Although the government’s initiatives on ‘Start-up India’ have not yielded much success, one front where it has outshined has been artificial intelligence. Ranked thirteen in a recent survey of AI forward countries, India has been home to over two hundred start-ups working in the field of AI innovations. Not only the private sector, but the government has also been making headwinds concerning AI adoption. Recently, it announced incorporation of artificial intelligence and machine learning to streamline the legislative business of both the upper and the lower house. Even the state governments of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have been trying to incorporate cloud-based solutions to smoothen the administrative process. More important, and noteworthy, have been the efforts of NITI Aayog towards artificial intelligence. The advisory body, in addition to announcing an AI-based crop-yield prediction model, has launched initiatives like #AIforAll to make technology more pervasive. Last year, it presented a discussion paper on National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence. NITI Aayog identified five sectors—healthcare, agriculture, education, smart cities and smart mobility—linking each to a government program. For instance, in the case of smart mobility, it tied the modernization of railways with safety features incorporating the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence. The push towards AI is in light of recent developments on the global stage. As the likes of China move forward in the field of artificial intelligence, it is prudent for India to do the same. So, the government’s move would augur well if it can generate enough start-ups to become a part of the global value chain.
More important, as countries like Australia, Ghana, Israel and China move to incorporate new technologies, India can also leap forward a whole generation of innovations. Besides, AI can solve problems that have been deemed unsolvable with the current resources. Take the case of agricultural productivity and farm efficiency. As the discussion paper suggests, IBM’s technology can combine with data from soil health card, ISRO’s remote sensing satellites and IMD’s weather trends to provide the right prescription to farmers. Another area where the government has made strides, but needs to do more, is of propagating collaboration. The hackathon culture promoted by NITI Aayog and state governments have helped citizens, more importantly, students, become a part of the administrative process. Although India still lags behind countries like US and Israel with regards to participative governance, the growth in terms of events has been tremendous. Just in the case of NITI Aayog, the advisory body has sponsored over half a dozen hackathons in the last year. If we were to include government-sponsored innovation, this number would more than double. While this may seem a futile exercise, the idea certainly has merit. Even if the suggestions are basic in terms of implementation, hackathons can be one of the key drivers to promote a culture of innovation, especially when college-promoted incubation centers have done little in this regard.
Although most engineering institutes have incubation centers, their contribution in hatching successful start-ups has been minimal. This, even though start-ups in recent years have seen a phenomenal rise in funding. The Atal Innovation Mission was set-up to change this, but college ratings like NAAC still do not give higher preference to colleges that have had a successful start-up. A change in policy to favor start-up budding colleges can alter this. An excellent example to follow would be of Stanford University. Being the alma mater of many start-ups, Stanford has successfully been able to fund innovation, by taking stakes in their enterprises —Google is one of them—for the use of the university’s facilities and resources. Japan, now, is following a similar example to propel innovation. Indian universities and the government, for their better part, need to do the same. Not only AI, but the push also needs to come for robotics. While China and the US have been lapping up their demand for industrial robots, India is still far behind. The country needs to catch-up before it loses out on the comparative advantage of robotic manufacturing. As the world turns to more technology, the answer is not to step back in fears of job losses but to move forward. As the country looks to another elections, it would be futile for any party to stop the march of technology in the wake of resurgent populism. So, the best the government can do is carry forward its work on innovation and extend it to other sectors.
The author Ishaan Gera is Research scholar (economics), Delhi Technological University. – Financial Express