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It's good to talk

Many Indians prefer mobile phones to computer screens for accessing the internet, causing a huge sur

If you want to know just how much Indians love to talk, take a trip due south from the capital, New Delhi, to the nation's tip, where it meets the Indian Ocean. On the way, you'll encounter eight languages, not including English.

A passion for speech may be one reason why mobile phones are so popular in India, while broadband penetration remains low. It may also be a clue to why the country seems on its way to becoming a major global player in voice-based technologies.

“Voice is a huge market and there are lots of companies here doing it," says Yusuf Motiwala, who used to work for Texas Instruments in the US before founding TringMe in Bangalore in 2007. He and his partner Apul Nahata run a website that allows people to make calls between any telephone or speech application; plus, they've created an easy platform for developers to set up their own voice-enabled sites. The pair of young computer scientists work out of tiny offices - just a couple of small rooms above a house - yet they have attracted more than six million users worldwide, many of whom are in the US.

“People say that Silicon Valley is where it's really happening but Bangalore is happening, too," Nahata says. "People here have leapfrogged over other countries in the past ten years."

At IBM, which has had a presence in India for almost two decades, scientists are working on a groundbreaking audio-based internet project. "It's like a parallel web," says Manish Gupta, who heads the company's research laboratories in New Delhi.

His team has developed the Hyperspeech Transfer Protocol (HSTP), which links up audio in the same way as text is linked on web pages on the normal internet. On this "Spoken Web", you use an ordinary phone to navigate to addresses using numbered options, in the same way as you would with an automated helpline when you call your bank or electricity company.

With just 12 million broadband connections against over half a billion mobile-phone connections in India, it makes sense for IBM to be driving mobile-based internet applications. After successful trials in rural India, the Spoken Web is one of IBM's most important new projects; the firm has allocated $100m to mobile communications research over five years.

Speak easy

The idea also cashes in on how most Indians speak languages and dialects that aren't well represented online (English is the main language of almost two out of every five internet users, followed by Chinese) or how they may be too poorly educated to use the text-based internet - after all, adult literacy in India stands at only 74 per cent.

The need to develop voice-based technologies for the poor, illiterate and blind is another reason the Indian government is getting in on the trend. The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, headquartered in Pune, recently announced a project to design an application that will allow people to give instructions to an internet browser in spoken Bengali, English, Hindi or Urdu and receive a spoken response from the machine.
It's a huge challenge in voice recognition - but then, as Gupta says, "Our whole civilisation is founded on this concept of the spoken word."

Angela Saini's "Geek Nation" is out now (Hodder, £20).

This article first appeared in the 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India

The Alternative
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"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.