India is behind Europe and China when it comes to a National AI Strategy. The annual budgets make some announcements. But what exactly is happening on ground?
As a pre-election Union Budget, this was supposed to be populist. Finance Minister Piyush Goyal did not fail to woo common people by offering support for farmers and raising tax exemption limit for small taxpayers. However, as it has been in all these years, technology and digitalization got its due attention, what with the FM announcing one lakh digital villages and rural industrialization leveraging digital technologies.
However, the tech-related announcement that is bound to catch attention and draw a lot of interest among the international community is the one around artificial intelligence (AI).
In the last year’s budget speech, the then FM Arun Jaitley had announced that NITI Aayog would initiate a national program to direct the government’s “efforts in the area of artificial intelligence, including research and development of its applications.”
In June 2018, the NITI Aayog released a discussion paper on National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence. The paper, prepared after studying the national AI strategies of multiple countries, recommended a set of priorities for the nation and what would be the government role in each of these tasks.
The paper looked like an academic exercise and though the industry welcomed it—as there was a lot for the industry in it—it clearly lacked a strategic direction. It was the theoretical possibilities combined with a set of actions and lots of low-level planning. It had neither the ambition of China nor the will to effectively cope with the socio-economic changes emanating from AI, as planned by EU’s AI policy.
“In order to take the benefits of Artificial Intelligence and related technologies to the people, a National Program on ‘Artificial Intelligence’ has been envisaged by our Government,” said FM Piyush Goyal in his budget speech today.
“This would be catalyzed by the establishment of the National Centre on Artificial Intelligence as a hub along with Centres of Excellence. Nine priority areas have been identified. A National Artificial Intelligence portal will also be developed soon,” he added.
The NITI Aayog paper had recommended setting up of a National Centre on AI and had also recommended setting up of an AI Database portal for easy dissemination of information on projects being implemented via collaboration among government-academia-industry-researchers-start-ups to enable resource matching.
It is not known if the FM has referred to the same portal or is it some new AI portal with a wider scope for itself. Also, the FM has not elaborated on the nine priority areas, as the NITI Aayog paper had identified five focus areas—Healthcare, Agriculture, Education, Smart Cities & Infrastructure and Smart Mobility & Transport—for AI intervention.
In each of these areas, the paper had recommended setting up of International Centres for Transformational AI (ICTAIs) and had urged the government to invite Expression of Interests (EoIs) from industry players to lead each of these sectoral ICTAIs, in collaboration with the government and academia.
In September, the NITI Aayog, Intel and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) announced that they had agreed to collaborate on setting up a model ICTAI for developing and deploying AI-led application-based research projects.
Beyond this announcement, there has been no public announcement around AI as far as government is concerned. However, it is learnt that the Ministry had sought plans from National E-Governance Division (NEGD) how to go about setting up of National Centre on AI. However, it has not progressed beyond that, though involving external organizations is being actively considered.