Author: Ben Mouncer
Kalyan Kumar, a key figure at IT services giant HCL Technologies, talks about the scaling of artificial intelligence in enterprise and why new technologies can help businesses achieve their sustainability goals
Kalyan Kumar is speaking to us on the eve of the Test cricket series between India and England, and he is very excited. In some ways he has a foot in both camps: Indian born and raised, but a long-time resident of the UK in his role as a global Chief Technology Officer for HCL Technologies. It is a clash of two of the sport’s titans and Kumar is bubbling with anticipation. Kumar - or KK, as he is known - is a man of passions, with cricket being one of them. Having played to a high level in India as a young man, he now volunteers to promote the game as a trustee of Capital Kids Cricket, a London-based charity. He is also a musician with a group called Contraband. According to KK, they specialise in “white collar rock”, which seems the perfect musical style for an ensemble that counts a corporate leader from a multi-billion dollar technology company as its drummer. Among KK’s other passions is, of course, tech. A systems engineer who moved into IT “just at the right time”, he has been part of HCL for more than two decades. Nowadays, he says his role is less about technology and products, and more about cultural transformation and the future of sustainable, tech-enabled enterprise. KK has been labelled “a champion of new technologies” but prefers a different term.
“I would use the word ‘evangelist’ for new technologies,” KK tells Tech for Good. “There are a lot of champions, and I don’t claim to be the master of everything. But what I’ve learned is that, as a business, you have your core strengths and then you really need to understand different technologies and how they could impact you, your industry and your outcomes. It’s about trying to find ways to put the jigsaw together.” Much of KK’s time is spent on an area of increasing importance to companies: sustainability. For HCL, sustainability is an agenda at board level, and the firm publishes a comprehensive sustainability report each year. But the bigger picture is how the technologies that HCL helps integrate for its clients could support them in becoming more sustainable. Up for discussion is the role of artificial intelligence (AI), often held as the great beacon of hope in this era of transformation. KK believes consumer AI is now mainstream yet says there is still much potential in the area of enterprise - and not just for business optimisation and product development, but for sustainability too. “There is a lot possible with the power of AI,” he says. “And I think it’s not just about enterprise using AI to make money, but also how businesses can achieve better sustainability and do good. The way I really look at this is that it’s not just AI, but it’s AI and computing at scale. I really see cloud and AI as yin and yang.”
This topic is one HCL broaches regularly in its role as a partner to the World Economic Forum. KK is actively involved in some of the organisation’s SDG (Sustainable Developments Goals) initiatives - a programme of change tied to the United Nations’ “2030 Agenda” for sustainable development, and one that has been challenged and accelerated because of COVID-19. KK believes the route to tech-enabled sustainability is two-phased, beginning with the tech companies themselves leading on best practice. “Hyperscalers and IT infrastructure is surpassing many manufacturing energy consumption levels,” he says. “If you look at energy consumption of the AI GPUs, you’ll be amazed at what they consume, and even the energy they use for cooling. So charity starts at home, right? You start by yourself building sustainable capabilities and technology.
Kumar has worked for HCL Technologies for more than 20 years
“The second part that I see is that can advancements in machine learning, deep learning, and to some extent quantum computing, drive this forward? So AI has a lot of use cases in areas like optimisation, supply chain, healthcare… but we’ve got some very interesting use cases in areas like water distribution, electric utility, health monitoring and food processing.” Indeed, KK sees some of these efforts first-hand. Part of his remit at HCL is to work with its growing ecosystem of startups, where it aims to encourage innovation by connecting them to large enterprises and drive forward the creation of new products and services. In the area of sustainability, HCL has been collaborating with a company called Winnow to build an AI solution which aims to solve the problem of food wastage. Chefs can take photos of food as it's thrown away, and the tool recognises what is considered waste and should be kept. In the fashion industry, it has worked with TrusTrace on an AI-and-blockchain-powered platform for product traceability and supply chain management. KK says these examples and others serve to show that not only can AI create sustainability, but that sustainability can also drive business value. “Sustainability is often seen as something that cannot generate revenue, but once you integrate sustainable sourcing into your supply chain, or sustainability into the way you build products, you can use AI to take up a lot of the work. So I think AI and sustainability have a very good relationship because one can take away the load of the other. If you put sustainability at the core, AI can really help.” KK is seeing a slow but concerted shift in emphasis with HCL clients, estimating that around eight out of 10 are now making sustainability a strategic imperative. He also believes the onset of the coronavirus pandemic has led to more and more business leaders focusing on the matter. “There is a very clear sensitivity now, and I think in the last 12 months because of the pandemic, many people have seen the atmosphere look very different to how it was,” he says. “The whole period has been a wake-up call really.
“The issue is how to be sustainable in a cost-effective way. And that’s what companies are trying to figure out. Still today, very few companies have board metrics that put sustainability right up there. CSR [corporate social responsibility] has that, and I think it has to go to that level. And tech can do a lot of good in helping with the whole sustainability journey.” HCL is certainly following KK’s mantra that “charity starts at home”. The company splits its sustainability strategy down into four areas: “responsible business” covers areas like governance and benchmarking sustainability, while it also has a society focus that looks at developing skills in young people and supporting the disadvantaged. Then it has its whole renewable ecosystem, and a dedication to redefining sustainability in the workplace. An approach led by founder Shiv Nadar and chairperson Roshni Nadar Malhotra, HCL has clear lines of communication with partners, customers and employees around its sustainability efforts, according to KK. “This is something very core to us and it is driven right from the very top,” he says. “We now also have a sustainability chief whose job it is to work on all of these things across the company. A key area for us next is sustainable sourcing; we do a lot of sourcing and a lot of our partners are now beginning to implement sustainability initiatives. So it’s still a work in progress, but we are committed to doing all that we can.” With the power of corporations like HCL, a renewed desire from businesses to tackle sustainability, and the rapid development of technologies like AI, surely society is set to take huge leaps over the coming years? KK agrees, and believes the tech industry at large will be at the forefront. “It has a very, very significant role to play,” he says. “More and more things are becoming digital. Digital is taken for granted now, but with everything moving to the cloud, and AI being baked in, everyone in the value chain - the tech creators, the producers, the integrators, the developers, and the operators - has a lot of responsibility. “There is not one industry that isn’t getting techified. If tech can pull together money and effort, it will at the very least have a big impact.” One thing that has been slowed down by the pandemic, not accelerated, is KK’s musical hobby. “Remote jamming hasn’t really worked for us,” he admits. But with the packed cricket schedule providing escapism and the small matter of helping the world’s economy become more sustainable through the use of tech, KK has plenty to keep him busy.