In the not too distant future the smartphone of a farmer in India will not only track the weather forecasts but perhaps advise him on the next best action to take if the weather turns inclement. It might even go a step ahead and help him make a decision on locking up the best future price for his produce. A smart fishing app will learn from the past performance of fishing trips on the high seas to guide Indian fishermen on improving their catch while an intelligent learning app will coach Indian students to cope better for competitive examinations. A clever tax collection app will help the government detect sophisticated methods of tax evasion while a subsidy app will better target benefits to those who need them the most, helping plug leakages. All of these have a chance of becoming a reality in the next decade, given the recent advances in artificial intelligence if only we in India wake up and get our act right.
From SIRI in iPhones and iPADs to Cortana in your Microsoft Windows 10 devices, artificial intelligence has made inroads into our everyday lives in a subtle but significant manner. Every time the intelligence keyboard in your smartphone makes a clever prediction on what you will type next it is artificial intelligence at work, learning from your past sentences and improving its predictive abilities along the way. The recent brouhaha in India over app-based taxi aggregators highlights the extent to which the policy regime in India lags advances in technology.
Policymakers in India cannot afford to make the same mistakes with artificial intelligence, given the breadth and depth of its impact on the economy in general and on national security in particular. Outlining the challenges and opportunities of an artificial intelligence-led future, the recent paper by Carnegie India titled “India and Artificial Intelligence Revolution” delves at length into the policy roadmap for India to prepare itself for impending change. Specifically, the paper outlines the impact of artificial intelligence-led automation in a range of sectors, leading to challenges in job creation. It calls for a radical rethink of the new education policy to prepare our youth with skills of the future to survive and thrive in an artificial intelligence-led economy. It also calls for an innovation-led free market environment in which new business models that are durable and viable can emerge. It also warns that India runs the risk of falling behind the US and China in harnessing the power of artificial intelligence to its strategic advantage.
Every one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship initiatives — Make in India, Skill India, Digital India — will be impacted by the recent advances in artificial intelligence, making it imperative for Indian policymakers to take both an immediate and a long-term view. The National Education Policy must make radical recommendations on alternative models of education that would be better suited to an artificial intelligence-powered economy. The government should identify public-sector applications like detecting tax fraud, preventing subsidy leakage, and targeting beneficiaries, where current advances in artificial intelligence could make a significant impact.
India must view machine intelligence as a critical element of its national security strategy and evaluate Pentagon’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) model of defence research with the collaboration of the private sector and universities in order to create dual-purpose technologies with a scope large enough to allow for developing civilian technology applications. Specifically, the Cyber Grand Challenge model of DARPA needs to be examined for its successful incentivisation of academia and the private sector. The proposed National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) platform, which would link citizen databases, might be a good pilot candidate for creating a machine intelligence-based platform with both national security and civilian benefits and should thus be taken up on a mission mode.
While India may be late to wake up to the artificial intelligence revolution, Indians of many hues — consumers, technocrats, researchers and entrepreneurs — are already participating in this revolution with many of Indian origin driving and influencing research in the US and elsewhere. A clarion call from the prime minister to all of them to come together and help build an artificial intelligence ecosystem in India will go a long way to not merely catch up with but to take a quantum leap into the artificial intelligence-driven future.
Shashi Shekhar Vempati, a digital strategist and a commentator on politics and public policy, is on the board of Prasar Bharati
The views expressed are personal