If you go by the pronouncements of the government, or talk to any corporate leader, you get the impression that India is moving rapidly on the Artificial Intelligence (AI) front. And that impression would not be entirely wrong if you take a very narrow view of the future of AI. But by focusing only on how AI can be applied for more efficient solutions, we are losing out on the opportunity to guide the direction of the technology while there is still time.

Over the past year and a half, the government has been focusing on how AI can improve governance and service delivery. Four committees set up by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology have submitted reports on issues such as data platforms, skilling and re-skilling, leveraging AI for national mission and cyber security, legal and ethical matter. 

The Niti Aayog has a discussion paper for a national strategy on AI. A couple of weeks ago, Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Union minister for Electronics and Information Technology, proudly announced that India had joined as a founding member of the Global Partnership of Artificial Intelligence (GPAI), an initiative to guide the responsible development of the technology.
Meanwhile, both established technology companies as well as start-ups seem to be working on AI solutions in areas ranging from health care to agriculture. Many old economy companies are deploying the technology to improve everything from customer satisfaction to product development. 

The issue is that both the government and companies are largely focused on AI applications, not research and development (R&D). And even in applications, much of the work is at the mid and lower ends of the spectrum, tweaking existing solutions and innovations available with technology giants such as Microsoft, Google, Amazon or IBM.

When it comes to actually setting the future direction of AI, we are nowhere. Our status as a founding member of GAPI does not give us a seat at the high table. We are not in the top 10 nations when it comes to AI research. 

Currently, the race is really between the US, China and the EU, with the US in a slender lead. Even Russia, where President Vladimir Putin recognised and flagged the dangers of falling behind in the AI race, is lagging. India has not even entered the race yet.

Once again, we are in danger of being on the wrong side of the techno-colonialism, just as we did in the last three waves of general purpose technology (GPT) revolutions that divided the countries around the world into the haves and the have-nots. Techno-colonialism is not a new concept having been first coined in the 1990s. It describes the situation where the country or countries that control a technology exploit other, poorer countries that depend on access to that technology.

GPTs are technologies that dramatically alter societies as well as economic dynamics. In the past four centuries, three GPT waves — the invention of the steam engine and its associated ecosystem starting in the 1700s, the generation and distribution and application of electric power that began in 1890s and the rise of information technology, which began in the 1970s, have ensured that the western world pulled ahead of the others.

AI is the fourth GPT and it will be all-pervasive in a decade or so. The grave danger is that our lack of planning about AI will push us further behind the US, China and the EU if we don’t move to remedy the situation now. 

In the US, the close collaboration between academia and corporations has ensured enough money for research which would pay off decades into the future. The US universities started work on AI when it was still a theoretical subject because the computing power to harness it did not exist. The US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency  also got into AI research early. As computing power increased and became cheaper, as did digital data generation and storage, AI has come out of labs and into real life applications. The US leads clearly in terms of AI patents.

China started much later but has invested big money to play catch-up. In 2017, it had come out with a detailed national plan to dominate the global AI order by 2030. It spent over $12 billion on AI research and development in 2017 alone and is now increasing spends further. 

The EU probably has more researchers in AI than its rivals. It has two disadvantages — it is not one country and its academic-business linkage is weak. But it adopts new technology quickly and has robust processes in place.

In India, neither the government nor the industry has focused on research. The government may have woken up to the benefits of AI but it still does not have a cogent long-term plan. The industry is only focusing on developing solutions based on platforms available. 

AI as a technology has still not reached maturity. That will come perhaps a decade down the line as another technology, Quantum Computing, moves out of the labs and into the real world. So, there is still hope if we formulate a long-term plan just as we do for other infrastructure plans. It will mean squeezing expenditure elsewhere to find money for R&D and also giving incentives to attract research talent and getting the biggest corporations involved. 

It is not an easy task and requires the government to take a long-term view. But unless we start now, we will forever remain a dependent rather than a leader in the technology stakes.

The writer is former editor of Business Today and Businessworld and founder and editor of Prosaicview, an editorial consultancy 

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