India’s Task force on Artificial Intelligence


What it means, who will run it and why it matters to the country’s future

The ministry of commerce and industry recently set up a ‘Task Force on Artificial Intelligence’ to bolster India’s economic transformation through Industry 4.0. For the uninitiated, that’s a term many use to define the latest trends in industrial production, such as automation, Internet of Things (in English, that means an ecosystem of web-connected devices from refrigerators to the humble plug), Cloud Computing and Big Data Analytics. Industry 4.0 plays a significant role in the fourth industrial revolution, which was the headline topic of World Economic Forum in 2016. According to the commerce ministry’s website, the task force will submit ‘concrete and implementable recommendations for government, industry and research institutions ‘. The task force, chaired by Dr V Kamakoti of IIT Madras, is a decent mix of technologists, industrialists and bureaucrats.

To understand the raison d’etre of the AI Task Force, we must know a bit about the recent ‘trends’ in industrial revolution. In 2016, the World Economic Forum had its main focus on fourth industrial revolution. It focused mainly on integrating technologies of the virtual world into manufacturing. On cue, India’s Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion soon brought out a concept paper on a future-ready industrial policy. The paper has emphasized on the need of adopting smarter technologies in manufacturing. To achieve this, India needs to analyze its readiness in adopting these technologies. The country also needs to allay the fears of large scale job losses due to automation. And India is alone in envisaging such a future. The German government has also set up a similar strategic initiative to establish the country at the forefront of these revolutionary changes happening across the globe.

Big shift

Now, India’s task force on AI needs to be viewed in the context of the large scale changes happening across the globe thanks to the impact of AI, IoT and Cloud Computing. The Make In India initiative is expected to lead India’s charge in this new scenario. Most developing economies are trying to leverage advancements in these technological areas, to solve a large set of administrative and infrastructure-related issues. The Smart City initiative in India attempts to leverage IoT and other related technologies to build a sophisticated urban environment. The Indian Institute of Science is building India’s first smart factory, a manufacturing unit with automation capabilities and other internet integration, with the help of Boeing. Bosch, which is also playing a major role in Germany’s push in the Industry 4.0 landscape, is also planning to set up smart manufacturing units across 18 of its manufacturing units in India.

Automating, and digitising manufacturing process, is going to pay rich dividends for the investors. This is not just about introducing robots to create efficient an efficient assembly line. Fourth industrial revolution is expected to change the way we live, by making the lines between our digital, biological and physical lives disappear. India’s task force on Artificial Intelligence will work with NITI Aayog, UIDAI, defense research and various ministries of science and technology. Aadhar came in for lot of criticism and was seen as an invasion of privacy. Those who advocate aadhar see it as a solution to ensure that India’s social security measures are available to those who deserve it. Project Insight which was aimed at reading social media behaviour to find tax offenders was seen as a further step in invasion of privacy. Good or bad, these are instances of governments making use of technology to get better at governance.

There is a case for India to take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution. The recent boom in Indian economy is largely due to its success in the software industry. India forms a giant back office of the entire world. But can we rely on software alone for economic growth? Recent developments, some of which are direct impact of Industry 4.0, tell us that it is not reasonable to rely on IT/ITeS alone. This could be a chance for India to strengthen its manufacturing sector by utilizing technological innovations in the fields of Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and Cloud Computing. Internet of Things proposes connected homes and sophisticated home networks which are then connected to the larger internet. The sensors and tracking devices which generate more and more data to provide better services and get better at predicting consumer behaviour is going to enable providers raising their satisfaction element with consumers. India will have to build technology know how and look at establishing start ups and innovation hubs if it wants to compete with the world in this new scenario. The task force could be seen as a baby step in that direction. However, there are still doubts on how information and control in wrong hands could upset the democratic structures of the country.

Focus on needs

Evgeny Morozov, a writer who studies the socio political implications of technology, has written at length about how these kind of technological innovations based on big data and large computing power could be detrimental to the future of governments. Morozov has published some important works in these areas, ‘The Net Delusion’ and ‘To Save Everything – Click here’.  He debunks the myth of an utopia which technology promises through internet and the algorithms that put politics to work. According to him, these technological innovations could also be the result of Silicon Valley’s political aspirations. Algorithmic regulation which takes over the governance would also mean the end of politics the way we see it, according to Morozov. Silicon Valley talks highly about algorithmic regulation. We are looking at a future where billions of connected devices with unimaginable amount of processing power and data storage capacity and algorithms built on top of these could dictate terms on how humanity conducts itself. How would the debates on humanity’s basic needs progress then?

Industrial automation is expected to obsolete jobs which require lesser skill. In economies such as India where digitisation is still in its nascent state and inequality is threatening survival of the low and lower middle classes, a wide adoption of smart manufacturing processes could cause a humanitarian crisis. Ensuring that benefits of technology is available to the masses is an area of concern given our present socio-economic condition. An inclusive vision is needed in technology adoptions which are as disruptive as Industry 4.0. This would be one area, a difficult one, for the AI task force to lay emphasis on.

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