Avik Sarkar: Transforming Governance and Business through Data Mastery

Avik Sarkar
Avik Sarkar, Senior Researcher and Visiting Faculty, Indian School of Business

Avik Sarkar is a Senior Researcher and Visiting Faculty at the Indian School of Business, whose expertise lies at the nexus of data, emerging technologies, and inclusive social discourse. In a world where social media is a prominent arena for discussions, Avik focuses on engaging diverse stakeholder groups recognizing the need to broaden participation beyond the elite Indian population currently active in these conversations.

Avik’s work in data and emerging technologies unfolds as an advocate for inclusivity for the involvement of a broader citizenry in critical discussions. Acknowledging the potential of various social media platforms, he envisions them as tools to facilitate opinions on pivotal issues like AI regulations, data privacy and e-commerce regulations.

While social media has proven effective for those digitally connected and proficient in English, Avik identifies a challenge in reaching the wider citizen community, especially those who communicate in languages like Gujarati or Bengali. His forward-thinking approach emphasizes interventions in developing Indian language technologies and voice-based services to foster a more inclusive social media landscape.

Let’s explore Avik’s vision which encapsulates the essence of democratizing digital discourse and bringing diverse perspectives to the forefront of decision-making processes!

Your work spans diverse domains, from academia to government advisory roles. How do you balance the academic rigor with the practical requirements of policy-making and technological implementations in your day-to-day activities?

The term ‘academic rigor’ raises pertinent questions about its relevance in the professional landscape, particularly in industries where students eventually find employment. The common perception jokes about corporate life revolving around Excel and PowerPoint, shedding light on the potential misalignment between academic rigor and practical workplace demands. Recognizing this gap, I encounter academically proficient students who struggle to translate their knowledge into solving real-world problems.

In my teaching approach, I strive to bridge this divide by imparting knowledge that is immediately applicable to the industry. With a professional background spanning over a decade, I delve into emerging domains like Artificial Intelligence and Big Data, sharing insights into the challenges and intricacies encountered when implementing these technologies in a business setting.

Beyond the classroom, my involvement in data science and policy-based projects with government bodies, multilateral agencies and companies reflects a commitment to practical application. Drawing from hands-on experiences in policy formulation, such as the recent Data Protection Bill and AI regulations, I bring a nuanced understanding of stakeholders’ perspectives. This alignment between theory and practice equips students with not only academic excellence but also a pragmatic understanding crucial for a successful career.

Being involved in various government committees, such as the Bureau of Indian Standards and Analytics Advisory committee for Government e-Marketplace, what significant changes or advancements in policymaking have you witnessed that deeply impacted the intersection of technology and society?

Formulating technology policies involves a nuanced and extensive process, requiring input from diverse stakeholders and user groups. As a part of Artificial Intelligence (AI) initiatives, I collaborate with AI experts globally, contributing to the standards-setting efforts led by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), the Indian counterpart of the International Standards Organization (ISO). Our work spans various sub-groups addressing foundational standards, data governance and use cases, aiming to establish trustworthy AI frameworks. For instance, in response to the rising popularity of Generative AI, the group focuses on defining boundaries and standards for this technology.

While BIS/ISO plays a crucial role, other entities contribute to shaping India’s AI landscape. NITI Aayog formulated the National AI Strategy in 2018 and subsequent Responsible AI frameworks. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) intervenes in data, compute availability, financing AI projects, and responsible development. Globally, the Global Partnerships on AI (GPAI) unites around 30 countries to develop regulations and frameworks, emphasizing innovation, future work, responsible AI, and data governance. Despite diverse origins, these groups converge to create a comprehensive AI landscape fostering innovation, societal benefits and business impact.

Your expertise includes areas like AI ethics, transparency and regulation. Given the rapidly evolving landscape of AI, what ethical considerations do you find most critical, especially concerning data privacy and the responsible use of AI technology?

In recent years, data privacy has gained paramount importance as individuals extensively utilize digital platforms for their everyday activities, ranging from shopping for groceries to entertainment. The dominance of search and social media giants in utilizing personal data for targeted advertising has reshaped the business landscape. With an influx of companies entering this competitive arena, new business models like data-sharing partnerships are emerging. Ideally, individuals expect digital platforms to honor their privacy once personal information is shared.

Simultaneously, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is ushering in transformative changes, challenging the traditional human role in intelligent decision-making. As this responsibility shifts to machines, ensuring ethical behavior becomes a pressing challenge. Governments grapple with the dilemma of regulating AI to balance its enormous benefits while addressing potential harms and the lack of transparency in the technology’s functioning.

The landscape of Responsible AI is evolving, with nations like the European Union and the USA establishing legislation. However, achieving consensus globally remains a challenge, with ongoing efforts to develop principles and regulations, such as those emerging in India and other nations, to ensure AI applications demonstrate trustworthiness, ethics and safety in all circumstances.

Teaching plays a significant role in your portfolio, especially in areas like Big Data, AI and Data Science for Social Good. What teaching methods or approaches do you find most effective in conveying complex technological concepts to your students, ensuring they grasp both the technical and societal implications of these technologies?

At the Indian School of Business, my focus is on nurturing practitioners with 5-10 years of industry experience, exposing them to the intricacies of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and big data. While many courses delve into the technical aspects of AI development, my teaching emphasizes the post-development journey. I guide students through finding the right market, developing revenue-generating mechanisms, aligning solutions with target populations, assessing risks and ensuring ethical and societal standards.

Using industry and startup case studies, I provide a holistic understanding of technology’s impact on society, emphasizing the unique complexities of the Indian ecosystem. Discussing local cases is crucial, considering India’s digital divide, linguistic diversity and the need for technology in regional languages.

Beyond traditional teaching, I engage with senior government officers through modular courses, shedding light on global technological innovations. Actively involved in state and central government projects, I share international and domestic case studies, bridging the gap between theory and practical implementation. Working on a book highlighting successful data science projects in governance, I aim to inspire confidence in government officers to adopt transformative technologies.

In your role as a product strategist and researcher, understanding customer needs is crucial. How do you approach understanding the diverse needs of different sectors, such as the public sector, retail, agriculture, and health while also tailoring your technological solutions accordingly?

Effective product design is integral to the sustained viability and functionality of a product over the long term. My approach spans diverse sectors, with a crucial initial step involving stakeholders in the process. These stakeholders encompass product users, developers, marketing teams, and those involved in product deployment. Collaborating with stakeholders elicits varied perspectives and requirements, shaping the specifications and aspects of the product. This extends beyond technical design, encompassing considerations for product rollout such as pricing, citizen access points and awareness campaigns.

For instance, the healthcare sector presents an arena where AI can profoundly impact challenges in the Indian healthcare ecosystem, addressing issues like a shortage of trained doctors, delayed disease detection and escalating healthcare costs. To navigate AI integration in India’s healthcare landscape, I’m conducting a survey involving perspectives from patients, medical professionals, hospitals, and government entities. The survey delves into the awareness levels and perspectives of these stakeholders, aiming to address challenges such as patient awareness of AI treatments and the need for education programs. Importantly, the survey recognizes the pivotal role of doctors in championing AI solutions, emphasizing the necessity of fostering awareness and adoption within the medical community.

In your journey, you’ve transitioned from technical roles like pre-sales to advisory positions and academia. How has this diverse experience shaped your perspective on leadership and what advice do you offer to emerging leaders in the technology and data science fields?

Leadership, to me, involves integrating diverse perspectives from within and beyond the organization. With a master’s and PhD in Computer Science, my early career focused on technology development and research, leading to the creation of innovative data-based solutions for business challenges. Transitioning from deep technology roles, I ventured into corporate positions, developing technologies for governments in India and across Asia Pacific.

Heading the first Data Analytics Unit at NITI Aayog, India’s premier policy think tank, expanded my horizons into the realm of policymaking. This experience underscored the importance of considering various stakeholder perspectives, a lesson I carried into subsequent roles in government and academia. Recognizing that solutions impact stakeholders differently, especially in diverse contexts like India, I navigate the complexities of policy-making, balancing the needs of multinational businesses, small enterprises, artisans, workers, and citizens.

In the data and emerging technologies space, where uncertainties abound, I leverage my expertise to foster consensus and propose solutions aligning with diverse stakeholder interests. As a technology policy explorer, my goal is to contribute to a better world—diminishing inequalities and fostering happiness among people.