PM Modi wants to make AI work for India: We need a cogent policy for that

PM Narendra Modi appears to be an optimist when it comes to artificial intelligence and what it can do for people. 
Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to be an optimist when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI) and what it can do for people, a view not shared by everybody -- last year, Elon Musk had said that AI needed regulation as it posed a "fundamental risk to the existence of human civilisation". 

PM Modi, on the face of things, appears to echo what Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said about AI: "...I am optimistic...." However, the Prime Minister's understanding of the benefits of AI involves an important caveat: that its future will depend upon and be driven by "human intentions". 

What PM Modi has to say on AI

1) AI as a tool to fight poverty, disabilities: In broad terms, the prime minister believes that AI should be used to improve the lives of farmers, those struggling with poverty, and the needy. He said as much during his February 25 Mann Ki Baat radio address to the nation, just a week after he had spoken on the topic of AI in Mumbai.  

PM Modi said that he had attended a programme on AI at the University of Mumbai where he "urged the scientists and researchers to make use of AI to make the lives of the 'divyangs' simpler". 

2) AI has vast potential: From disaster management to providing better healthcare, the Prime Minister's address showed that he was keen to tap AI. In his address, Modi said that through AI, "we can be alerted about natural calamities. Can we help the farmers to know about their crops return? Can it be used to improve the reach of the medical services and help in curing the diseases in more advanced way?"  

3) Human objectives and intentions will determine AI's benefits: Along with his optimism, he also provided a clear caveat: human objectives would guide the outcome of technology. "Science and technology are value neutral," the Prime Minister said, adding, "They do not have their own intelligence but it depends on us what work we want to take from that machine." 

"The technology and machines should be used for the betterment of the humankind," he said. 

A week before the Mann Ki Baat address, in Mumbai, Prime Minister Modi had outlined something similar: that one could not pursue technological progress at the "expense of further increasing the difference between societies over access to technology". Instead, the he said, its evolution should be based on "the ethic of 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas'". 

Stating that the road ahead for AI would be driven by "human intentions", PM Modi said that our intention would "determine the outcomes of artificial intelligence." He urged that AI should be Made in India and "made to work for India" to avoid 'human redundancy'.  

4) Getting our act together: However, while statements can underline intentions and provide broad direction, what does India really need to do on the ground to tap the benefits of AI? Further, while the world, and certain billionaires, argue over the wider ethical implications of AI, machine learning and automation, what are India's policy priorities when it comes to such technology? 

One particular area that needs special attention was spelled out by the Prime Minister himself. On February 18, while inaugurating the Wadhwani Institute of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Mumbai's Kalina Campus, Modi had said that while productivity will increase with AI, there are rising apprehensions of 'human redundancy', too, as the human mind and machines will compete directly.  

India needs "a cogent policy" for innovation in AI, says Shyamal Majumdar, while writing for the Business Standard. He brings up two issues: the education system and skills & jobs. 

The government, according to Majumdar, must partner with universities and start-ups to quickly create regional innovation clusters for manufacturing automation and robotics. Further, it must incorporate systems for finding out the skills that employers will come to value in the future and promote cloud infrastructure capacity. 

"China has commissioned a private firm to lead the charge in setting up an online national engineering laboratory to implement deep learning technologies in collaboration with universities and research institutes. China recently issued guidelines on AI development wherein it aims at becoming a global innovation centre in this field by 2030 with an estimated total output value of AI industries at $148 billion," writes Majumdar, adding, "India should wake up before it's too late."

5) Some initial steps appear to have been taken: In September last year, IT industry body Nasscom said that India has formed a policy group to study new technologies and recommend a framework for their adoption. "We all are currently working out on a policy framework on AI," Nasscom vice-president K S Viswanathan said.  

According to Viswanathan, a policy group has been set up by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. Further, this group has representation from the academia, which has done extensive research on the subject, and Nasscom, which will provide the industry's perspective.

The focus of this group will be on workforce skilling, privacy, security, and the fixing of responsibility in the event of any untoward incidents. "We have to create a thought leadership on what is this programme all about, what is the likely impact. Create a thought leadership when AI becomes a reality, what are the elements and sub-elements which need to be taken care of, how do we take care of that," Viswanathan said. 

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