Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are a wake-up call to policymakers in India, with every one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship programs likely to be directly affected within the next few years. With China making rapid progress in AI-based research, it is imperative that India view AI as a critical element of national security strategy. Spurring AI-based innovation and establishing AI-ready infrastructure are thus necessary to prepare India’s jobs and skills markets for an AI-based future and to secure its strategic interests.
The Challenges Facing India’s AI Development
- AI-based applications to date have been driven largely by the private sector and have been focused primarily in consumer goods. The emergent scale and implications of the technology make it imperative for policymakers in government to take notice.
- Early lessons of AI success in the United States, China, South Korea, and elsewhere offer public and private funding models for AI research that India should consider.
- The sequential system of education and work is outdated in today’s economic environment as the nature of jobs shifts rapidly and skills become valuable and obsolete in a matter of years.
Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have stimulated fervent interest from both the private sector and governments across the globe, as the possibility of mass-produced consumer product machinery with humanlike intelligence inches closer to reality.
The big breakthrough for artificial intelligence in recent months was the victory of machine over human in the ancient board game Go. AlphaGo, an AI-based computer developed by London-based Google DeepMind,1challenged the world champion of the Chinese board game, Lee Sedol of South Korea, to a series of five games in which the machine defeated the human four to one. While AlphaGo deservedly captured headlines across the globe, the real breakthrough in artificial intelligence is not this singular event but the impressive advances artificial intelligence–based computer programs have made as a technology, to the point that they can learn and intelligently respond across a wide range of problem domains.
AI-based applications today have already touched people’s lives in ways that are often not fully perceived or fathomed. Until now, this subtle proliferation of AI technology has been driven largely by the private sector and has been focused primarily on consumer goods. The technology, however, is of such great potential and importance that its development and implementation cannot be left solely to a few Silicon Valley corporations and their distributors: the emergent scale and implications of AI’s applications make it imperative for policymakers in government to take notice.2
To better appreciate how AI’s propagation has affected people’s lives, consider the following examples. Every time someone visits a website, a network of algorithms running in the background processes the data of the user’s online behavior: analyzing the browsing history and collapsing thousands of data points into an intelligent guess on which products would entice the user, all in order to decide which advertisements to display. From the intelligent keyboards on smartphones, which reduce a user’s typing burden by anticipating the next words, to the voice-activated assistants in tablets and desktops, capable of following voice commands and completing follow-on tasks, the machines in users’ immediate personal space have become far more intelligent than is commonly realized.
While there is a substantive body of literature on recent advances in AI and the resulting implications for jobs, skills, and society at large, few analyses have examined the specific impact of AI on India’s emerging economy. The Indian government is aggressively trying to increase human capital on a national scale, with a specific emphasis on its younger population through the Skill India initiative, while seeking to attract global manufacturing to India via its Make in India program. The other part of this modernizing triad is the Digital India initiative: a determined push to expand digital access nationwide. AI will have a direct impact on each of these flagship initiatives of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the immediate future, making it all the more urgent for policymakers in India to take seriously AI’s potential for national strategies and to be on the front line in developing AI technology.
In the immediate term, policymakers in India should make AI a critical component of the prime minister’s flagship programs. As an example, within the Make in India program, India must create special incentives for manufacturers, such as relaxing regulations and lowering trade barriers, so they:
Invest in automation research in India by building research labs and design studios in India
Create regional innovation clusters, districts, and corridors by building strong linkages around manufacturing automation and robotics between universities and start-ups in India
Make India a global hub for machine intelligence–based innovation in manufacturing
Similarly, the Skill India initiative should be reworked with the twin objectives of being resilient to skills obsolescence through market-based instruments that tie together the employers, the training institutes, and the students as well as paying special attention to new skills needed to survive in an AI-led economy in the future.
Digital India must be reconfigured to establish cloud infrastructure inside India on a fast-track basis: the limited capacity as it stands today is a critical infrastructure gap and a national security risk. As a part of the Digital India initiative, New Delhi must create specific incentives for building large-scale data centers in India, ideally in partnership with the state governments. The government must identify specific regions in India that are geographically suited for building massive data centers, with an assured supply of power and other critical public infrastructure required for such facilities, and promote these as preferred destinations for investment in cloud infrastructure in India under the Digital India scheme.
The spirit of Startup India, that of creative destruction rather than protectionism, must be allowed to prevail. Recent regulatory decisions in India across cities and states bearing down on taxi aggregators Uber and Ola are regressive and counterproductive; these well-intentioned regulations must be eliminated if AI is to achieve its full potential. Unless the government and domestic industry allow the marketplace to experiment with untested business models enabled by the so-called peer economy, it is unlikely that the economy will create jobs resilient to and in an AI-driven economy. It is imperative to recognize that improving start-ups’ ease of doing business is not merely a regulatory measure to incubate or liquidate a business, but also a free market initiative to allow new and efficient business models to thrive.
For the first time in the history of democratic India, the formulation of a new education policy has been undertaken with a nationwide process of consultation and crowdsourcing. The massive task of analyzing the inputs received and devising the new policy is challenged both by the volume of the inputs and the complexity of myriad issues across India. Formulating the new education policy must not, however, be based solely on inputs received that are affected by current challenges, constraints, and limitations. The National Education Policy must take a long-term view of the skills economy, evaluate the continued relevance of the current system of sequential education, and make radical recommendations on alternative models of education that would be better suited to the economy of the future. Piloting and experimenting in such new models of education must commence in the immediate future before the rapid obsolescence of the current system begins.
Medium-Term Applications of AI in the Public Sector
The government should identify public-sector applications in India where current advances in AI could make a significant impact toward building skills and capabilities domestic applications of AI. For example, New Delhi could:
Apply AI-based techniques to recognize patterns and learn about tax evasion behavior, in an effort to mine public databases to detect tax fraud and money obtained illegally with the goal of minimizing tax evasion and maximizing tax revenue
Use AI to scan records, recognize patterns of fraud, and correlate subsidy claims with other consumer data to help detect leakages of subsidies and to learn and better target direct benefits to citizens through interventions most relevant to them
Develop natural language–processing capabilities to automate multilingual communication and interactivity across a whole range of government services and interfaces, for example, crowdsourcing via MyGov.in, voice calls, automated helplines, and chatbots for the most routine citizen-government interactions
Use AI-based training and teaching software in various skilling and educational applications
In each of these areas, the government should collaborate with the private sector and university research labs to leverage existing technologies effectively and to rapidly create new technologies to address specific and well-defined problems.
India must view machine intelligence as a critical element of its national security strategy. At a time when AI is being viewed as a key component of foreign policy between the United States and Japan, with similar proposals of treatment being floated in India, the Indian government must formulate a national strategy on emerging technology trends with long-term strategic consequences.49 India must seriously evaluate the DARPA model of defense research in conjunction with private sector and university collaboration in order to create dual-purpose technologies with a scope large enough to allow for development of civilian technology applications. Specifically, the Cyber Grand Challenge model of DARPA needs to be examined for its successful incentivization of academia and the private sector.