AI for All: How India is carving its own path in the global AI race
In November 2022, India marked a new milestone in its journey as it took the G20 chair and became the the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence’s (GPAI)chair in waiting.
At this point, we must understand how the world’s largest democracy sees frontier technologies such as AI playing a role in its journey towards becoming a global economic superpower.
When it comes to technology, India has been a paradox. The country developed advanced digital computers early and has highly advanced and cost-effective space programmes. Yet until just a few decades ago, the nation lagged in its digital transformation and accessibility.
Today, India’s government is pushing to put digital technologies at the core of its inclusive development, partly through widespread internet access and one of the world’s most affordable data pricing schemes. As a result, some fantastic solutions for India’s age-old problems are coming to light:
- The Unique Identification Authority of India and its Aadhar programme
Aadhar is currently the world’s largest biometric ID system. It is a 12-digit unique identity number that India’s citizens and resident foreign nationals can obtain based on their biometric and demographic data. One of its predominant uses is to streamline Direct Benefit Transfer schemes where the subsidy money is directly transferred to an Aadhaar-linked bank account. Today, Aadhar also acts as a major proof of identity in India.
- The Unified Payments Interface(UPI)
Unified Payments Interface (UPI) is a mobile-based instant payment system developed by India’s government to facilitate inter-bank peer-to-peer (P2P) and person-to-merchant (P2M) transactions. As of November 2022, UPI had nearly 6 billion monthly transactions and a total value of over Rupees 10 trillion among 260 million users.
- The CoWIN Platform
CoWIN, or Covid Vaccine Intelligence Network, is an Indian government web portal for COVID-19 vaccination registration. It displays booking slots for the COVID-19 vaccine available in nearby areas. Users can schedule vaccine appointments on the website and obtain vaccination certificates, which act as Vaccine Passports during the COVID-19 pandemic and can be stored in Digilocker.
DigiLocker is an Indian online digitization service provided by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) under the Digital India initiative. DigiLocker provides every Aadhaar holder with an account in the cloud to access authentic documents/certificates such as driver’s licenses, vehicle registration, and academic mark sheets in digital format from the certificates’ original issuers. It also provides 1GB of storage space with each account to upload scanned copies of legacy documents.
The Unified Mobile Application for New-age Governance (UMANG) app is another MeitY initiative that gives access to central and state government services. The app is for Indian citizens and offers hundreds of services, including payment, registration, information search and application forms.
Numerous forecasts suggest AI will add USD 967 billion to India’s economy by 2035 and USD 450–500 billion to its GDP by 2025. This will account for 10% of the country’s USD 5 trillion GDP target, making it a crucial tool for economic growth.
Building ‘AI for All’
India began its AI journey with social empowerment and inclusion at the core. Thanks to scalability, AI can solve numerous age-old problems that have plagued the country for decades. While leading global economies such as US and China are engaged in an “arms race” to become the ultimate AI Superpower, India consciously focused on inclusion and empowerment with a programme called “AI for All”.
In the past few years, India’s public and private sectors have produced AI-powered tools that improve the delivery of health and security services, affecting millions of lives. These include:
- The MyGov Corona Helpdesk ( from MeitY). At the pandemic’s peak, with misinformation and fake news being circulated on social media about the COVID pandemic, the country’s citizen engagement platform, MyGov, the Ministry of Health and the AI startup Haptik launched MyGov Corona Helpdesk chatbot. The goal of this chatbot is to bring awareness to COVID-19 and prepare India to combat it.
- ‘e-Paarvai’ by the Tamil Nadu State Government. Developed to overcome the shortage of ophthalmologists, e-Paarvai is an intelligent AI-powered mobile application that detects cataracts.
- ‘Uzhavan’ by the Tamil Nadu State Government. The ‘Uzhavan’ app helps farmers to diagnose pest infections in their crops and provide remedial measures. A farmer can click a picture of a pest-infected crop even with a low-cost mobile camera and upload images to the Uzhavan app. Once the photo is uploaded, the inbuilt intelligent system analyses and identifies the pest and sends the remedial measures as a text message to the farmer’s phone in the local language, Tamil.
- Realtime Digital Authentication of Identity system by Telangana State Government. Telangana’s state government has implemented the Realtime Digital Authentication of Identity (RTDAI) to authenticate pensioners during the COVID pandemic. Beneficiaries have to take a photo and upload it to an app which verifies the image using an artificial intelligence-based liveness check solution, big data and machine learning-based demographic check solution, and deep learning-based image comparison solution. The AI, ML and deep learning solutions quickly check the details submitted by the user with the information piled up in the public data system.
- Crowd Estimation and Management tool by Telangana State Government. Telangana police successfully used the Crowd Estimation and Management tool to manage crowds at the India vs West Indies T20 match in Hyderabad in 2019 and the Medaram Jatara Festival in 2020.
Similarly, the Ministry of Electronics and IT launched initiatives focused on taking advantage of the AI revolution in the coming years:
- India AI, the national AI portal
- The YUVAi programme for skilling students from government schools
- The soon-to-be-implemented National Programme on Artificial Intelligence
- National Semiconductor Mission
- National Data Governance Framework Policy
- New Digital Personal Data Protection Bill
India is becoming a global hub for AI
India possesses a few unique strengths related to AI technologies. Driven AI entrepreneurs power their skilled AI workforce and thriving start-up ecosystem. Globally, India is on top for skill penetration and has an AI-ready market valued at $6.4 billion. In 2020, Indian companies were ranked second in AI adoption in the Asia Pacific.
India has also established itself as an AI research and innovation powerhouse. Since 2010, the country has ranked fourth largest producer of AI-relevant scholarly papers and 8th in the world regarding AI patents filed in 2020.
India also boasts one of the most thriving start-up ecosystems in the world, with dozens of unicorns deploying AI-powered tools in their core services. They have widened the scope of India’s AI strategy to build tools for India and the world, especially the global south.
“We want India to become the global hub of AI… Our bright minds are already working towards it”, stated Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2020, highlighting India’s goal to become a global leader in responsible AI for social empowerment and inclusion.
Here are just a few of the hundreds of Indian start-ups building AI tools and products to address national and global socio-economic challenges:
- Niramai is an AI start-up that provides affordable and fast breast cancer screening at clinics in rural India, where there is a significant shortage of radiologists and labs. It has 26 international patents on thermal imaging-based cancer diagnosis, many of which are now available on the global market, including in the UK, the US and Japan.
- CropIn is an intuitive, intelligent, self-evolving system that delivers future-ready farming solutions to the entire agricultural sector. It delivers decision-making tools that bring consistency, dependability and sustainability to agri-businesses. With capabilities of live reporting, analysis, interpretation and insight that span across geographies, CropIn is digitizing every farm and data-managing the entire ecosystem.
- Aquaconnect is a company founded in 2017 that works with shrimp and fish farmers to increase farm production, financial access, and market connectivity. They claim to help fish and shrimp farmers maximize income by connecting them to smart farm management tools, financial services, and customers. They have been working with more than 60,000 fish and shrimp farmers to navigate the challenges of aquaculture through an integrated tech-driven approach.
- CogniABle is a machine learning assistive technology for early detection and the affordable treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder. CogniAble was founded by scientists from IIT-Delhi, paediatricians, psychologists, and BCBAs to provide people with high-quality, affordable management of autism-related diseases. Its artificial intelligence-powered operations aid in the early diagnosis and treatment of autism.
- Gnani develops voice assistants and speech analytics products for multiple languages, including Indic languages. Gnani’s speech-to-text engine is currently available in Indian English, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Malayalam, Punjabi, Nepali, and Urdu. Its ASR engine can be deployed across industries ranging from contact centres to E-commerce. Gnani’s solutions include enterprise customer care automation, voice assistants, and voice biometrics.
India’s unique need for language tech is driving innovation and social change
Language technology is one of the critical areas where the Indian government sees AI making a breakthrough. In India, hundreds of languages are spoken, which makes knowledge sharing, skilling and access to information a considerable challenge. According to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Natural Language Processing ( NLP) will strongly impact India’s educational sector as we advance AI technology. He pointed out that advancements in NLP mean that e-courses can be developed in regional languages and dialects based on the New Educational Policy.
India launched the National Language Translation Mission to make vernacular language translation systems that bring accessibility and opportunities to millions of citizens. In addition, the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) recently announced its Bhashini programme to enable easy access to the Internet, digital services and more content for all Indians in their own languages.
The country’s Supreme Court now translates orders and ruling into vernacular languages such as Hindi, Tamil, Punjabi, Marathi, Malayalam, Bangla, Telegu, Kannada, and Urdu with the help of the Samantar AI tool developed by the Indian Institute of Technology- Madras. AI for Bharat, which aims at creating a language corpus for machine translation, is another notable initiative in the language space. At the same time, numerous startups such as Gnaani, Reverie, and Devanagiri have made powerful strides in addressing language challenges.
India is committed to global cooperation and trustworthy AI principles
As the chair in waiting and a founding member of the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (GPAI), India seeks to cooperate closely with other member states to develop a framework to promote trust, openness, accountability, safety and responsible use of AI.
“The power of artificial intelligence can be exploited for the good of the citizens and consumers across the globe and ensure that there are adequate guardrails to prevent misuse and user harm,” said the Minister of State for IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar at the GPAI meeting held in Tokyo.
India is working on domestic policy frameworks and regulations to ensure the responsible use of AI tools. The Tamil Nadu Safe & Ethical Artificial Intelligence Policy 2020 by the Tamil State is an example where policy provides a roadmap for the state’s policy makers to adopt AI-based solutions in specific sectors and recommends a framework for evaluating AI-based systems.
The Indian government think tank NITI Aayog has published a series of papers for public discussion on Responsible Artificial Intelligence (RAI) with the latest information on facial recognition technology.
India will continue to work for trustworthy AI and the global south
India sees AI as a tool for social empowerment and inclusion and focuses on developing AI tools for the global south. India’s AI policy has firm roots in responsible AI principles and strives to ensure that international frameworks are designed to provide the same.
Borrowing from Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s speech at the GPAI conference, “With the national programme on AI in place, a national data governance framework policy, and one of the world’s largest publicly accessible data sets programmes in the works, India is committed to the efficient use of AI to catalyse innovation ecosystems around AI, trusted applications for the citizens and the world at large.”