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India could be the data hub for the AI arrival

The sheer population of the country helps generate a quantum of data for training AI systems that demographically-challenged countries of the West cannot match.

columns Updated: Apr 27, 2018 19:35 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times
Artificial Intelligence is a little like pixie dust. Sprinkle it around and it seems to have properties of transforming the most mundane into the magical, like automatically transcribing notes form a meeting (yeah, there’s an app for that). But AI is hardly fairy tale(Getty Images)

It was an unusual turnout at the Desautels Hall, an auditorium at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Nerds and geeks packed the place for a book launch, a work of non-fiction from a trio of management professors. Published by Harvard Business Review Press, the book, Prediction Machines: The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence, was just the sort of topic that would attract such a crowd. And, of course, a couple of the authors are involved with the Creative Destruction Lab, which provides a launchpad for startups, many of them in the AI space.

AI is a little like pixie dust, as one of the authors said. Sprinkle it around and it seems to have properties of transforming the most mundane into the magical, like automatically transcribing notes from a meeting (yeah, there’s an app for that). AI is hardly a fairy tale, but among those looking for a happy ending is the Chinese regime.

The State is investing billions in the sector. As the book notes, the city of Tianjin, the eighth-largest there, plans a $5 billion AI industry fund, an allocation of resources greater than “all of Canada”. Another advantage is that of data access. Without the privacy protections of North America, Europe or other democracies, companies are using facial recognition databases, for instance, to authorise payments, authenticate rail passengers or drivers for ride-share services or even transferring money. Even as the latest Facebook kerfuffle makes privacy issues that much more sensitive in much of the world beyond China, the authors posit an interesting dilemma: “Users want better products trained using personal data, but they prefer that data be collected from other people, not them.”

IT majors like Amazon could transform the shopping dynamic. And Google has shifted from a “mobile-first” outlook to “an AI-first world”, even as CEO Sundar Pichai has moved its AI team on to the same floor he occupies.

The curious aspect of this book is that India figures nowhere in it, even though one of its authors, Ajay Agrawal, also CDL’s founder, is of Indian origin. Like his co-authors Joshua Gans and Avi Goldfarb, he’s a professor at Rotman.

But India may have the advantage of volume. India could be the data hub for the AI arrival. After all, the sheer population of the country helps generate a quantum of data for training AI systems that demographically challenged countries of the West cannot match. For instance, Canada may have a wealth of AI engineering talent, but the entire nation’s numbers are lower than that of the National Capital Region.

That could be re-enacting the IT and Internet revolutions, with India as the global back office. Of course, there’s always the opportunity of moving up the chain, instead of being service hacks, with policies in government and the corporate sector, to drive an industry of the decade ahead.

It doesn’t take much intelligence, artificial or otherwise, to plot that potential.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 27, 2018 19:34 IST