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A peculiar problem plagues India's AI roadmap

By Neha Alawadhi & Arup Roychoudhury
June 05, 2019 19:56 IST
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National artificial intelligence unit stuck for lack of anchor department.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

The government’s plan to set up a national artificial intelligence centre is stuck because it is unclear which department will spearhead the initiative.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) said in January such a centre would be set up by July.


The then finance minister, Piyush Goyal, announced in February the centre would be developed as a hub along with centres of excellence, for which nine priority areas had been identified.

However, he did not mention who would execute the larger plan.

Last month, it was reported that the NITI Aayog had circulated a Cabinet note, asking for Rs 7,500 crore for three years to set up an AI framework.

Last year, four panels set up by MeitY evaluated the use of AI for citizens, such as setting up a data platform, skilling and reskilling, research and development, and examining the challenges involving legal, regulatory, ethical and cybersecurity aspects.

“Based on what the four committees gave us, we sent a proposal to implement a national programme at Rs 470-480 crore.

"For approval it went to expenditure (finance committee), which asked us about the difference between NITI Aayog and our estimate. We have requested them to resolve this,” said a senior official at MeitY.

The NITI Aayog released a discussion paper in June last year on the “National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence”.

MeitY’s reports have not been made public.

A senior finance ministry official who was part of the Expenditure Finance Committee meetings related to the requests made by the NITI Aayog and MeitY on the AI centre said both the departments had been told to get clarity on the matter.

“We cannot have two different departments requesting two different allocations for the same project and scheme,” said the official.

The person said in the case of an AI centre, the nodal ministry would be MeitY.

“These matters should come under MeitY, wherein the NITI Aayog will provide inputs if required.

"The finance ministry is likely to clear MeitY’s proposal,” the official said.

The NITI Aayog could not be reached for comment.

"Even if the NITI Aayog gets the allocation it has asked for, it will have to outsource the work because it does not have the expertise to carry out a task of this magnitude.

"MeitY, on the other hand, is the line ministry and will be able to coordinate much better with industry, academia and other stakeholders," said an executive.

AI is fast becoming as much a political and economic issue as it is a matter of technology.

The US, Canada, the European Union, and China are among those that have comprehensive policy statements on AI and are shaping the global conversation.

India, in spite of its vast and diverse data sets, a prerequisite for robust AI systems, is not part of many mainstream discussions and deliberations on AI.

Last month, the Global AI Council, set up by the World Economic Forum, was announced, and will be co-chaired by Microsoft president Brad Smith and Kai-Fu Lee, chief executive officer of Sinovation Ventures and former president of Google China.

Other members of the Global AI Council include Element AI, IEEE, IBM, Future of Life Institute, and ministers from the UK, Colombia, and the United Arab Emirates, according to VentureBeat.

This situation is similar across several other ongoing deliberations on setting standards for AI, where India has little to no representation.

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Neha Alawadhi & Arup Roychoudhury in New Delhi
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