Leading the AI Revolution: Time to take a Fresh Guard

India led the global IT wave for over two decades and is now knocking at the gate of an exciting world of Artificial Intelligence. As ‘providers’ of global IT services, we can tap this opportunity by leveraging our past record. As ‘users’ of technology, Indian players in Financial services, manufacturing, defence, e-commerce sectors need to leverage AI to improve operational efficiency and quality to stay competitive

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The AI Revolution in India

Artificial Intelligence (AI), is the new revolution. It is taking over simple, mundane tasks and even complex tasks to make life much simpler for human beings. This week’s exclusive guest writer for The Policy Times is Mr Alpesh Patel who is the founder of rSutra.com, the Advanced Analytics and AI Company. He shares his vision about the progress of AI to the world we live in today.

The AI revolution

The newly released iPhone X puts face recognition technology in everyone’s pocket (well all those who can afford it!). Earlier in May 2017 Google’s ‘AlphaGo AI’ defeated world champion Ke Jie in the ancient Chinese game of Go. Ke Jie who had declared that he could never lose to an Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’) machine looked visibly shaken after the defeat.

Increasingly, AI is enabling machines to do things which humans are generally better at. Such is the hype around AI that Vladimir Putin opined that “the nations that lead AI will rule the world” and even more dramatically, Elon Mask said, “Artificial Intelligence could lead to third World War.”

Back in India, Mahindra & Mahindra recently showcased their driverless tractor and HDFC Bank’s customer service chatbot ‘EVA’ was reported to be India’s smartest chatbot. Companies and start-ups are deploying machine learning for building credit scoring, designing employee engagement programs, improvising sales campaigns and diagnosing pathology reports.

If industrial revolution was the first disruption, Artificial Intelligence is being touted as the second revolution.

What is AI?

It started in 1997 when IBM’s DeepBlue defeated Gary Kasparov in chess in 1997. The world was shocked – machines were coming for humans. I too was convinced because that year I was setting up Asia’s first integrated steel plant which was supposed to be completely automated. That massive 3 MTA steel plant was automated by PLCs, SCADA and ERPs to such an extent that the entire plant could be run with just fifteen people per shift! Machines were indeed replacing humans. Science around Artificial Intelligence & Neural networks was developed as early as 1960s and was part of engineering curriculum even in 1990s. But in late 1990s, AI went on the backburner as the Internet wave kept the world busy with E-commerce ventures and mobile phone innovations. In early 2010s the Internet and cell phone revolutions had set things up for re-emergence of Artificial Intelligence. Thanks to millions of connected devices, ever mushrooming digital big data, neural network technology and rapid improvements in high processing power, today machines are all set to start “learning” human-like skills. The roles of machines have entered the next phase. If earlier machines performed routine (and repetitive) automation and record keeping tasks, future machines enabled advanced analysis and optimisation. Today, machines are being designed to learn from experiences and become intelligent enough to handle more complex tasks like driving, diagnosing patients, advising on legal aspects and taking customer queries. Further, machines will be able to develop human-like intuition and “learn how to learn”. So if a machine knows how to play Tennis, it will use that capability and learn how to play Squash by observing others play the game and by getting instructions.

Intelligence will become so embedded in machines that it will be available ‘on tap’ like electricity. Machines performing human-like tasks will have many advantages (compared to human workforce) like no HR management issues, no holidays, no fatigue and much higher processing power & memory compared to humans. With machines doing all intelligent things humans will need to go to mind gyms to challenge their brains and keep them sharp. If that sounds too unreal, imagine what humans who lived before the invention of wheel and automobile would have thought about the need to go to gymnasiums to keep the body physically fit.

India and AI

It is predicted that 30% to 50% of global jobs would be ripe to be taken over by robots in the next decade. World Bank has estimated that 69% of India’s jobs are threatened by automation. India’s cash cow, the IT and ITeS industry, which have enjoyed global dominance is under threat of losing global business to automation. In 1990s India’s inexpensive and talented workforce encouraged the world to migrate programming and business processing tasks to India to remain competitive. But with robotic process automation and AI, the pendulum could swing back and all those services might go back to their respective countries. For a country that banks on its massive young workforce, this should be alarming. No wonder, Transport minister Nitin Gadkari recently said that the government will not allow self-driving cars on Indian roads to arrest unemployment. But then, protecting humans from robots may not be the best idea and embracing AI may be a better strategy. Last year USA laid down policies for self-driving cars literally offering a share of roads to robots!

India does have strengths and advantages to ride the AI wave. To begin with, India has been an IT superpower and behemoths like TCS and Wipro have plenty – capital, access to the best brains, domain knowledge and access to international markets – to now lead the AI space. Most studies put India among top three to five countries in the world in terms of readiness and capabilities in AI space and Indian start-ups in AI space do look promising. However, we need to do much more considering the leaps USA and China are taking. China is going all out to win the AI race with government subsidies to AI players, billions of dollars of investments, army of researchers, backing by academic institutions and opening of labs in USA.

India led the IT wave of 1990s but winning the AI game will require taking a fresh guard. Unlike software programming, in the case of AI and Machine learning, finding innovative use cases of AI is more tightly linked with the development effort. Hence, we may not have the luxury of becoming backend coders based on standard BRDs and we will need to find innovative use cases of AI ourselves. Unlike before, we will need to go beyond being coders and establish our own products by creating more IP and ‘own’ the intelligent machines of tomorrow. India’s businesses, IT giants, academic institutions and government need to invest much more in AI in terms of research, developing pilots, investing in and coaching AI start-ups. The government recently setup a task force for promoting AI but the efforts need to go to the next level the way India setup IT parks and exported promotion zones during 1990s. Skill development in the area of AI needs to be ramped up to fill the gap of experts like Data Scientists. Indian IT giants should increase collaboration with other countries and leaders in AI space and look for acquisition of promising AI start-ups globally.

We led the global IT wave for over two decades and are now knocking at the gate of an exciting world of Artificial Intelligence. As ‘providers’ of global IT services, we can tap this opportunity by leveraging our past record. As ‘users’ of technology, Indian players in Financial services, manufacturing, defence, e-commerce sectors need to leverage AI to improve operational efficiency and quality to stay competitive. When leading corporates of the world train their neural networks to master complex skills, the youth of India don’t want toil to compete with smart machines and tire out the way Gary Kasparov and Ke Jie did.