Google For India 2019: How Google aims to transform India’s digital economy

By Sourabh kulesh - September 21, 2019
Google announced a number of updates to its existing product and service portfolio at the fifth Google for India event. From Google Research India AI lab in Bengaluru to finding jobs via Google Pay --....

Google for India is Google’s marquee annual event in the country in which it highlights the initiatives it took to connect underprivileged citizens (in terms of internet connectivity), the examples of how people benefited from those initiatives and its strategy to connect more people  with each other. This year was no different, as the company provided an update on a number of products and services. It announced an AI Research lab in Bengaluru, and multiple Indian language support in Google Search, Google Assistant and Google Pay.

Caesar Sen Gupta, Vice-President, Next Billion Users Initiative and Payments, took the stage and announced that India now has 460 million people on the internet. Reiterating company CEO Sundar Pichai’s ‘when we build for india, we build for world’ stand, he said that the company is building technology according to Indians, and not in a way that would need Indians to adapt to the technology. He noted that with more Indians coming online, about a billion people now use Google Search globally.

On India, the executive said that India is setting global standards of digitising money, and it has seen more transactions on Bhim UPI than credit and/or debit cards. Google is in the process of expanding Google Station -- a service that allows the company’s partners to roll out Wi-Fi hotspots in public places -- from 400 railway stations to about 4,000 venues now. He also announced a partnership with BSNL to expand its public WiFi initiative to villages in three states: Gujarat, Maharashtra and Bihar. 

According to Google, there are more than 81,500 Internet Saathis who have helped over 28 million women learn about the Internet across 289,000 villages (data as of April 2019). Internet Saathi is Google’s initiative to spread digital literacy amongst women in villages across India. Apart from this, the company has also announced an AI lab and a slew of new features across a bunch of apps.

Google Research India: AI research lab in Bengaluru

Google announced that it is now opening Google Research India -- an artificial intelligence (AI) research lab in the country’s IT hub Bengaluru -- that will be led by Dr Manish Gupta, a computer scientist and ACM Fellow with a background in deep learning across video analysis and education, compilers and computer systems.

According to Google, the team will focus on advancing fundamental computer science and AI research by building a strong team and partnering with the research community across the country. At the event, Jay Yagnik, Vice President and Engineering fellow, Google AI, said that the lab will then apply this research to tackle big problems in fields like healthcare, agriculture, and education, and help developers make apps more helpful with AI and it will let researchers innovate using AI.



The talk on the use of AI was then taken forward by Yossi Matias, Vice President, Engineering at Google. He looks after Google's AI for good effort and crisis response efforts globally. According to Google, its Crisis Response and Research team is exploring more ways to use AI to provide earlier warnings for other natural disasters, including fires and earthquake aftershocks.

Matias took an example of floods, and said that the company is now using AI to build hundreds of digital simulations and predict how river water will flow. He noted that these simulations not only help them predict the areas that will be affected, but also the level of danger to the people living in those areas. According to Google, floods cause between 6,000 and 18,000 fatalities every year of which 20 per cent are in India.

In a pilot project, Google worked in Patna, which is one of the areas that usually gets flooded during monsoon. Matias announced that the company is now looking to take the help of local NGOs to increase the coverage areas to 12 times the pilot project, covering areas like Guwahati, and help about 800,000 people. ‘This is made possible through AI and physics-based modeling, which incorporate data from historical flooding events, river levels, terrain and elevation data. We generate high-resolution elevation maps and run up to hundreds of thousands of simulations in each location,’ Matias said. 

‘With information obtained through our collaboration with Indian Central Water Commission, we create river flood forecasting models that can more accurately predict not only when and where a flood might occur, but the severity of the event as well,’ he added. The executive told reports that currently, the affected have a few hours of heads-up, and Google is working on extending it from a few hours to more number of hours. He also said that this information will also be available through Search, Maps, or an alert push notification.

Google Search

Continuing his talk on Search, Matias said that Google has found 10x Hindi queries in Search. In fact, Discover -- a Google feed that gives users updates about stories on the topics they are interested in -- is getting support for more Indian languages, including Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Gujarati Marathi, Kannada, Malayalam and Oriya. The support for Urdu and Punjabi languages will follow soon. He also said that the feed will now be more personalised and contextual. For example, if you type ‘Aloo Gobhi’ (in English), the results will be shown in Hindi. If you type ‘cricket score’, the results will be reflected in English. 

Matias also said that the content in Indic languages on Discover has increased over 20x. To make it more personalised, Google is now adding videos in Discover in seven new languages, which means that apart from the personalised news in text format, the feed will also have videos in the supported language. Further, the users can now ‘Follow’ the news outlet or video channel right from the Discover feed. The changes will be available in available in Chrome, Google app and Google Go.


Additionally, Google Lens will also be available with Tamil, Telugu and Marathi language support. Google Lens have been used half a billion times in India. Sapna Chada, Director of Marketing, Southeast Asia & India, Google, said that in India, about 750 million adults struggle with reading. She provided an update to Lens which enables users to translate the text and even have them read out aloud in real time. The functionality started to roll out a few weeks ago. 

Furthermore, more Indian language support has been extended to Bolo, a speech-based app that helps children learn to read. Apart from Hindi and English, kids can now learn to read Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. For this, the tech giant has partnered with publishers like Chhota Bheem and Katha Kids. Google says that the data remains on the device. Till now, Bolo has already helped 800,000 kids in over 28,000 towns and villages more than three million times, and speak half a billion words.

Google Assistant

Manuel Bronstein, Vice President, Product Management, Google, added that Google Assistant is used in 80 countries in more than 30 languages. He also said that Hindi has now become the second most used language after English globally on Assistant. India registered 100 million queries in Hindi on Cricket. Apart from that, he also told reporters that Hindi language support on Assistant will soon be supported on Android-powered TVs. He said that Google has no plans to ship Duplex to any other market. Google Duplex is an AI chat agent that can carry out specific verbal tasks, such as making a reservation or appointment, over the phone.

Bronstein said that Assistant also works as an interpreter and can translate Hindi to English and vice-versa. He announced that the Assistant will now support nine Indian languages -- Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil Telugu, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, and Urdu -- and users will now be able to talk to the Assistant more naturally. For example, Hindi speaking users just have to say, ‘Hey Google, talk to me in hindi,’ and the Assistant will start talking to you in Hindi. The feature will be accessible on all Android, Android Go and KaiOS devices. 

The executive also launched Vodafone-Idea ‘Phone Line’ which will deliver information to users (via Google Assistant) with slow (2G) or no mobile internet connections. Google partnered with telecom giant Vodafone-Idea to launch Google Assistant-supported Phone Line service that will enable all Vodafone Idea users in India to call a toll free number (000-800-9191000) at any time and ask anything from the Assistant. He said that Google won’t share any data and the company doesn't have any means to track ID of the user.

Google Pay

Ambarish Kenghe, Director, Product Management, Google Pay, noted that there are 67 million users in India and the company has seen $110 billion annualised transaction value in the country (Source: National Payments Corporation of India). Google Pay was launched as Tez two years ago. In Google Pay, the company has introduced Tokenized cards (Android and iOS) for debit card and credit card users in India. If a user undertakes a transaction of below Rs 2,000, there is no need to punch in the PIN number. Tokenized cards on Google Pay will be rolling out in the next few weeks with Visa cards for HDFC, Axis, Kotak and StandardChartered banks, and support to cover Mastercard and Rupay and more banks in the coming months.

Now, there is a new Google Pay for Business app for small and medium businesses. The merchants can now verify themselves via video on phone. A remote agent verifies the name of the merchant, the shop’s name and the shop itself before verifying the business. This will increase their limit to accept payments, however, the limit has not been defined. Additionally, merchants can now use the new Spot Platform on Google Pay for a seamless shopping and payment experience. They can create a Spot (or barcode, in layman’s terms) to make the purchase a seamless experience.

“The biggest story in India's booming internet economy has been the rise of digital payment. With BHIM UPI crossing 900 million payment last month, India is setting the global standard on how to digitise payments. In the last 12 months alone, Google Pay has grown 3X to reach 67 million monthly active users, driving transactions worth over $110 billion on an annualized basis, with hundreds of thousands of offline and online merchants,’ Kenghe said. Google Pay users will already be able to use Spot of popular services like UrbanClap,Goibibo, MakeMyTrip, RedBus, Eat.Fit and Oven Story.

The other major announcement is Jobs -- a service that will now help eligible applicants to find entry-level jobs at several places. The service has been launched in partnership with National Skills Development Corporation for their Skill India programme. Job Spot has been introduced with 24 early partners like 24Seven and Healthkart in retail; Swiggy, Zomato and Dunzo in delivery and logistics; and Fabhotels in hospitality, with more sectors and partners to be announced in the coming weeks. It is currently in the Delhi-NCR area and soon it will be expanded all over India.

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