Is India’s Strategic Plan for AI Credible?

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Many see the future competition between US, China, and India (the three largest economies in the world in terms of PPP and soon also to be in absolute terms) about the leadership in artificial intelligence (AI). This new technology could change society in fundamental ways, eliminate many jobs, revolutionize education, and perhaps even lead to machines that are conscious (personally I don’t think this last thing will happen).

If we leave aside the more dramatic consequences of AI, and see it as a generic term that includes automation, robotics, autonomous vehicles, search and reasoning technology, some think that India stands a good chance in this race due to its long experience in the IT sector.

It is not surprising, therefore, that there is much interest in the Discussion Paper published in Delhi on India’s national strategy for AI (we call it the Plan).

The Plan is incremental and innocuous, just the thing a committee of bureaucrats would dream up. It doesn’t appear to have anything in it to create an ecosystem that will facilitate the development of new technology.

Its basic recommendation is the funding of new centers in computer science. Specifically, it proposes a Centre of Research Excellence (CORE) for theory, and International Centers of Transformational AI (ICTAI) for applications. A formal marketplace is envisioned for data collection and aggregation, data annotation and deployable models. There is hope that a common platform called the National AI Marketplace (NAIM) will emerge. But that is unlikely as different actors will continue to use established platforms.

The Plan appears to be naïve in its aspirations, somewhat like the approach behind India’s much-touted Aakash Tablet just a few years ago.

For comparison, let’s see how China is implementing its own strategic vision for AI. As a nation with global ambitions, it has sought to set standards for AI as the technology moves forward. The Chinese correctly determined early on that you don’t even get into the game unless you want to be the best in the world. India, in contrast, just wishes to catch up, which is the strategy for failure.

According the New York Times, China intends to dominate mobile technology, supercomputers, artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge industries, and it has made huge investment in these sectors which it considers are crucial to the country’s government, military and economy.

China has its own social networks and search engine and it has created the world’s most advanced e-commerce and logistics systems. It is developing sophisticated algorithms to monitor activity on social networks, and it regulates access to the Internet by what is being called the Great Firewall.

Facebook, Twitter, Google, and American media are all inaccessible from within the Great Firewall. More recently, WhatsApp, and LinkedIn have also been blocked.

China’s AI ambitions go hand-in-hand with its program to develop world-class universities, and India has nothing comparable. China already has 11 universities in the top 100 list of 2018 QS World Rankings, while India has none.

India’s lack of depth in higher education and research is a big handicap that will have adverse effect on any plan, even the modest aspirations outlined in the document.

India’s ongoing AI projects have limited scope and to the extent there is work on new projects, they serve Western companies. India may not wish to follow the Chinese model, but it does need to create an independent ecosystem that is a vital part of the world system.

To accomplish this, India’s strategic vision must identify grand challenges with clear description of how progress in them will be measured.

As it stands, the Plan is overly modest and the path outlined in it will do nothing to alter India’s strategic situation with respect to China and the US.

AI Policy Imperatives

India has hitched its wagon to international companies for search and social media applicatons. While it is to everybody’s advantage to be part of open world systems, there are disadvantages related to security because these companies are not sufficiently regulated.

India needs to develop the necessary legal framework to protect the restrict the ways data is collected and handled. The information about what is being searched by whom can leak sensitive information of critical importance. It is necesary that the search engine used for sensitive applications provides anonymity to the users.

It must also be ensured that the data is stored securely and the network is resilient to node and link failures beyond the borders.

If data is the new oil, it should be ensured that consumers benefit from the monetization of their data by the technology companies.

Incentives should be provided to Indian companies to develop AI applications.

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सुभाष काक. Author, scientist.

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Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak

सुभाष काक. Author, scientist.

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