ten when I have to travel to the airport. And it’s a standard operating procedure that my colleague will look up the time and plan in advance whether I am going to take the train or I am going to go by car.

In a rustic sense, what is Google Map doing? It’s using the data of all the traffic on the road, that is being uplifted from our mobile phones or the smart phones on the journey and then superimposing traffic patterns, signals, signal timings, and helping us to determine how much time it will take to reach our destination and then they tell you different modes of travel, they tell you different routes of travel and you can make the best choice. But ultimately what is it? It’s a tool in our hand which we can choose to use intelligently or we can choose to ignore it, it’s our choice. Possibly, if I was to ignore it, I would miss half the flights that I normally have to take.

In fact, if I may quote Prime Minister Modi, he had recently engaged with experts from the artificial intelligence world and I quote, our government is of the firm belief that we can use this power of the 21st century technologies to eradicate poverty and disease. And truly, just imagine, a small medical centre which maybe the railways may be running in some remote area in Jharsuguda, certainly cannot have the best of doctors or a cancer surgeon or a heart cardiologist over there, given the huge shortage and the large population and the huge area that we are servicing. But using artificial intelligence tools through telemedicine or proper equipment at our remote areas, we can easily have diagnostic tools which can do a preliminary assessment of any of our persons in these remote areas which  transmitted to the experts can help prepare the protocol of his treatment.

Similarly, when we are talking of aspirational districts – how many of you are really aware that the government has a programme on aspirational districts? Can you raise your hand? Bad reflection on me particularly, then I have to do a little more talking about aspirational districts. The government has recognised that large parts of the country and many districts in India have remained backward for several-several years and those districts are getting deeper into the red, if one was to use an accounting terminology. They are getting worse off compared to the rest of India, which very often you may hear as ‘two India’s’ – a fast rapidly developing India in Mumbai and Delhi and Bangalore and Chennai, and another India in Osmanabad, another India in Jharsuguda, another India in parts of Odisha or Jharkhand or Uttar Pradesh, which is living in a very backward condition, education quality may not be up to the mark, healthcare is not good enough, where delivery mechanisms have not yet reached to really reach the benefits of development and progress.

Now, whether we should perpetually relegate them to be backward districts or we should try and integrate them, bring them into the national mainstream, is a choice before all of us. And the government in its wisdom has decided that these districts are not backward out of choice, the people living there are like you and me, they also aspire a better quality of life for their children, for their parents. They also want to learn how to improve productivity in their farms. They also deserve to get electricity in their homes, clean drinking water, toilet. So we have identified 115 districts across the country, which we are not calling backward districts. We are saying these are the Aspirational Districts of India, where our fellow Indians are aspiring for a better future for them, for their children.

And I think it is incumbent on all of us, collectively, to reach out to these people, to see what we can do to contribute to a better future for our brothers and sisters. And when we want to do that, artificial intelligence and the tools associated with it can play a very important role to help us reach out to these areas, take progress to these areas, how can we get better education for their children, how can there be better healthcare in these areas. Can we help them with productivity tools to plan and manage their farming activities better.

And artificial intelligence is something like a horse that we have to ride efficiently and effectively, so that we don’t fall off, we remain rooted on the saddle. Initially, the first time when we try to ride we will fall a few times. But I am sure whoever amongst you is swimming knows that unless you get into the water, you are never going to be able to learn to swim. And artificial intelligence is that kind of a tiger, that kind of a horse. But ultimately, it’s we who will be able to really determine and finally make out a programme for its success. And, all said and done, I am sure the human brain has that little extra edge and that ability, for example, to decipher what is right or wrong, what should be done, what should not be done, putting in a human element into it.

After all, right or wrong is also something which is subjective, something which may be right to be done right now may not be right to be done tomorrow. So right or wrong is something which depends on the entire situation and that situation will be assessed through artificial intelligence up to a point, cannot be the final deciding, clinching factor. I am saying this because I don’t want any of you to feel threatened by artificial intelligence. It is a tool that we will ride, you and I will ride. It is not something that is a replacement for us. It is something that is an aid for each one of us. It helps us.

And if we can really grasp how we can make this tool work to our benefit, we will fall off the saddle many times in the process, but unless we are willing to do that and get hurt and bruised a little bit we will never learn to ride. Artificial intelligence can actually transform the way we are running the railways, in terms of safety, in terms of passenger amenities, in terms of growth, efficiency, better revenues, cost effectiveness, cost control, and the list is endless, the possibilities are endless. And it is not the last thing to happen, ladies and gentlemen, let us not be under any impression that this is it, after this there is not going to be anything more and better. Which again brings us to the point that there is a human intervention or there is a human value, because if this was to be the sum and end of it all, then possibly human being has no role anymore. But we have had newer and newer things happening over the last many-many years, some day electricity was invented that drove the entire industrial revolution. And I won’t be surprised when the wheel was invented that person at that point of time must have thought this is the greatest thing that could ever be invented ever in human history, past, present and future.

Just think back, the wheel had transformation of human existence – which was that comic film that used to come in? All those primitive.. The Flintstones! Imagine the wheel how important it was to life back then that we saw in the comedy serial or comics or books, or movies or whatever. So every time there is going to be evolution of newer and newer things and technologies. It is going to look like, wow, this is it, this is the greatest thing.

I am sure when the first spaceship landed on the moon, it must have been a wow moment, what could be greater? But when our spaceship landed in Mars, we got that wow moment. And I am sure there will be many more wow moments that will keep happening, so human being is going to prevail over everything else. But whether we choose to be human beings in history or in the future is a choice that collectively we all have to make.

And if Indian railways remains disconnected from the future, if we don’t engage with the future as it is sharpening the edges, as it is moving at its rapid pace worldwide, imagine what a disservice our generation will do and how future generations will judge us for what we leave behind for them. After all, that young boy who has just joined the traffic service is hoping to serve the railways and correspondingly serve India, his motherland, with newer ideas. He has got a bright enthusiasm in him. I just hope our generation doesn’t kill that enthusiasm. I just hope we don’t land up bringing him into our mould and get a lot of satisfaction that he is now in our system –  सिस्टम में बैठ गया, फिट हो गया सिस्टम में !

I would rather we all open our mind and try to fit into his system, the system of the future. There is that organisation in California, actually, I urge you to move a note, everyone of our services, since we do believe in continuing with our silos much against my own desire. And despite the fact that your top 250-member team which met at Ashoka Hotel few months ago had all said that no, we must try and integrate our organisation and break these silos, I am very disappointed that our board still chooses to live in silos. It is a matter of great concern and sadness for a person like me that we are not able to break the silos in the railways.

But be that as it may, I think if the future is not addressed, the future is not one of change, one of integration then all our silos are preparing tons and tons and realms of data which is completely useless, a data which is not used is criminal, because it is costing the railways. It is costing all of you management bandwidth, and just accumulating with no, absolutely no usage. I remember in my factory when we first did the ISO programme, the first task was to see what data we are really using and what should we collect. Any data which is not being put to use, in fact, it has not retrieval possibility also, half the data that we have we are not even able to retrieve if we should desire it.

And the kind of data overdose I am seeing in the railways is actually harmful for our system. It is not giving us any outcomes whatsoever, and because of these silos we are going to keep adding to that data overdose. Rather than integrating and using each other’s support systems, so that we are an efficient organisation, a lean and mean machine, we are able to put that data to use through artificial intelligence. Or actually, don’t go by the word artificial intelligence, all it is is basically a programme which uses available data in a structured manner, superimposes it with history and historical perspective.

I mean Google Map as I said, what is it doing? It is judging how much time you will take based on past historical patterns which it has stored in a huge data bank, and the current data that is captured is being probably – I don’t know, I am a simple chartered accountant. This is not my subject. But what my rustic mind tells me is that is what it must be doing. It is seeing the old traffic pattern data and accordingly telling me how much time it will take. And it adds a little buffer, so I have always found that if it is 35 minutes to the airport, I make it in about 30-32 minutes. And thank God for that, it is not 35 minutes becoming 40, I would have again missed every flight that day.

The purpose of this interaction today was to just sensitize a team of people and I hope each one of you goes back and becomes a leader in your organisation, in your division, in your zone of activity or area of work to drive home the message that let us not be intimidated by this changing world. Let’s absorb that, let’s engage with it, let’s learn from it, let’s see what it can do for us, let’s see how it can make our life easier, our job easier, how it can help us improve our efficiency, how we can serve the passengers better, how our freight customers can be happier, how it can help us to expand capacity without investing thousands and lakhs of crores of rupees, how we can make passengers feel safe, how can we improve the security of our women travelers, can we really go on a war against human trafficking, against child trafficking. Can we monitor cleanliness, can we monitor quality of catering, our bathrooms, somebody spoke about it earlier. How can we harness artificial intelligence for social good, for economic good, for organizational good, for human good, for our good that is the question before us, ladies and gentlemen.

And as much as we keep an open mind when we are looking at all of this, we can do wonders in the years ahead. We can truly transform Indian railways into the world’s best railway. And I personally believe that the kind of people that the railways has, I have been engaging with many of you at different forums, both in Delhi, different zonal level. Believe me, I find a team of highly competent experts in their field, possibly, all we need to do is just go a little beyond, scratch the surface of the 1.3 million rail family employees, believe me we can do wonders with the talent that we have in our organisation. And all of us are willing to support any of these ideas, any new idea, any good idea. We are hungry for your engagement. We are hungry for your involvement. Maybe I can even use the word we are ‘desperate’ that each one of you brings out the best within you.

And imagine the collective might of 1.3 million brains working for better trains, we can move mountains, if you ask me. That was the purpose of today’s discussion, some little bit of exposure to this new emerging world that is changing lives across the world and which somehow has yet to touch the Indian shores. Can railways be the first large organisation in India, particularly, in the government sector, to embrace artificial intelligence and see every activity that we do how it can be done smarter. It is quite possible that some of us may start thinking and talking about our processes, about government rules, regulations, guidelines, if we get down that path we will never be able to make game changing moves. If we are willing to look at everything afresh, if we are willing to say within the framework of government I can make a difference, if instead of blaming the system, instead of blaming somebody else, if each one of us is willing to say it is me, मैं यह कर सकता हूँ, मैं परिवर्तन का निमित बन सकता हूँ ! I will be the cause of change, the harbinger of change.

If each one of us decides that it is I who will bring in the change for us, for our collective organisation, rather than I want to do good but they don’t allow me to do it. It is a simple change in thinking, change in our mindset that I am appealing to each one of you for. Whether they are responsible for my failure or I can be responsible for their success that’s all that we have to decide, once we take that decision then we can use the best of tools available anywhere in the world and make a difference to the future of Indian railways.

That is what I wanted to appeal to each one of you. I am sure we have had some very-very good names coming in and talking about artificial intelligence during the course of the day, from some of the top names in industry, some of the top names in academics. I am sure each one of us would have benefited from their wise counsel. I hope some of us will choose to engage with this very eminent set of persons who have come in here from outside the railways today. I believe there is a proposal to make a small team which will focus its energies on seeing how the railways can benefit from artificial intelligence and engaging with that.

I hope this group of 300-400 of our family will choose to also start reading about it, beyond Whatsapp messages, that is, actual study and reading about what is happening in other parts of the world. I hope some of you will prepare your own notes and maybe conduct small sessions in your organisation or your division or zone and talk to other colleagues in your age-group, in your batch mates as you love to work in this batch mate system, or your silo wherever you are if you cannot break the silos in your own areas. But at least take this message forward and engage and try and build up a movement in the railways that everybody starts thinking differently, starts thinking of the future, because, believe me, things are catching up so fast.

I used to be the Power Minister; and I am not so much worried. I don’t think it is Lalit Hotel which is to blame as the power went away, because as Power Minister Mr Jamshed, every programme I have attended, the power would go off once. In fact, my wife used to say it is God’s way of telling you a reality check, there is miles to go before you can feel you have done your job. In fact, I was welcomed into the Ministry, I was sworn in on 26th May, 2014 and I think 29th May, 2014 those of you who were in Delhi at that time may remember that huge thunder storms and what not, and the pain that Delhi went through and most of North India went through for almost a month after that, taking me to the banks of the Yamuna, standing and supervising towers being corrected and repaired and replaced and what not at 3 in the morning and 4 in the morning.

It was far cushier to be out of government than to be a Minister in the government. But then what an opportunity to make a difference to the lives of our people. Somebody had once asked me what attracted you to politics. I think it is the only profession where with one signature I can impact millions of lives. I hope I am doing it for the good of those millions and each one of you is in that position wherever you are. You can impact millions of lives. After all, you are carrying nearly 850 billion passengers every year, you are carrying 500 odd million tons of coal every year, without which in any case there would be no electricity where we are. We will be doing a candle light conference. And I may have to stand somewhere in the middle so we could all hear what I am talking, as Badri was trying to do.

And also, get out of this public sector mentality. We are in a private hotel right now. We are not at Ashoka Hotel, so you can say railways भी पब्लिक सेक्टर, अशोका होटल भी पब्लिक सेक्टर and get away with it. So it is not the ownership which will decide whether our organisation can be a success or a failure. Ownership doesn’t determine that a bank will run well or it will run inefficiently, that is leadership, that is vision, that is this team that will determine. And I for one am convinced as a layman and as somebody quite new to the railway family that we have the capability and the capacity to bring transformational change in the railways.

All of us have the brains to use artificial intelligence, new manufacturing methods, newer technologies smartly, so that we can do our job better, we can serve better, railways can perform better, we can respond better to challenges that face each one of us, we can improve our sustainability and our profitability, we can serve our consumers better. All of it is possible if we open our mind, if we are willing to learn and unlearn, both. There is a lot of unlearning also required in the railways, as in any organisation. It is not unique to the railways, ladies and gentlemen. There is a lot of unlearning that each one has to do in our daily lives. And yet, life is full of opportunities, life is full of great things ahead for each one of us.

I had the privilege of attending and seeing the sculptures that Mrs Jamshed had made, very recently I got a wonderful privilege of seeing her sculptures and seeing her works of art. No artificial intelligence can make that piece of art ever, but artificial intelligence can help take those pieces of art to the whole world in a cost-effective and efficient and intelligent way, so that the world can take benefit of that work that Mrs Jamshed had done. It is an interplay between our activities, our work, our mind and new technologies and better and easier and simpler ways of doing things.

When that interplay together is put to work that ladies and gentlemen is truly the way we are going to be able to ride the tiger if I may. And I have no doubt in my mind that I will have the support, cooperation, involvement and commitment of each one of you in this new journey that we are embarking on from today. Someday, I hope 24th March, 2018 will be celebrated as a Red Letter Day for Indian railways where we move from a 160-year old legacy, when we move from our low levels of technology engagement, when we decided that Indian railways is going to work differently henceforth and prepare ourselves to become the best railway in the whole entire world.

My best wishes to all of you. These are Navratri festival days. May Lord Durga bless you are your families for a very-very bright, not artificial but smart future.

Thank you very much.



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