The tech creators, or the ones who made billions, asks Ajit Balakrishnan.
Just the other day, gazing from my home balcony at the distant hills of Raigad, I started wondering again about a question resounding in my head: Who are the true heroes who created the Internet and Web revolution, which has made life so much easier for humanity across all aspects of life?
As usual I couldn't get a clear answer, so I thought I'd check with my recently acquired pal, ChatGPT.
'Tim Berners Lee, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos ...' came the instant answer.
I was tempted to hurl on the floor my mobile phone which had brought me the ChatGPT answer! Was ChatGPT, except for the name of Tim Berners Lee, also falling for the Wall Street/Dalal Street type hype which glorifies the ones who make money and not the true innovators?
I made a mental note to create a Wikipedia page as soon as possible with the true history of the technological evolutions that resulted in the Web revolution because that would help poor ChatGPT get its answers on this topic right because that is where the poor thing usually gets its answers from.
In the meantime, dear reader, here is the real truth, or at least what I consider the truthful answer to this question.
The World Wide Web idea was born at the European Council for Nuclear Research, known by its short form CERN, in Geneva. CERN was devoted to research in physics.
Tim Berners Lee, a Britisher, born in London and graduating in physics from Oxford, found a job in CERN.
It was while he was there that he thought up the idea of a system for universities to share their knowledge through a computer-based knowledge-sharing system and made it available free and open for all to use.
Now, think of this: The Web was invented in Switzerland by a Britisher, not by any of the classical BigTech giants, practically all of whom are based in the US.
Now, let's look at Wikipedia, the one place that I, along with 55 million other users all over the world, go to several times every day to clear our head about something we are puzzled by.
Wikipedia is a not-for-profit foundation and its founder and chief thinker Jimmy Wales, while born in Alabama, in the United States, lives in England, and is a British citizen.
So, this immensely valuable entity, Wikipedia, is also the work of a passionate innovator, not the work of a giant BigTech company.
Now let's come to the next biggest innovation in the world, probably of the last 500 years: Artificial intelligence.
Not a day goes by without some headline declaring yet another breakthrough in this field, be it in stock trading, medical treatment, or self-driven cars.
Such announcements are usually accompanied by hoopla about the billion-dollar unicorns that have done that.
Few people know that the creator of the key ideas which led to all the breakthroughs in machine learning (this is a sober word for 'artificial intelligence') is Geoffrey Hinton, born in Wimbledon, and educated at the University of Cambridge and with a PhD from the University of Edinburgh.
He thought up the key idea of 'artificial neural networks', a mathematical technique similar to the way the human brain processes data.
Well after his innovation, Dr Hinton moved to the University of Toronto, where he met up with Yoshua Bengio and Yann LeCun (both French-born!) and worked with them to create in 2017 the practical implantation for his great ideas on artificial intelligence.
Why Canada? Because the Canadian authorities were the only ones willing to fund what people at that time thought was a foolish experiment.
What can one make of this: The three most important tech breakthroughs that created the World Wide Web, Wikipedia, and artificial intelligence were created by men who were not even remotely driven by the desire to make billions of dollars from their creations. And the countries they were born and educated in do not boast any world-leading BigTech giants even today!
If all of the above is true, how did the US build this reputation of being the originator of web technologies and become the home for the Googles and Microsofts and Amazons and Facebooks of the world?
That brings us to the second dimension of our story: The role of the US defence establishment in driving innovation.
The rules for formatting and sending data from one computer to another and which thus form the foundation on which the Internet is built and which in tech jargon is called 'TCP/IP' were invented by people employed by the United States Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) in the 1970s.
Thus, you could easily say that the Internet is the invention of the US defence forces.
Right now, in the year 2023, the world is poised to embrace the next big technological evolution: The cloud revolution.
This is a world where heavy-duty computation will be done not on our PCs or by individual companies' computers but in giant computers maintained in distant locations (thus the word 'cloud') by a few 'cloud service providers'.
Which innovator persons, in which countries, will lead and dominate this revolution?
Ajit Balakrishnan (firstname.lastname@example.org), founder and CEO, Rediff.com, is an Internet entrepreneur.
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com