India’s patent laws allow for reverse-engineering of certain technologies. A prime example of this reverse-engineering is in the pharmaceutical space, where Indian pharma companies are allowed to reverse-engineer drugs, especially life-saving ones. These drugs may have been developed by pharma majors in other parts of the world—and then introduced into western markets—after India-based outsourcing firms had helped them out with clinical trials, data gathering and reporting to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or its equivalent to get these drugs passed.
Indian courts have continued to allow such reverse-engineering of drugs—famously prompting Bayer AG’s then CEO Martin Dekkers to say at a conference a few years ago, “We did not develop this medicine for Indians. We developed it for western patients who can afford it.” He called this sort of duplication “essentially theft”.
Dekkers’s outburst was in response to India’s Natco Pharma winning a court case that allowed it to produce and sell Bayer’s Nexavar, an anti-cancer drug, at 97% less than its original cost. Currently, the drug costs $96,000 a year in western markets, but even at 3% of that, it sells for around $2,900 (or almost Rs2 lakh) per year, still a considerable sum for many Indians.
Dekkers’s candid comments give lie to the large drug houses who claim that they care about global health needs since it makes clear that they actively seek to keep life-saving drugs out of the hands of most of the world’s population who cannot pay the insurance-inflated prices they demand out of patients in the West. His outburst also begs the question: If all Bayer did was to develop the drug for westerners and not for Indians, then why should he care if the drug is being sold in India at a fraction of the cost? It isn’t as if the FDA is about to allow a version produced in India to be imported and sold in the US while his drug is still under patent.
This isn’t a rant about western drug companies, though I suspect I have made a point. It is actually about another type of technology that could cost Indians—and Germans, Americans, Britons and others—their jobs. This technology is the machine learning and neural network part of artificial intelligence or AI, where inbuilt algorithmic engines allow computer programs to reprogram themselves without human intervention, after consistent use, into ever better predictors of outcomes such as image recognition. These engines are often referred to as ‘black box’ systems by computer scientists, referring to the fact that it is very difficult for even computer scientists to themselves predict what the engine will be capable of doing after it has rewritten itself several times over using machine learning without human intervention.