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Slowdown in Software Central: Indian-Americans in the Silicon Valley

In a byte: “‘Nobody seems to be talking about the elephant in the room.’ Which is technology taking away jobs.” An aerial view of Apple’s new headquarters, across 175 acres, in Cupertino, California.

In a byte: “‘Nobody seems to be talking about the elephant in the room.’ Which is technology taking away jobs.” An aerial view of Apple’s new headquarters, across 175 acres, in Cupertino, California.   | Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan

From his hilltop perch on the eastern side, across the San Fransisco Bay, Vinod Dham has a bird’s-eye view of the Silicon Valley. When the lights come on, the headquarters of Google, Facebook, Apple, Uber and Intel — where he once led the invention that revolutionised computing, the Pentium chip — are clearly visible.

The story of Dham’s journey, from chasing DTC buses in Delhi in the 1960s as an engineering student to the Fremont mansion where he lives now, is relegated to the background as software rock stars dominate the world’s digital imagination. But the mansion is testimony to his status in Silicon Valley — the higher up the hills that surround the Valley your house is, the higher up you are in the pecking order of its cut-throat social hierarchy. An eight-tonne stone Buddha sculpted in Mamallapuram near Chennai sits in the garden.

“It is exciting, and disconcerting,” Dham says of the emerging era of computing. “Disconcerting, because of the massive job losses and social displacement that is just round the corner. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not like anything that humanity has seen so far.”

The spectre of automation

The argument that AI will be just another in the series of technology revolutions — like machine looms, automobiles and computers — that have transformed the world to what it is today, he says, is invalid. “All machines that came before were static. They did not do anything by themselves. They only did what the humans manipulated them to do. When a machine begins to do things by itself, after it is taught how to learn, we are in a different age. I am not saying that the machines will take over and we all will be killed. But we are entering a different era.”

The immediate disruption will be human jobs, which will have a cascading effect on other aspects of society and economy, he says. And it is not only the low-end jobs that will be displaced; the existing middle class will lose their jobs as well. One could argue that new jobs in data science, algorithms, etc. will create new jobs. “But that will only be a tiny fraction of jobs that will become redundant.”

The current debates on outsourcing, offshoring, trade deficit, etc. are, therefore, already redundant, according to Dham. Each country wants to make its economy strong and create jobs. “But nobody seems to be talking about the elephant in the room.” Which is technology taking away jobs.

Vinod Dham believes that the Indian government should stop trying to incubate start-ups and divert whatever money is available to public funding of technology education.

Vinod Dham believes that the Indian government should stop trying to incubate start-ups and divert whatever money is available to public funding of technology education.   | Photo Credit: Varghese K. George

 

The current H-1B debate is a case in point. Indian IT companies have responded to U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric against immigrant IT workers by reducing the number of visa applications and hiring more people locally in America. Some companies have also laid off people in their back-end offices in India. A U.S.-based executive of an Indian IT company that does data processing in Pune for a major American bank explains: “In the last two years, the pace at which automation has progressed, we could easily let go of 30-40% workers. The only reason we are not doing it is the potential political backlash.”

“Software is eating the world,” argued technology entrepreneur Marc Andreessen in a provocative piece in The Wall Street Journal  in 2011, “… the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.”

The united States of India

The software explosion in the preceding decade is what put Indian engineers at the centre of Silicon Valley, California. Around 40% start-ups in the Valley have an Indian CEO, CTO, CFO or COO. As they expand, they are even ‘renaming’ the towns — Sunnyvale is called Surya Nagari; Mountain View is Paharganj and Fremont is Azad Nagar as the Indian invasion expands to new frontiers.

In conversation with then presidential candidate Trump, Steven Bannon, now his chief strategist and then the head of Breitbart News, lamented in November 2015 that “two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia”.

The Indian-origin population is estimated to be 1% of the country’s total, and their representation in the U.S. Congress is also 1%. Silicon Valley is represented in the House of Representatives by Ro Khanna, the grandson of an Indian freedom fighter. The rising star among Democratic Senators, Kamala Harris from California is half-Indian, her mother Shyamala Gopalan hailing from Chennai.

American CEOs discovered India’s software prowess when they were struggling to fend off the Y2K catastrophe ahead of the turn of the millennium, and since then there has been no looking back for Indian engineers. But a new turn is here, says Dham. “AI is now eating software.”

Dham had toyed with the idea of bringing hardware manufacturing to India, but gave up on it as the technology rapidly changed, making India an impossible destination. “But AI is a software opportunity that India must seize immediately,” he says. For one, Dham believes, the Indian government should stop trying to incubate start-ups and divert whatever money is available to public funding of technology education.

Dham worked closely with Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, whose prediction that the processing power of chips would double every 18 months has held true for at least 40 years. But that is now saturating. Transistor size has already reached subatomic proportions. “Next ten years it will muddle along,” says Dham. But AI will explode in the meantime. “People who can teach the computers to learn will be the most sought-after professionals.”

The political and social impact of this is reaching an inflection point and Mr. Trump is a symptom of it. “He observed it, highlighted it and leveraged it to his benefit. He saw that this whole section of people has been disenfranchised and began talking about it. People living in Silicon Valley had no clue of what was happening in middle America. People have been hurting. Somebody should have been addressing that. Which I think is not being addressed even now. When AI comes, the problem will be more exacerbated. But at least he brought the spotlight on the issue,” says Dham.

Slowdown in Software Central: Indian-Americans in the Silicon Valley
 

Bunker beds and shared toilets

The journey to the hilltops in the Valley begins modestly. In earlier times, it typically began in a garage. Rents are so high that starters in the Valley often pay up to three quarters of their earnings in rents.

Negev, in downtown San Fransisco, is a community living facility for those who dream big but have little money. Named after the Israeli desert — the reclaiming of which is a national project — Negev itself is a start-up targeting millennials who prefer to avoid or delay marriage and are averse to buying fixed assets, explains Danny Haber, its co-founder. Newcomers and those starting out sleep on bunker beds and share kitchen, living area and toilets. The buildings are theme-based — introverts, social geeks, sporty-partying kinds, etc. In the evenings they share their experience of exploring opportunities in the Valley. Usually, the residents stay for about a year and then move out with friends they make at these communities.

Arjun Satish Fadnavis arrived here only a month ago from Bengaluru. A graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he is now a management consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers. He returned to India after graduation after missing out in the H-1B lottery in 2014. He tried again in 2015 from India to no avail. The third time, in 2016, he got lucky and is finally here, at a time companies have slowed down on applying for H-1B visas after Mr.Trump came to power.

Several Negev residents are working on their start-ups. Shaffi Mather, who arrived two years ago, has launched a pilot of his app in Punjab, aiming to do to health care what Uber has done to personal transportation. Mather’s MUrgency app aims to utilise idle ambulances and medical professionals to provide emergency medical care in less than 12 minutes.

“Thousands of ambulances are available in cities but not used optimally, while emergency care is beyond reach for most people in India,” says the Keralite who counts Ratan Tata, Infosys co-founders Kris Gopalakrishnan and S.D. Shibulal, and the Azim Premji family among his investors.

In the U.S., where emergency care is extremely efficient, the app seeks to make it affordable. For instance, in a recent incident, a small cut on a baby’s finger that required a band-aid left the family with a $600 bill. MUrgency will launch in the U.S next year.

Divey Gulati grew up in Delhi and reached Chicago in 2007 to study computer engineering. His break came in 2014 when his start-up idea made the cut at Y Combinator, an influential Silicon Valley start-up incubator. ShipBob, his start-up, offers a hybrid of software and logistics solutions to e-commerce start-ups for online deliveries. While it operates in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and San Fransisco, ShipBob is aiming to go global in the near future.

The journey to the top is arduous. But Indian-Americans are at it. “The emphasis on education is what makes the Indian community so successful in the Valley,” says Dham. “The difference between having and not having a college education has been huge in India, unlike America.”

When I meet Rehan Kumar (name changed), a 19-year-old university student whose parents came to the Silicon Valley 32 years ago, at an Indian restaurant in San Carlos, with his mother by his side, he has a different story to tell about the emphasis on education that is taking a severe toll on Indian-American kids. As his mother related how their pre-Y2K generation started with a one-bedroom apparent, then moved up to two before finally acquiring a house, Rehan interjects: “They made a load of money, and are now looking for ways to spend it. So they are recreating a new Renaissance era here. They want differentiators, they buy art, read about esoteric topics and flaunt their knowledge at parties, and go on exotic vacations.”

Rehan studied in a school in Palo Alto, where an overwhelming majority of his schoolmates were Indian-Americans. By eighth grade, many of his classmates were training in Unix and Java. “They all look the same, talk the same, wear the same thick glasses and march to Vishu and Pongal celebrations. On weekends, they go to study Hindu culture and philosophy,” he says. But that is still not enough, as Princeton, Harvard and Yale look for ‘well-rounded’ candidates during admission screening, which is the topmost subject of discussion for Indian parents. And these kids are not the ones who plan to stay in Negev — the mansion is very much on their mind, always.

Classical dance, classic music, and theatre cohabit with Unix and Java in their universe. When they go on vacation to India, it is a Dangal-style regimen for them. “Getting up at 4 a.m. to study dance or music. And crash courses run throughout the vacation. They come back to the Valley exhausted after the vacation,” says his mother. Adds Rehan, “Every kid is under a lot of pressure. From peers, from parents. To make it to an Ivy League [institution], then to land an internship at Google or Apple, then to find a job, then to have a start-up of your own… and join the race.”

It’s a pressure cooker

Rehan likens Indian performance in the Silicon Valley to the performance of a pressure cooker. “You throw it all in, shut it and wait for a quick result.” It can blast too. After seeing it all, including three suicides of Indian-American kids in the school, and overcoming a depression, Rehan has decided that he wants to dance only for the sake of dancing. And grow up in the slower lane.

However, for the Y2K generation, and those with uncertain immigration status, questions are different. Rishi Bhilawadikar came to study in the U.S. in 2005 and is on an H-1B visa to date. “For here or to go?,” the question that anyone is asked while ordering fast food in American restaurants, has a profound existential meaning for people like Bhilawadikar.

Exploring the questions that confront Indian-Americans with temporary work visas, Bhilawadikar wrote a feature film For here or to go? with Rajit Kapur and Omi Vaidya among its cast. “The Indian-Americans community’s contribution is barely appreciated here. Moreover, the uncertainly surrounding our immigration status makes our personal lives so uncertain and stops us from realising our full potential here,” he says. Bhilawadikar continues to work in a technology company through weekdays and promotes his film on weekends.

Silicon Valley was outraged when Mr. Trump pressed ahead with restrictions on travel from several Muslim countries to America, and many, including Google’s Sundar Pichai and Apple’s Tim Cook protested. Few months down, the Valley is taking a closer look.

Bruce Fram, a 30-year Silicon Valley veteran who has been the CEO of six venture capitalist-backed companies, says the victory of Mr. Trump has broken the bubble that techies lived in. They are now getting to hear more about the America that they hardly knew existed.

As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg said while addressing students on May 25 at Harvard, the university that he dropped out of a decade ago, “Let’s face it. There is something wrong with our system when I can leave here [Harvard] and make billions of dollars in 10 years while millions of students can’t afford to pay off their loans, let alone start a business.”

In the Silicon Valley, CEOs and Uber drivers always talk about diversity. At evening dinners, CEOs are asked to raise their hands if they increased renewables in their energy mix since they last met. But the rise of Mr. Trump has been the moment of political baptism for the Valley as they begin to look beyond the bubble. But the distance between them and the rest of the world is not easy to bridge. Here, men can love men or women and women can love men or women. But most of them love machines the most. Machines that solve the problems of the world. When Silicon Valley solves the problem of road accidents in the U.S. caused by human error by automating driving, three million truck drivers will be rendered jobless. Every solution has a problem. Mr. Trump is only a symptom.

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Printable version | Sep 14, 2020 5:18:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/slowdown-in-software-central/article19189515.ece

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