If China’s artificial intelligence (AI) ambitions have policy wonks from Washington DC to London, from New Delhi to Moscow sitting up and taking notice, there must be something to it. The policy unveiled in July 2017, for the first time shone the light on President Xi Jinping’s desired objective of developing China into a “country of innovators,” which aims for “the frontiers of science and technology”.
Manoj Kewalramani is a Sinophile with years of work and personal time in China and Hong Kong. Today, as Associate Fellow-China Studies at The Takshashila Institution, he keeps an eagle eye on all things China for the think tank. In this piece, he cuts open and lays bare China’s AI policy for readers in India. (Heads up: you will see more of Manoj on our stories file in 2019.)
Remember those stories of a giant camera watching over a street, spotting a criminal, and the man being felled to a sniper’s rifle shot? Well, much of the technology is no longer in the realm of science fiction. It is very much here and now, as Jayadevan PK noted in his recent story from Beijing on AI checking into everyday life in the Chinese capital. He talked about jaywalkers named and shamed on a giant screen.
But, this ‘Big Eye’ story is not from China. It is from India. It is not quite as sophisticated but as eerie as China’s deployments of frontier technologies. Our writer – and resident geek – Anand Murali reported on this story mid-year covering how law enforcement forces in Chennai, Chandigarh, and Surat were using facial recognition and smart cameras to identify criminals and suspects. Surveillance when used carefully can be a powerful tool for governments but, as the story noted, the worry is whether its deployment will be all kosher.
Like ruling regimes elsewhere, India’s Narendra Modi administration, too, has seen artificial intelligence as a gamechanger for a while. But, unlike their counterparts in China, US, or Russia, Indians have chosen to take a path for AI that is more “mass impact” and “common good”. In a country with one in five of the world’s poorest, AI will focus on the needs of its teeming masses, a Niti Aayog discussion paper detailed.
The five areas that the paper said AI deployments would focus on are: healthcare, education, agriculture, smart cities, and smart mobility. “This effort will consolidate the government’s role in providing AI,” said Kamakoti Veezhinathan, a professor of computer science at Indian Institute of Technology-Madras. “Now we see so many scattered efforts amongst institutions… interesting research projects will come up.” As of now, the work in that direction is, well, WIP.
In the rarefied world of AI, there are few names that all participants – be they in industry, academia, or practitioners – will recognise as top dog. But, Balaraman Ravindran is an exception. The IIT-Madras professor is widely considered to be India’s foremost reinforcement learning expert, which he laughs and says is “because I am the only one” in the hot sub-specialisation of AI research.
Ravindran’s academic work, which spans across over two decades, has produced 170 research papers, 12 of them in 2018. In this piece, Sriram Sharma quizzes Ravindran about his journey into reinforcement learning, the AI bubble, democratisation of AI, its comparisons to alchemy, and more. “AI is like alchemy, helping us solve immediate problems. But it is also preventing true understanding of intelligence… it’s not true science yet,” Ravindran said. A thinker of machines, clearly.
Drishti’s mission statement is as simple as it is ambitious: convert human activities to data at scale to boost productivity, factory margins, and employment in the age of AI. Some 100 years after stop-watches were introduced on factory floors to measure productivity, the goal of measuring human productivity is yet to be achieved. That makes it a big, hairy problem given that about 90% of factory work is still performed by humans.
The Palo Alto-Bengaluru start-up wants to leverage computer vision to be the ‘Google for actions’. It was founded by tech industry veterans in 2016: CEO Prasad Akella was part of the team at General Motors that created the world’s first collaborative robots. CTO Krishnendu Chaudhury was a principal scientist at Flipkart after decade-long stints at Google and Adobe. Ashish Gupta was the co-founder of Junglee (acquired by Amazon) and Helion Ventures, an Indian venture fund.
Time will tell but Drishti could be a credible attempt at ramping up industrial productivity – a goal that giants such as General Electric have failed at – as this Sriram Sharma story tells us.
There are less than 400 Ph.D-holding AI researchers in India ranking it tenth behind the US, UK, Canada, France, Australia, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and China. In an area counted as strategic for the future benefits that the technology and its applications can deliver in the years ahead, this puts India at a significant disadvantage, as Sriram Sharma had reported in an earlier story.
In this data story, Sriram took a couple of steps forward to map India’s AI talent pool. He ranked the most influential researchers in the field of AI and machine learning from India based on citations, location, and H-Index of authors. The H-index measures the productivity and impact of the published work of a scientist or scholar.
No prizes for guessing: Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, the country’s Indian Institutes of Technology, and the Indian Institutes of Information Technology shine in academia, while companies such as Flipkart, IBM, Microsoft, and Tata Consultancy Services do well among companies with such talent. Also, don’t miss Sriram’s market map of AI startups in India.
Design: Rajesh Subramanian