AI Adoption: Behooves Heightened Responsibility & Higher Ethics

In July 2022, UK-based Artificial Intelligence (AI) firm Peak commissioned a benchmarking survey to study AI adoption in the USA, UK, and India. The study, jointly conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, included 3000 senior decision-makers from companies with at least 100 employees; the survey was augmented by responses from 3000 middle-level staff as well.

A key finding was the inaugural Decision Intelligence (DI) Maturity Index, an indicator of how prepared businesses in these three jurisdictions were to adopt AI for commercial decision-making. The study found that over the past six years, the percentage of companies that have adopted AI technologies stood at 28%, 20% and 25% in the US, UK, and India respectively. While it was only expected that the US would be the leader, it was surprising that when it comes to leveraging AI in commercial areas, Indian companies ranked highest- they scored 64 (out of 100), while those in the US and UK respectively scored 52 and 44. 

The study also found that 18 % of US workers were unsure whether the companies they work for used AI at all; for India this figure stood at 2%. It was also revealing that Indian enterprises embedded data sciences capabilities within commercial teams, while their western counterparts relied more on central data teams[1]. Of course, it must be acknowledged that China is perhaps much further ahead in terms of deploying AI, although we will likely not get to know the details anytime soon.


AI will play a major role in how our world evolves


Consumers like you and me already experience the power of AI in the form of reminders from fitness apps or what books to read, shows to watch or music to listen etc. Intelligent parking assistance in some cars is another example of AI in action. AI is also at work when we see “deep fake” videos that look and sound so real. AI is not a new field; it has in fact been around since the late 1950s, which is when the term was coined. But it is only in recent years that AI has become less esoteric and more mainstream. 

This shift is due to rapid advances in computing power and speeds as also evolution of models and capabilities around natural language processing, voice recognition, machine vision and other allied areas. It is this pace and nature of AI evolution that gives experts the confidence that AI will play a key role in economic and social development, delivery of education and healthcare services, forecasting natural disasters and managing them, national security and much more.

Several national flagship infrastructure backbones in India, including the GST and Income Tax systems, Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC), Government e-Marketplace (GeM), the Unified Logistics Interface Platform (ULIP) and the Gati Shakti National Master Plan already have elements of AI embedded in them. India’s private sector too, has been actively working on AI-based projects and products that span different use cases and industry sectors.


India is taking steps to prevent unbridled use of AI- but “there are miles to go before we sleep”


A couple of decades ago, movie franchises such as “The Matrix” and “The Terminator” conjured up a world where machines take over the world. Today, the world is closer to being at a stage where inadvertent or deliberate misuse of AI can unleash unknowable harm to society. It can be argued that human avarice has already damaged our planet beyond redemption, but we have done that without much help from AI!

There have already been instances reported in media where the use of AI in some applications has thrown up evidence of discrimination and bias-negative traits that are patently human. The companies behind these applications have rolled them back but they signal a clear and present danger. There has also been much debate in recent times about whether AI-based programs are truly “sentient” i.e., capable of feelings. Maybe we are still some years away from truly sentient machines- or maybe they are already here. Either way, it is important to ensure that AI is governed by appropriate ethics to make it “responsible.”

Clearly, AI has great power; it must therefore also be used with great responsibility. “Responsible AI” has many dimensions, including reliability, safety, privacy, transparency, fairness, and accountability. Just as important is for humans to know how an AI system arrived at a certain conclusion or decision. While most of the above have to do with how AI powered devices and applications are designed and built, it is also critical to ensure that ethics govern how these devices and apps are deployed and what they are used for. 

In the absence of such mechanisms (and punitive actions for violators), think of the myriad privacy incursions that can be easily caused by physical surveillance using drones or digital eavesdropping of phone conversations. Even AI-powered software in place to analyze CVs to identify the “best” candidates can be misused to ensure that only candidates of a certain profile are hired.

AI ethics and governance needs to cover more than just individual companies that develop AI tools and applications. All stakeholders must work together to put in place an overarching framework that includes policies, laws, rules, and SOPs to ensure that AI does not become a Pandora’s Box. A key objective must be to ensure that there is mutual trust.

To support India’s burgeoning AI ecosystem, the Niti Ayog has begun to hold consultative discussions. Its report “AI for All” is grounded in the fundamental rights enshrined in India’s constitution. It suggests setting up of an expert committee comprising specialists in AI, cybersecurity, social scientists, law, various industry domains and representatives of government and civil society to create a regulatory/governance framework. 

Such a framework must necessarily be flexible, to accommodate unexpected changes powered by technological innovations. NASSCOM, India’s software industry association, has launched a Responsible AI hub to ensure that key stakeholders are engaged so that broader societal views are considered and factored into strategies and plans related to not just innovations, development, and deployment but also governance.

A survey by IBM Institute for Business Value has found that the responsibility for leading and upholding ethics has shifted to the CEO. 62% of business leaders agree that AI ethics is important to their organizations. It is a given that the world will never be a utopia. It is time that “leaders” in every field from around the world stand up and take necessary steps to prevent the world from becoming an AI-powered dystopia. AI is too important a domain to be left to the whims and fancies of individual countries, companies, or leaders- whether democratic, despotic, megalomaniac, idealistic or somewhere in between.

AI ethics and governance needs to cover more than just individual companies that develop AI tools and applications. All stakeholders must work together to put in place an overarching framework that includes policies, laws, rules, and SOPs to ensure that AI does not become a Pandora’s Box. The key objective must be to ensure that there is mutual trust.


Education in India: Time to Connect the Dots and Look at the Big Picture

In the last few days, I read news reports that are seemingly unrelated on the surface. However, I think there exists a deeper connection for those willing to think outside the box. I thought I would use this article to articulate my thoughts on the connections and their possible implications for India. 

India’s New Education Policy expected to gain traction

The first item was about various initiatives announced by the Union government on the first anniversary of India’s National Education Policy (NEP). While internationalization, multiple entry/exit options, and digital education will be key pillars, one other important component is to enable students to pursue first-year Engineering courses in Indian languages.

In the context of the broad-brush changes envisioned to India’s education system, it is time to rethink the role of the UGC as a body that enables the nation’s higher education system in ways beyond disbursing funds to be recognized universities. There also ought to be more harmony between the various Boards that govern school education. The roles of bodies responsible for governing professional education in India- e.g., AICTE, NMC (which replaced the MCI), ICAI, ICSI, ICWAI, Bar Council of India etc. should also be redefined to ensure that India’s professionals remain in tune with the needs of a fast-changing world.

English will play an important role in our continued growth

The second report that caught my attention was on two main points made by Mr. Narayana Murthy (the Founder of Infosys), in a recent media interaction. He stated that it is high time that English be formally acknowledged and designated as India’s official link language, and greater emphasis is given to its teaching and learning in Indian schools. He said that his opinion is based on his first-hand knowledge of many technically qualified students in Bangalore/Karnataka who lose out in the job market largely because they lack a certain expected level of proficiency in English.

In the same interview, Mr. Murthy went on to say that on a priority basis, India needs overseas universities and vocational educational institutions to set up facilities in India to train students and teachers in key areas like nursing. This too makes sense because our healthcare infrastructure needs massive upgrades- and human resources will be critical.

China’s tightening regulations threaten its US$100 Billion EdTechc industry

The third report was on China’s recent decision to tightly regulate its online tutoring companies. The new rules bar online tutoring ventures from going public or raising foreign capital. There are also restrictions on the number of hours for which tutors can teach during weekends and vacations. In fact, the rules go so far as to make online tutorial businesses “not for profit”.

Different views have been expressed on why Chinese authorities have taken this step. Some see it as a means to reduce the cost of children’s education- and thus encourage couples to have more children. They point to this as a logical enabler of the recent relaxations in China’s two-child policy. Others view it as a step designed to clip the wings of Chinese tech companies that are deeply entrenched in many consumer segments, and have, over the past decade, acquired significant financial muscle.

To put into perspective the size of Chinese EdTech companies, consider this data point: Byju’s, arguably India’s largest EdTech company, was valued at over US$16.5 Billion as of mid-June 2021. Despite this high valuation, Byju’s would have been smaller than the top 5 Chinese EdTech players (on the basis of valuations that existed before the recent draconian rules came into effect).

Implications for India

The majority of China’s EdTech ventures are financed through significant venture capital investments from the west. Analysts expect that China’s sudden actions will, at least in the short run, divert capital to other locations. India could be a potential beneficiary because it already fosters a large EdTech ecosystem.

Given our demographics, we have a significant domestic market for education across all levels- primary, secondary, and college. Since digital education will likely become the norm, this space is ripe for newfangled innovations in the days ahead. If online education can bridge the gaps that employers currently perceive in our fresh graduates, unemployability rates shall notably decline. . This will not only contribute directly to our GDP but also indirectly stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship.

India has a large technical skill base. Some of these resources can easily be harnessed to develop next-gen education solutions using cutting-edge technologies such as AI, ML, Language Processing, Augmented Reality, etc. To begin with, Indian start-ups can build, test, and scale EdTech platforms and solutions for our domestic market. Over time, these can be refined and repurposed for global markets. Similarly, features built for the global market can be adapted to Indian markets, thus creating a virtual cycle. Such a trend will not only proffer legs to implementing India’s NEP but will also enable us as a society to improve access to education to underprivileged sections of the society. This is critical to sustaining our growth on the path of socio-economic development.

By taking the right decisions now, we can attract capital, talent, and world-famous institutional brands to this critical sector. EdTech in India has the potential to become a powerful engine of growth for our services sector. Done right, I have no doubt that in a few years, India can become a “Vishwaguru” not just in the spiritual sense, but also literally.

PS: As with many other sectors in India, the legal framework that governs education too needs to be made more contemporary and relevant, but that’s for another time.

Image Credits: Photo by Nikhita S on Unsplash

By taking the right decisions now, we can attract capital, talent and world-famous institutional brands to this critical sector. EdTech in India has the potential to become a powerful engine of growth for our services sector. Done right, I have no doubt that in a few years, India can become a “Vishwaguru” not just in the spiritual sense, but also literally.



Sports and Business: Long Term Thinking is Vital for Success in Both

India’s sportspersons have returned to India after a fantastic performance at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Neeraj Chopra’s javelin throw gave India its first ever gold medal in athletics (and second in an individual event). Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu and wrestler Ravi Dahiya won us two silver medals, while boxer Lovlina Borgohain, badminton player P V Sindhu, wrestler Bajrang Punia and the men’s hockey team won bronze medals. Our overall tally of 7 medals is the highest at any Olympics. Overall, a very creditable performance the nation should be proud of.

As a proud Indian, I too am hopeful that the exposure and “big stage” experience gained by our sportspersons in Tokyo, combined with better training, practice infrastructure and facilities will help India better its 2021 performance. However, I worry about the flurry of speculative discussions in the media about how many medals India will win at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

The media is full of expert analysis and recommendations on what the government and sports federations need to do to ensure a higher medal tally in 2024. Sportsperson I am not; nor am I a seer. Therefore, I do not know what individuals and teams need to sustainably enhance their performance and win medals for India in the future. But I do know that ad hoc actions will not suffice.

A structured, long-term approach is essential for sustaining success in sports and business

I see a clear parallel between the world of sports and the corporate world, with which I am more familiar. No matter how talented and skilled an individual athlete or player is, skills alone are not enough to win him/her a medal. They need the right coaching, top quality training facilities, regular opportunities to compete with the world’s best, the right nutrition, inputs on biomechanics, mental conditioning etc. Having all this also does not guarantee a medal-winning performance, because, on the day, anything can happen.

Similarly, individual brilliance or an innovative new idea or product alone will not guarantee success in business. India needs to strengthen its ecosystem for business, with a particular emphasis on startups and young ventures. Coaching and mentoring to give better shape to business ideas, access to risk capital, support during the early stages of the business, tax breaks, the right kinds of sector-specific laws and regulations that will help businesses become viable sooner are all elements of what our business ecosystem requires.

Just as world-class sports infrastructure cannot come up in every state or city in the next year or two, incubators cannot come up everywhere. Junior talent identification and nurturing programs too can take 8-10 years to produce top-class sportspeople who are ready to compete on the global stage. Even if physical infrastructure comes up, finding equally qualified coaches for all locations will not be easy.

Although we know that Artificial Intelligence, Cybersecurity, Clean Energy, Electric Vehicles etc. are all critical emerging areas, it is naïve to expect that overnight India will become a leader in these sectors. The same is true of our performance in sports as well. Countries prioritize participation in those sporting events that afford them their best chances of winning medals; India is no exception. This same thinking needs to be applied to business as well. The first step is to mindfully identify sectors that are critical to our future- for example, clean energy, healthcare, space, drones, defence equipment (aircraft carriers, submarines, 6th generation fighter aircraft, anti-missile systems), electronic chips etc.

Then, just as countries identify individuals with promise in the “priority sports”, the government of India (and the private sector) must identify/agree on ventures with the potential to become world-class and nurture them. Within the national business ecosystem, smaller regional ecosystems need to be created across the country, based on resource availability and other strategic considerations. Individual states must compete with each other to build such ecosystems and attract the best entrepreneurial talent. Doing all this will definitely give India a stronger and more vibrant domestic industry, besides acting as prime movers for overall socio-economic development, employment generation and GDP growth.

Spotting and nurturing young talent in various sports must be part of our education system

Also, our education system has focused on academics, with sports and other activities labeled as “extra-curricular”. This needs to change in two ways. First, right from the primary school level, children must be encouraged to participate in different sporting activities. Trained teachers and specialist staff must spot talent and at the right ages, enable specialized training. This obviously must be done with the parents’ active cooperation. Second, for super talented children who wish to pursue sports as a possible career option, specialized institutions must be set up (either by state/central governments or in PPP mode). Children in these institutions must be given extra coaching and training, while also being allowed to pursue a basic level of academics that will help them once their sporting careers end. Seasoned athletes must be invited to train at these facilities so that young aspirants can learn and benchmark against the country’s best. The National Education Policy 2020 seeks to make sports and physical fitness more central to school education, but the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Only time will tell how seriously this is taken in a country that values grades and marks over excellence in a chosen field.

Concerted action is essential not just for a US$5 Trillion economy but also a richer medal haul in the future

Winning in sports is not easy- and neither is succeeding in business. If we are not quick to act, flight of entrepreneurial talent to other countries is a distinct possibility, and in time, our businesses (and athletes) may end up competing with rivals who also had their origins in India- and could perhaps have been part of our sports contingents and GDP. What is worse, we may be ranked as poorly on innovation in critical areas as we have been in world sports.

Just as countries identify individuals with promise in the “priority sports”, the government of India (and the private sector) must identify/agree on ventures with the potential to become world-class and nurture them.