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Does India need a Ministry of AI?

June 21, 2018 16:43 IST

Without our realisation, basic AI is already managing our personal and work lives through emails, work processes and even entertainment

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

The name lends itself to snarky, cynical and perhaps justified scepticism of the government.

India has suffered big governments for so long that it’s natural to resist the idea of yet another ministry.

 

The discussion paper on National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence (AI) by Niti Aayog is among the best researched documents to have been shared by a government agency.

While it does not go as far as to recommend a Ministry of AI, it does an impressive job of establishing the need for a national plan on AI for India.

Computerisation in the 1980s led India to build its economic, industrial and government structures on connected devices that we take for granted.

In the early days, officers in the national and state governments would eagerly apply to get a PC in their offices. Most officers could not use the PC and ended up hiring contractual “data entry operators” who took dictations and were mostly typists 2.0.

It took a couple of decades for governments and businesses to make computers part of their basic activity.

India stands at a similar point in its economic journey. Yesterday’s PC is today’s AI. Yesterday’s computerisation is today’s moment of adopting AI.

This in essence is what the strategy papers calls for. Changing the academic, entrepreneurial, research and governance systems to leverage the might of AI much as the PC did in the 80s.

To say AI is ubiquitous is already an understatement.

Without our realisation, basic AI is already managing our personal and work lives through emails, work processes and even entertainment.

However, India hasn’t made investments in AI at the scale required.

The key recommendation by the paper include setting up collaborative structures between academia, government and industry to create AI-based solutions for economic and development challenges.

This can’t be done by the government alone. Industry has the capital but not the risk taking ability.

Government can take the risk but doesn’t have inherent knowledge. Academic has the structure but not the talent.

Tech companies are innovative but don’t conform to regulation and are often misguided.

But someone has to bring them together. The report recognises this, “Many countries have instituted dedicated public offices such as Ministry of AI (UAE), and Office of AI and AI Council (UK) while China and Japan have allowed existing ministries to take up AI implementation in their sectoral areas.

"Not just national governments, but even local city governments have become increasingly aware about the importance and potential of AI and have committed public investments.”

So, does India need a Ministry of AI?

Perhaps not a ministry in the way we know it now. But India does need a coordinating and catalysing body that can guide, shape and enable the use of AI.

This body must be unique. It must include experts, practioners, users, innovators and researchers.

There is no perfect template but the construct of the Reserve Bank of India does come close to officials, bankers, academics coming together in one largely independent institution.

The white paper recommends creation of International Centres for Transformational AI, encouraging AI courses in schools and colleges, funding research and  common data platforms which function under national ethical and privacy norms.

Adoption of AI has to be a national mission. And it can only be done by a national body which is empowered, experienced and enabled.

India will have to be disruptive enough to create such a body which has the power of a national ministry, agility of a private enterprise but not the stifling processes of a government body.

A mission mode approach can ensure that India harnesses AI for good, as the discussion paper rightly recommends.

Pranjal Sharma
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