Why the NITI Aayog’s National Artificial Intelligence Strategy for India is a good start

If India is to embrace the 4th Industrial Revolution equitably, inclusively and sustainably, taking a leadership position on AI is critical.

 |  5-minute read |   08-06-2018
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Do You Trust This Computer? is a documentary dedicated to Stephen Hawking, who famously said, "The development of full Artificial Intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” The documentary outlines the benefits, highlights the dangers of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and features interviews with a range of influential personalities such as Ray Kurzweil, Elon Musk and Jonathan Nolan. 

stephen-hawking_060818054350.jpgAre we going towards the end of the human race? That's what Stephen Hawking reportedly predicted if full AI was developed

I don’t know whether Hawking will be proven right or wrong – but I do know that AI is a vastly misunderstood term.

For starters, Hawking was referring to “AGI” (Artificial General Intelligence), not the functional AI that is the subject of most discussions today.

When it comes to AI, we are barely scratching the surface. Gloomy headlines and provocative pictures of robots usurping jobs from hapless humans result in widespread panic and misunderstanding. They make us believe that we have no control over our future.

robo_060818054710.jpgSure, they look cute. But we are also taught to fear robots and the future they represent.

But technology is never deterministic. It is a function of our choices today. Since AI will impact all our lives, it is vital we democratise opinion and invite everyone to make an informed choice.

Towards that end, I am enthused by the national AI strategy discussion document released by the NITI Aayog on June 4.

The overarching theme for the document is “AI for All” and it is guided by an optimisation of social goods. It acknowledges that India, despite being an IT powerhouse, hasn’t consistently delivered pioneering technology solutions in AI. Therefore, the strategy to maximise the late-mover’s advantage is well suited to develop technology aimed at solving India’s unique set of challenges, exploring opportunities to leapfrog and build foundational R&D capability necessary for global competitiveness.

China estimates that 26 per cent of its GDP in 2030 will be sourced from AI-related activities.

xi-jinping_060818055203.jpgThinking ahead: China estimates that 26 per cent of its GDP will be sourced from AI-related activities in 2030

The UAE has set up a ministry of AI. The United States has created a strong ecosystem comprising advanced research institutions, universities, labs, startup hubs and institutional capital. The French government will spend €1.5 billion ($1.85 billion) over five years to support research in the field, encourage startups and collect data that can be used, and shared, by engineers. The UK has planned to nurture 1,000 government-supported PhD researchers by 2025 and set up the Turing Fellowship, inspired by the work of Alan Turing who designed an experiment to test a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to – or indistinguishable from – that of a human.

alan-turning_060818055842.jpgThe UK has planned to set up Turing Fellowship, inspired by the work of Alan Turing 

It is no secret that India missed reaping the benefits of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Industrial Revolutions. 

If India is to embrace the 4th Industrial Revolution equitably, inclusively and sustainably now, taking a leadership position on AI is critical.

In order to achieve the goals of “AI for All”, India must address the barriers and bottlenecks such as the availability of broad-based research expertise, the absence of an enabling data ecosystem, the low awareness on AI adoption, issues of privacy and the lack of stakeholder collaboration.

While every industry can potentially be disrupted by AI, I am glad that India’s AI strategy will focus on five sectors – heathcare, agriculture, education, smart cities and smart mobility – where the application of technology can create quantifiable social impacts in the medium-to-long term. 

agriculture_060818060139.jpgNeeded: New seeds. It is positive that India’s AI strategy will also focus on agriculture

The NITI Aayog has adopted a three-pronged approach to address the challenges in these sectors.

First, it will undertake exploratory proof of concept AI projects. Second, it will strive to build a thriving ecosystem in collaboration with startups and mature enterprises. Third, it will create a multi-stakeholder, multi-national approach.

rajiv-kumar_060818060959.jpg'I believe in investing in AI.' NITI Aayog has adopted a three-pronged approach for India to reap benefits (In Photo: NITI Aayog's vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar)

It is worth noting that an integral part of India’s national AI strategy will be to share the best practices and the innovative operating models with other developing countries, thereby making it a “Garage” or an innovation hub for emerging economies.

We live in a world of global challenges that can’t be solved with a local mindset. India’s efforts to cross-pollinate the best practices will go a long way in setting an example for the rest of the world. In a world obsessed with building walls and firewalls, India is building bridges across borders and boundaries.

To unlock the true potential of its vision, the report has concrete proposals worth consideration.

Research in India is still at its infancy and the two-tiered program to set up CORE (Center of Research Excellence) and ICTAI (International Centers of Transformational AI) has the potential to push frontiers of technology development by fostering institutional and peer-to-peer collaboration. The proposed umbrella organization along the lines of CERN will propel “moonshot research projects”. The “CERN for AI” model is well suited for India’s approach as it will provide direction to research efforts, study global advancements and encourage international collaboration.

Strong research capability needs to be supplemented by wide adoption across startups, private sector, PSUs and government. The NITI report posits the creation of a National AI Marketplace (NAIM) to overcome the barriers of development and deployment. This marketplace will enable optimum price discovery and more importantly, bring to bear different approaches to data collection, aggregation and annotation – vital steps for deriving intelligence through the poetry of data.

But, for the marketplace to blossom, India needs a future-ready workforce. According to the World Economic Forum, 85 per cent jobs of 2030 do not exist today. We need to change the way we teach in schools and focus on “why” instead of “what”. Towards that end, I believe that the Atal Innovation Mission and Atal Tinkering Labs can nurture innovators who will shape the future of India. Four weeks ago, I met a 14-year-old at such a tinkering lab in Delhi. She had built a prototype of “Lord Ganesha”, one which offered blessings and prasāda using motion sensors.

lab_060818062014.jpgCatch them young: Why kids should be taught to embrace, not fear, science, tech and AI

In colleges and vocational training institutes, we need to create a stronger industry connect, so that the challenge of being “unemployable” that many Indian engineering graduates face can be managed. We live in times of tectonic change – it is possible that the curriculum incoming college students are introduced to will be irrelevant by the time they graduate. This can be deeply unsettling and we need our students to be armed with emotional resilience. Unfortunately, no university around the world has a course that teaches AI and emotional resilience. Maybe India can take leadership in creating such a course.

It will be much needed at a time when the media reports, directly and indirectly, that the robots are coming for our jobs.

We do need the larger discourse to focus on creating awareness about AI and its impact. Instead of creating panic with sensational headlines, we should highlight lesser known facts – like each job loss due to automation will lead to five new jobs that require different skill sets.

Re-skilling is easier said than done but it is possible with a combination of a national mentoring program, decentralised content delivery mechanisms and community-based learning models.

Last, but by no means least is the issue of ethics. Consider the driverless car conundrum explained beautifully by the MIT Moral Machine. If a driverless car meets with an accident and has a choice between killing two passengers and five pedestrians, what should it do? This is a very hard question. Most people answer that the car should kill the two passengers.

tesla-model3_060818062616.jpgDebates around the driverless car have reflected how science is too important for scientists alone to decide

Exploring the contours of debates like this requires our artists, philosophers, lawyers, activists, politicians, technologists and business leaders to come together on one platform. As someone rightly said, “Technology is far too important to be left to the technologists alone.”

As we march into the 4th Industrial Revolution, I hope we approach AI with cautious optimism, take time to define its design principles and remember that the future is a function of our choices today – and not something preordained.

Also read: How Pranab Mukherjee pleased the RSS


Utkarsh Amitabh Utkarsh Amitabh @utkarsh_amitabh

Utkarsh Amitabh works at Microsoft, is the founder of Network Capital, and is a ‘Global Shaper’ who represented the community at Davos. His views are personal

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