Can India use the power of artificial intelligence (AI), the growing number of AI startups, and state-funded research to hasten its development goals?

What if we could connect two seemingly disparate but vital parts of our economy—India’s ‘aspirational districts’ and the work of its myriad AI scientists and organisations?

The ‘Aspirational Districts’ Programme of the government is an ambitious plan to track, in granular detail, development in 117 districts across 28 states that need most assistance. These districts need to boost economic and developmental indices through a combination of state-led and market-driven assistance.

The question in this essay—is it possible to leverage AI in the transformation of these ‘aspirational districts’ into what I would call ‘investible districts’, or regions which would be a natural attraction for investment, that is, investment-ready districts.

But how can this mapping of need with AI-technology be done? One fundamental way is perhaps by considering that the parameters in which the aspirational districts need to rise are termed sustainable development goals (SDGs) by the United Nations. These SDGs lay down standards to meet in everything from removing hunger to tackling climate change and gender justice.

From ensuring an easier methodology for farmers to receive insurance money when crops falter (as pointed out in a recent essay by Adil Zainulbhai, head of the Quality Council of India) to delivering low-cost healthcare checks and critical voice-driven transactions in Indian languages, the use of artificial intelligence could be a simple solution.

One way to achieve this, of course, is to map the current levels of expertise in AI firms in India and the overlap of their work onto the fulfilment of SDG goals. Once this is done, then the work of these firms could potentially be rolled out as pilot projects in the aspirational districts.

So, if one were to map the SDGs alongside AI firms operating in the Indian ecosystem and their expertise, how might that look like? Perhaps something like this:

SDG 3 (Good health and well-being): Niramai, the innovative AI-driven low-cost breast cancer diagnostic solution that seeks to democratise breast cancer analysis in the country. And Bengaluru-based SigTuple, which uses AI to conduct screening and diagnosis of blood, semen and urine, and retinal scans and X-rays for large numbers of people at a fraction of the usual cost.

SDG 4 (Quality education): Hyderabad-based Voxta, and EnglishHelper, a start-up based in New Delhi which uses AI to help students learn English better.

SDG 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure): Niki.ai seeks to bring the power of voice commands for a host of everyday tasks from purchases to services ordering for people most comfortable using voice commands, thus democratising the power of the Internet to a world of non-English users in India. It has more than 2 million customers and provides more than 20 services.

SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy): ThingsCloud is a start-up that uses AI to predict the demand, supply, and interflow of electricity in large habited spaces like towns and cities and provides solutions to boost energy conservation by at least 20%-30%. The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) has recognised ThingsCloud as the Emerging IoT (Internet of Things) Startup of the Year in 2019.

SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities): Indore-based Smart Cities Wheel uses AI in urban planning solutions and in building special purpose vehicles to predict, dissect, and manage urban issues more efficiently.

You get the picture. There are 17 such SDGs and for many of them, AI-based work is happening in India which could be connected to, and pilots designed to assist in the aspirational districts programme. Such a connection could have a revolutionary impact on India’s growth.

Views are personal.

The author is a historian and a multiple award-winning author.

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