How ready is India for the world of artificial intelligence (AI)? This question is answered in one of the latest global lists researched and created by Oxford Insights and commissioned by Canada’s International Development Research Centre. It is called the Government Artificial Intelligence Readiness Index.
The just released index measures 194 countries on a scale of 1-10 on how ready their governments are to embrace and make use of a world dominated by artificial intelligence. At the very top of the list is Singapore with a score of 9.186 and at the bottom is Somalia which scores 0.168. This kind of ranking is critical to understand the adoption of a technology which has, famously, been described as the ‘next electricity’ or as fundamental as electricity by Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera and former head of Google Brain. By some estimates, investments in AI are likely to rise at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 50.1% to hit $57.6 billion in 2021.
India comes in at number 17 (with a marking of 7.515), lower than the United Kingdom, the United States, Scandinavia and most of Europe, but, interestingly, it is ranked higher than China and Israel, and beats tech heavyweights such as South Korea and even Estonia, which has the highest internet penetration rate in the world.
In this essay I wish to argue that this is a ranking that India must aspire to steadily climb. There are multifold benefits to India’s climb on such a list. First, there is little doubt that artificial intelligence is set to be the dominant technology of the future. From writing email answers to deep intelligence and surveillance, AI would be at the forefront of everyday life and governance. India has already created a national strategy to ride the AI wave, which has been documented by Niti Aayog, the policy research arm of the Indian government, and use for AI is being contemplated in everything from weather data to the country’s infamously backlogged judicial system.
According to the business information collator Crunchbase, India has 538 AI companies including several that are already making a name in their respective fields. In logistics and transportation, for instance, companies like Netradyne and Locus have broken through the clutter. Bengaluru-based Locus raised $22 million in series B funding earlier this year from a clutch of investors including Tiger Global Management, Falcon Edge Capital, Blume Ventures and Exfinity Venture Partners.
Mad Street Den, the retail-automation-via-AI company which has a neuroscientist as one of the co-founders, has investment from Exfinity, along with money from Sequoia, Grow, and Array. One of the most interesting AI projects to come out of India is Niki which aims to bring millions of Indians who are most comfortable using Indian languages onto the world of internet-based transactions—including basic tasks like bill payments and booking tickets—using AI-enabled assistant systems.
Whether it is Embibe which seeks to better learning outcomes using AI (imagine AI-powering your preparations for the joint entrance test) or the satellite data-enabled Satsure, India has a host of up and ready AI startups.
But if India is to effectively compete in the AI race, it must make strides in research and education in this area. Now, India is producing too few artificial intelligence and machine learning PhDs (in low single digits from the annual global pool).
There are some who like to point out that there are many fundamental problems that India has in infrastructure and health, to mention two sectors, which need basic fixes instead of relying on high technology. While there is some merit in this argument, it must be understood that India needs what I would call leapfrogging technology. It cannot wait for every basic problem to be resolved before it takes the quantum leap to the next level of development. In the same way that India did not wait for landlines to be laid in every nook and corner of the country and instead leapt forward to mobile telephony which connected this vast country in a manner that perhaps landline phones never could have, India should not wait for Internet literacy to reach everywhere before it powers its AI investment.
In fact, as the experience of Niki.ai shows, it might be AI which helps bring the Internet to places in India which traditional Internet services might be too slow in reaching. Similar penetration in healthcare could be achieved by Indian AI-enabled healthcare companies like SigTuple Technologies (data-driven healthcare) or Tricog Health Services (cardiologist certified instant ECG solution).
Breaking into the top 10 in the AI readiness index should, therefore, be the next policy target for India.
Views are personal.