Women in Saudi Arabia need a male guardian to be granted citizenship, but the country is also the first in the world to grant citizenship to a female robot, named Sophia. Perhaps Elon Musk’s fears of robots overtaking humans are not unfounded. But as artificial intelligence is keenly debated at the highest levels of say, Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, what does it mean for India? The country, which embraced smartphones like no other, has shown remarkable openness to artificial intelligence as well. Look at Sriram Rajamani, managing director of Microsoft Research Labs India, who never really believed machines could one day possess intelligence this superior. Today, he heads a 50-person computer science lab in Bengaluru that holds research around AI as its core. For a labour-intensive country like ours, AI brought all the more scepticism and fear when it initially started making inroads. However, the inevitability of AI being the future has quelled a lot of such fears over the past year. As of January 2017, India had the second-highest automation potential in the world, as per an analysis by McKinsey Global Institute. Threats have been converted into opportunities, as more and more people have begun to embrace AI as the force that is going to drive them into the future. “Going forward, AI is the technology that will drive us. We have to embrace it,” says Rajamani. Conventional sectors such as financial services, automobiles and IT were the first to be hit by the AI wave. But as AI spreads its footprint, other sectors, too, are gaining momentum. Padmaja Alaganandan, partner and leader, people and organisation, PwC India, believes the agricultural and healthcare sectors will benefit the most in times to come. “AI will improve the quality of life for patients. In terms of healthcare, it brings access to remote locations with no trained doctors, where AI can help with diagnostics,” she says. Being an agrarian society, AI is being used to boost agriculture with uses such as monitoring of soil, temperature, microbes to determine the amount of water and nutrients needed. “We are using AI to monitor fields and give guidance to farmers on irrigation and pesticides, among other things,” explains Rajamani.
Developments in speech recognition is an interesting area researchers are betting big on. We all know how Siri on your iPhone can respond to your queries in English. Imagine a computer doing the same in your native language. “In India, people are mostly bilingual, so while conversing, they use a combination of languages—English and Hindi or Hindi and Bengali. Soon, you might be able to talk to your computer in such native languages as well,” Rajamani says. But will such multi-pronged growth allay the dual threats of job losses and machines taking over humans that AI has instilled in the minds of the masses? Arup Roy, research director, Gartner, believes AI will be a net job creator and not the opposite. “We expect AI augmentation to create 2.3 million new jobs by 2020. Also, the AI augmentation sector will be worth $2.9 trillion by 2021. So, as the adoption intensifies, AI will lead to formation of new types of jobs,” he clarifies. Contrary to fears of machines taking over humans, and eventually the planet, as Stephen Hawking time and again reiterates, industry leaders and experts consider AI to be more of a facilitator to improve efficiency. What is important is the sector in which it will be deployed. “The only fear with an AI-deployed system is its reaction to a situation for which it has not been prepared for. In such a situation, results will be based on the data that has been fed into a machine, which will lead to a biased outcome. One needs to develop a mechanism to transfer control to humans when such a scenario occurs,” Microsoft’s Rajamani adds.
What to expect in 2018
As many as 68.6% Indian organisations might deploy artificial intelligence before 2020 and AI spending by Indian companies may grow by 8-11% in 18 months, says a December report by Intel. Based on a survey conducted by research firm IDC India, the report said sectors like retail, services and healthcare are expected to lead, with an expected adoption rate of 74% over the next 18 months. The study surveyed 194 large Indian organisations across sectors to gauge the appetite towards the adoption of AI. “About 64% respondents believe that this technology can empower them in revenue augmentation and improved sales processes,” said Intel India MD (sales and marketing) Prakash Mallya. The report said 71% respondents are looking at increased process automation as a key benefit, which could drive spike spends on this technology by 2020. It added that nearly 75% anticipate benefits in business process efficiency and employee productivity with AI. However, 76% of the companies are facing or believe that they will face a shortage of skilled personnel to harness the power of AI. Earlier this year, Intel India had said it will train 15,000 people in AI by April 2018.
As per a recent report by KellyOCG, the demand for AI and machine learning specialists in India is expected to see a 60% rise by 2018. Explaining, Thammaiah BN, managing director, Kelly Services India, says, “Adoption of AI will create new avatars of old roles and new jobs, such as chief data intelligence officers, data scientists and data analysts. The top five locations to find AI talent are Bengaluru, NCR, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad.” However, concerns continue with high cost of solutions, shortage of skilled professionals, unclear return on investment, and cybersecurity as the main challenges. How well India makes the transition to AI also depends on the governance policies adopted. “We need governance on how AI is used. We often talk about responsible AI, where there is enough governance taken into account on how AI is used and where there is consideration on how we move towards AI,” says Padmaja Alaganandan, partner and leader, people and organisation, PwC India.