DeepTalk is an interactive series where leaders, experts, trendsetters at the forefront of technological changes discuss and share their unique perspectives and knowledge with community professionals on disruptive technologies like AI, ML, Blockchain, Fintech and IoT.
The fifth episode of DeepTalk ‘One decade. One billion. One Aadhaar.’ is about the birth of Aadhaar to address problems of fraud and duplication in individual identities. Though a robust and enormous computing power comprising a large grid of networked computers is essential to cover over a billion people in India, Aadhaar has very successfully used open technology, thereby exercising financial prudence while providing for scalability.
The grand vision of Aadhaar happened a decade ago. Aadhaar has since achieved the status of the largest and `the most sophisticated ID program in the world’. Having said, what does the next decade offer in terms of identity management in India? To hear all about this from the horse’s mouth, Santanu Paul, CEO & Co-founder, Talentsprint engages in DeepTalk with Dr. Pramod Varma, Chief Architect – Aadhaar. Dr. Varma worked with multi-national companies in the US and returned to India to join the public sector in time to help create Aadhaar.
The term `identity’ in India implies a range of IDs: mobile numbers, passport number, PF number, email address, voter card, PAN and so on. Dr. Varma says these are mere identifiers which point to the individual. PAN cards and passports do not provide the uniqueness required for a socialistic country like India. Aadhaar attests identity by assigning people unique numbers which is critical for availing loans or social benefits.
Aadhaar was created on 3 fundamental principles: Absolute minimalism because anything that has to cover a billion people with so much diversity and across States needs to be simple, stable and scalable. Second, openness in terms of building the system on vendor neutral open technology to help keep the budget low, and thirdly, a conducive ecosystem that will help in adopting Aadhaar across the country.
The design of Aadhaar was drawn on a single premise of eliminating attributes rather than adding features. Theoretically speaking, biometrics is the only requirement to attest an individual’s identity. But for government purposes and for financial inclusion, personal details are essential. The four `carefully crafted’ attributes as Dr. Varma describes them comprise name, date of birth, gender and residential address.
In a world where commercial software is a necessity Aadhaar is a great example to prove that open source is the winner especially in scalable systems. Dr. Varma says open source technology was a unanimous criterion as the team wanted a reliable and scalable system with simple and straightforward architecture. Subsequent projects like GST are completely built on open source with people becoming a lot more comfortable using it but as Dr. Varma says, people seem to think `free’ is equivalent to cheapness. Public infrastructure not being hostaged to a vendor or proprietary technology is more critical than the cost, says Dr. Varma, as there should be no embargoes, controls or licensing measures.
While it was clear that Aadhaar would be built on open architecture and open source, the challenge was in biometric de-duplication, the key to Aadhaar’s unique attestation of identity. No other biometric system in the world existed to this scale; closest being the US visit visa which does biometric validation for about 200 million people every year. Aadhaar would need to cover 10 times more and such scale though technically feasible would be economically unviable. As Dr. Varma puts it, a football field filled with multi-million dollar super computers would be required. The premise being uniqueness, the biometric system should be parallelizable so everyday people who enrol get a new number while the process runs concurrently. This resulted in commodity computing running Linux machines on open source fully parallelizable in a data center of just 2,500 square feet.
When it comes to privacy and security of biometrics, the government ensures there is no data leak whatsoever. Biometric is secured in the data center never to be used for any purpose other than attestation of identity. The 21st century is a digital book and biometrics are no more secret rather they are private. Today India is the gold standard for a regulated environment with private innovation atop an open infrastructure where multiple people can thrive in terms of financial and diversity inclusion.
On a broader picture, with so much technology disrupting the world, it is clear that the current skills cannot handle future work. Dr. Varma recommends continuous learning to sustain relevance in the world of work. Opportunities are aplenty and are growing by the day; one has to be a learner and a builder, as software architecture pretty much pervades all industries today.
Dr. Varma feels two big changes that India is poised for are open infrastructure and democratization of access by bringing technologies together and deploying people who are trained to use the technology. The other change would be the impact of AI and Automation. India should find a way to use AI to amplify human capability and not replace human capability.