NCAI and the AI portal will complete the digital foundations that the government set out to build for a robust digital economy
By Srinath Srinivasan
As part of Interim Budget 2019, finance minister Piyush Goyal made an announcement regarding Artificial Intelligence (AI), one of the fastest growing technologies at the moment. He said that there is a consideration for a National Centre for AI (NCAI) and a National AI Portal. The proposal has sparked reactions in the Indian tech community—with startup founders to AI developers, tech institutions to AI investors all enthused by the market potential this move can unleash.
Varun Rathi, COO and co-founder, Happay, an expense management startup based in Bengaluru, points out that NCAI and the portal will complete the digital foundations that the government set out to build for a robust digital economy. He says, “UIDAI, NPCI and GST council has laid the foundation of the most important piece of the puzzle—getting the identity, demographic, financial and skills data recorded in a structured manner. An AI council can now start laying some ground rules and create a regulated and open platform for anyone to innovate and create value for India.”
Vikram Raju, AI Evangelist for Cognitif.ai, believes that the announcement is the first step to overcoming barriers in the AI business. He says, “There are a number of barriers in widespread AI adoption and the new AI portal will go a long way in democratising access to AI for the Indian industries. The main barriers are skill gap, cost and data issues.”
The announcement serves as a hope to address data related challenges—protection and privacy, which are substantiated by a number of AI entrepreneurs who support large businesses with their AI products and services. Ram Menon, founder and CEO at Avaamo, a conversational AI startup in Bengaluru, says, “The proposed NCAI is a good example to support the deployment of technology to corporate enterprises. Another aspect is managing privacy and user data which is a huge problem that has not been solved well. I think this is an area which will see a lot of changes in the coming years. One can expect companies, regulatory organisations and even governments to start pushing for more ‘protection’ of data.”
A large enterprise such as Raritan – a brand of Legrand, a French industrial group, believes that AI will impact data centre establishments and smart city projects in a significant manner and the proposal is a precursor to it. Sanjay Motwani, vice president, Raritan-Asia Pacific, says, “As announced, data consumption has already grown 50 times in the last five years and has made data centres critical for seamless data experience. Also, the government’s vision of digital economy 2030 for digitisation of government processes and private transactions will require huge capacity expansion by all stakeholders of data centres—including private and public sectors. India needs to invest substantially in building data centres, both hybrid and distributed, to achieve its vision of smart cities and digital India which will also aid the Make in India policy.”
As far as investors in AI are concerned, the proposed NCAI and the portal mark the streamlining of AI ecosystem and best industry practices in the country. Manish Singhal, founding partner, pi Ventures, a Bengaluru-based venture capital firm focused on AI businesses, says ”there is a greater need for the talent from different streams of activity to work together—be it in the government, academia or industry. The proposed centre should bring these forces together in a more coherent manner. We are also hopeful that with the launch of the centre and the portal, access to data gets easy, which is also something that the ecosystem can benefit from.”
Shekhar Sanyal, director and country head – India, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), a premiere society for engineering and technology, headquartered in the United Kingdom, believes that the NCAI and the portal will address the following questions in the coming years—What can be done to get the data AI-ready? What are the reskilling programmes to train the existing staff and the key one being—How trustworthy is AI? “With the number of startups increasing, the NCAI will help business leaders find solutions easily and create a strong talent pipeline in the industry. This is a big push to digitisation. The government has taken a right step in coming up with NCAI, which will ensure rapid adoption of AI. With countries such as China and US competing to dominate AI, India is set for the race with initiatives like this.”
This move will be significant for Indian AI businesses as India does not have homegrown tech giants like Google, IBM and Facebook, who pioneer AI technology in the USA. China has Huawei and Alibaba who have started leveraging this technology. Hence, this proposal by the government will set the stage for AI in India. According to a recent report by IDC, India is gearing up to be a part of the AI revolution—nearly 70% of organisations in India are expected to deploy AI solutions before 2020 and spending on AI by Indian companies may grow by 8-11% in 18 months.