Artificial Intelligence (AI) has enormous potential to shape India's future. It can indeed revolutionise the country, especially in the sectors of healthcare, education, poverty alleviation, and security – areas which today circumscribe India's prime challenges. It can also, thereby, bring about unprecedented growth for the economy.
Of the many technologies that are on the horizon, perhaps none has as much historical semblance as artificial intelligence. Although its academic origins can be traced back to the 1950s, appearances in science fiction throughout the past century have helped embed AI into mainstream consciousness.
These appearances have also lead to heightened expectations – some technologists argue that the type of intelligence in these systems is "assisted" or "augmented" rather than being entirely "artificial" – but, recent advances in computing have certainly accelerated the potential of this technology.
What exactly is AI? In general, artificial intelligence is the practice of designing computer systems to make intelligent decisions based on context rather than on direct input. It is important to understand that AI systems always behave according to the rules that have been programmed into its systemic design.
Consider a computer playing chess; this may not strike many people today as AI, but it certainly fits the definition of a system that has been given rules and calculates probabilities and decisions on the fly based on the moves of the opponent. Perhaps the most common application of this technology is in the field of virtual assistants which are gaining traction in the workplace. This could include tools specifically designed for business (such as Amy Ingram from x.ai) or mass-market products (such as Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, or Microsoft's Cortana). In all these cases, the software is equipped with a contextual understanding that allows information to be shared, understood and tasks to be automated. The other extensively used intelligence application is Netflix, providing highly accurate predictive technology based on a customer's reactions to viewed content. It analyses huge datasets of records to suggest preferred content based on specific, varied individual reactions.
Today, AI can accomplish tasks that are repetitive and automatable. If we use this to augment what humans can do, AI could have a massive impact on society, business, and culture. However, to begin with, we need to embrace AI to help smoothen our lives, focus on innovation, and propel the country on the path of technological transformation rather than simply misusing and demonising the technology. Thanks to our distorted image of the Terminator and Ex Machina, people imagine AI as a sentient force that will soon outperform humans (and possibly even turn evil)!
Accenture, the global consulting firm, recently came out with a report where it estimated that AI has the potential to generate $957 billion dollars for the Indian economy by the year 2035. The report identified universities, start-ups, large companies, policymakers, and multi-stakeholder partnerships as the five major pillars of realising India's AI potential. According to a PWC report, AI will contribute as much as $15.7 trillion to the world economy by 2030. Given India's strength in technology, favourable demographics, and structural advantages in the availability of advanced data; we must exploit our AI potential.
To achieve revenue from this new sphere of technological growth, we need a comprehensive well-thought-out and well-funded set of plans and policies. As of now, there are several challenges facing India's AI development. For one, all AI-based applications, to date, have been driven largely by the private sector and have focused primarily on consumer goods. To forge an AI revolution, India must adopt a deliberate policy to drive AI innovation, adaptation, and proliferation in sectors beyond consumer goods and information technology services.
The emergent scale and implications of the technology make it imperative for policymakers in the government to take notice of it. Early lessons of AI's success in the United States, China, South Korea, and elsewhere in the world show that public and private funding models work well for AI research. India should consider adopting it. There needs to be a robust understanding of how AI can improve processes, especially in areas of manufacturing, transportation, and mining among others. It was heartening to learn that the decade-long plan of developing an ITMS (Intelligent Traffic Management System) using AI is finally taking shape. The Ministry of Home Affairs has cleared the path for appointing a private consultant to develop and implement the solution which has the potential of relieving traffic woes of Delhi and eventually for other large metros too.
Social sector applications
To begin with, we should focus on the social sector – education, health, nutrition where emerging technologies can help us improve the quality of our lives and enhance our human development index. These are also the sectors where maximum jobs can be created, giving India a much-needed jumpstart.
Public sector applications
The government should identify public sector applications like detecting tax fraud, preventing subsidy leakage and targeting beneficiaries, where current advances in AI could make a significant impact.
AI in national security
India must view machine intelligence as a critical element of its national security strategy and evaluate models of defence research in collaboration with the private sector and universities. With China making rapid progress in AI-based research, it is imperative that India views AI as a critical element of national security strategy. AI will be the key to the unmanned battlefield or strife zone surveillance.
The sequential system of education and work is outdated in today's economic environment as job profiles shift rapidly and skills become invaluable and obsolete in a matter of years. The National Education Policy must make radical recommendations on alternative models of education that would be better suited to an AI-powered economy of the future. A concern worth noting is the possible elimination of jobs as intelligent computers overtake workflow. In general, it is very hard to predict the exact impact of technology across the entire job market. However, we all know that previous technical revolutions have consistently led to net gains in the job market.
According to McKinsey, 60 per cent of all occupations have some duties that could be automated to some degree. Therefore, automating a subset of duties does not directly correlate to job elimination, but, there is no doubt that some occupations are at risk as companies turn certain tasks over to AI. Most experts in the field, though, believe that the digital economy will feature new roles working in concert with intelligent systems. It is, therefore, required from education and skill development stakeholders to not fret and fume, but prepare the workforce of the next decade and arm them with the right skills so that the youth of today is prepared for an AI infused job market, which is an imminent reality. Policymakers need to make AI a critical component of the Prime Minister's flagships – Make in India, Skill India, and Digital India programs – by offering incentives for manufacturers, creating regional innovation clusters for manufacturing automation and robotics in partnership with universities and start-ups, incorporating market-based mechanisms for identifying the kind of skills that employers will value in the future.
AI-based innovations and AI-ready infrastructure are essential to prepare India's jobs and skills markets for an AI-based future and to secure its strategic interests. AI and automation ought to be the new drivers of employment, especially for India's $150 billion Information Technology industry that employs over four million people. Indeed, AI can be a game changer in India's march from a developing to a developed nation.
(The writer is Regional Director, CompTIAIndia. The views expressed are strictly personal)