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Interview: AI can be a game changer for India, says Anant Maheshwari, country head Microsoft

Sudhir Chowdhary

The power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is just beginning to be realised, says Anant Maheshwari, president, Microsoft India. The Redmond, Washington headquartered firm is working with stakeholders across public and private sectors, civil society and academia in the country to create the right conditions for human-centred AI. We are committed to use our cloud and AI technologies to create breakthrough innovations and accelerate the digital transformation of the nation, focusing on core industries that are critical to economic growth, he tells Sudhir Chowdhary in a recent interview. Excerpts:

> Don t you think technologies such as mobile devices, social media, Big Data or cloud once created to help make life more fun and manageable now threaten to overwhelm 21st century business?

I see a lot of people in organisations being able to drive their productive capability better than ever before. Let me cite a personal example I was supposed to be in Bangalore for internal meetings recently with several colleagues and I wasn t too well. If I had pushed myself, I could have travelled, but I needed the rest to recover faster. So, I attended all the meetings over four days from home via Teams video. Later, I met one of my Bangalore colleagues and instinctively expressed my regrets for not making it to the meetings, and he said, But you were there!

To me, that example alone shows the complete impact of what these technologies are doing to us today. You could argue that I could have gone on leave and not participated, but as a leader, my responsibility at that point in time was to be with the 30-40 people who needed my time. Technology allowed me do that while balancing it with the need to take care of my health at the same time. I believe tech capabilities today empower every person to do a lot more. The choices are theirs how this choice is exercised varies from person to person.

> Can you give us an update on the overall Microsoft business in FY18? Which were the key wins/sectors that led growth for the company?

As you know, we don t discuss market-specific numbers. However, to give you an indication of how we did in India versus the previous year to a large extent India mirrors the trends in our global results. There were some really strong big drivers of growth, such as Azure and Microsoft 365, which includes Teams. Then, there were new offerings that established themselves really well, such as Kaizala and Azure Stack.

To address the last part of your question on the sectors or opportunities that drove our performance, I would call out the digital transformation we have driven with big enterprises. Three to four years back, Microsoft was seen as an IT infrastructure vendor that has changed considerably. We have seen a number of companies engage with us on transformational programmes on digital.

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The second key area is that of Unicorns and startups. If you hear the buzz in the market, many of them are now working with Microsoft. That again would have been unheard of, say, ten years back. They would have said Microsoft may not be fully geared to support their needs in their rapidly growing phase.

The third area is the SMB segment. The move to the cloud is both an enabler and a growth driver for SMBs. They don t have CIOs; they depend on Microsoft to support them in that function, and we are proud to have really done that.

> Under the Digital India initiative, the government has launched many IT-driven projects. How is Microsoft involved in India s digital journey?

We talked about the Public Finance Management Systerm (PFMS) and how it manages the public disbursement of funds, integrating Aadhaar and UPI. It is a great example of a lot of capabilities being driven by the government for Digital India. Enabling that infrastructure to work efficiently is what Microsoft has been focused on.

The second area where we have had a lot of traction with both central and state governments is skilling and education. A lot of good work is underway with state governments in upgrading skills. We are also providing significant input towards transforming the education system. The other areas are healthcare and agriculture. In all these, we are working strongly with companies as well as governments to create new opportunities for delivering enhanced and efficient services. We are also enabling doctors and farmers to achieve a lot more.

> How does Microsoft view the strategic importance of the Indian market?

India has always been a very important market. Microsoft has 14 geographic areas worldwide and India is one of them. If you compare us to, say, the US, the UK, China or Australia as markets, I would say we are at par with them organisationally within the Microsoft global system.

Second, in terms of investments India is definitely high up there; we have significant investments in core engineering and infrastructure in India. We set up three data centres here more than three years back. We also have a cyber security engagement centre in Delhi part of a global network of eight.

We have a large employee base and very strong capabilities in both Bangalore and Hyderabad all of it is testament to our commitment as well India s significance. Moreover, India stands out as a market in terms of Unicorns and startups, and we can demonstrate to the rest of the world how we can work with them to push the boundaries of innovation.

> We hear a lot about AI, voice assistance and deep analytics helping businesses. What does the future hold for these technologies?

Touch is now fully integrated into a lot of existing technology capabilities and I believe voice will be the next driver of tech direction over the next few years. India, in particular, can benefit from it a lot. Half a billion Indians go to work every day. However, not many of them are comfortable working on a smartphone or writing on a laptop. It is just the way our education system has been. Even though they may have had some formal education, they are more comfortable speaking than writing. So, the more we can build speech-to-text technology as a capability available to all, the better it will be for the country. A lot of work is already under way. Linked to that is AI and voice assistance. AI is going to be a key driver of how it will shape up for the future.