Digital, AI & data security: Guard the forts

Many forts of our thinking will crumble under the relentless assault of artificial intelligence, deep learning & analytics

Ganesh Natarajan April 13, 2018Last Updated at 05:59 IST

A joke circulating in the WhatsApp circuit these days is that Amazon knows when a girl is expecting a baby well before her parents know, because of all the data on the products she suddenly takes an interest in. And of course, Facebook probably knows when she is likely to become pregnant almost before she thinks about it! One wonders whether this will be truly something to “like”. Nothing is private anymore and while the unseemly eyeball to eyeball confrontation that Facebook and Cambridge Analytics are having with governments in the USA, the UK, Singapore and India will die down at some point, it has raised fundamental issues of “who owns my data” that will rightly worry policy planners in the government and the entire digital society for much more time to come.

The problem in India has always been that we have set very little value on data privacy. In my own case, I had the same password, known to multiple people for all my social sites for many years and quite a few folks request advisors, assistants and family members to access their sites when they are away. The Data Security Council of India, a joint venture of Nasscom with the government, was set up over a decade ago but its focus has been more on data security and protection against malware attacks and less on educating the citizen on imperatives and methods to keep private data away from peering eyes. This blissful state of unawareness or nonchalance could well have continued for a few more years had it not been for the emergence of powerful analytics engines and predictive analytics capabilities that have taken the data we so freely provide, analysed it to death and created propositions that not only anticipate but, in many cases, even guide our behaviour. And its not just the elections, almost every activity we choose to do or someone else wants us to do in future might be under surveillance today and on its way to become a prescriptive pattern for tomorrow.

There are many forts of our thinking from yester- years that will crumble under the relentless assault of artificial intelligence, deep learning and prescriptive analytics in the years to come. Speeding down the Lincoln Tunnel between New Jersey and New York with a friend last month, I was surprised he let his Tesla car take over the driving for a few minutes while he showed some features of a software product we were discussing. Robotic advisory tools have already taken the analytical pain out of investment decisions and become invaluable assets for private bankers and wealth management advisors. The expertise of medical diagnostics and even a majority of operations are being taken over by digital tools and robots and the march of cyber- physical systems as a key driver of manufacturing, shopfloor systems, warehousing and logistics have been discussed earlier in this column as some of the key pillars of Industry 4.0.

The virtuous circle of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and natural learning will continue to change the way humans acquire skills and manage their learning processes as well. Already, digital platforms are providing AI assistants that enable corporate executives to assess their career options, mine for skills that would help them to progress from one level of expertise to the next in a chosen skills path and even choose the learning style and content which suits their own cognitive styles. In a future experiment we will be trying at Pune City Connect and Social Venture Partners in the skills development lighthouses for rural and underprivileged youth, an AI “dost” will be assigned to a person during the counselling phase, play the role of companion for blended learning during the skills acquisition process and be available even after the person gets on the job to search and schedule mentors and provide remedial learning on the job. If somebody was looking for the value additions that AI bots can provide in future, this would surely be one of the most valuable.

There is much more to be gained than lost if the goal of AI deployment in society and corporations is to assist and enhance human experiences rather than destroy job creation. Jaspreet Bindra, chief digital officer of the Mahindra group, speaking at a session organised by the IMA recently opined that users of retail e- commerce today pay for experiences rather than goods and hence the retailers of tomorrow will have to think of completely different strategies to attract and retain customer eyeballs and eventually dip into their wallets. This deep research into optimal customer experiences is revealing the extent to which real and digital identities are merging, particularly for the digital natives who are fast overtaking digital immigrants in the digital world. The day is not far when every individual will have to choose what is more important — being marketed to as an individual rather than one of a crowd or keeping one’s identity totally private. With most of us expected to opt for the former, the discussions on data privacy are not going to go away in a hurry.

Wise thinking and practical approaches must be designed and deployed to make optimal use of the opportunities that will abound in a digitally transformed world.

Originally Published in Business Standard on April 13, 2018


The author is chairman of 5F World and co-founder of the Center for AI and Advanced Analytics. He can be reached on