Why India can be the AI epicentre of the world

Most Indian roads are horrible. Even those in major metros like Bengaluru, New Delhi, and Mumbai, are infamous for obscene traffic congestion. Driving is a nightmare and a nasty experience. You might be behind the wheels of your high-end sports car, but very often you end up following an autorickshaw. That’s India for you and that’s the reality.

Some might argue traffic is not an India problem but a world problem because the situation is similar in other parts of the world. Los Angeles, Paris, and London are in fact among the 10 most congested cities around the world as per the annual INRIX traffic scorecard. But the situation in India is unique. Nowhere else in the world, there are cars, two-wheelers, three-wheelers, bullock carts, cycle rickshaws, animals, and pedestrians moving all at the same time. Worse, many drivers accelerate and brake not as per the traffic signal but whenever there is a ‘window of opportunity’. Sounds insane, right?

But all of these also make India the most fertile test bed for any Artificial Intelligence (AI) experiments, making it the potential epicentre of the global AI revolution. “If you can make an AI-based driverless car for India, it can run anywhere in the world,” says Pradeep Dubey, Intel Fellow and Director of parallel Computing Lab, Intel Labs. “India is the best ground to experiment as rare road instances happen all the time here.”

Globally, all large automobile manufactures and technology companies are working on making autonomous vehicles. For instance, Olli, an autonomous vehicle enabled by IBM’s Watson and Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities, took to the roads in the summer of 2016. Olli can ‘hear’ spoken instructions and respond in familiar conversational language to take people where they need to go. Google’s self-driving car project ‘Waymo’ is working towards fully self-driving cars with highest levels of accuracy.

Currently, driverless cars are not permitted on Indian roads. Nitin Gadkari, India’s minister for Road Transport, Highways, and Shipping, recently said that he will not allow driverless cars in India as it would add to the already existing problem of unemployment. However, that has not stopped Indian companies from innovating and experimenting.

At the last Q1 earnings meet in July, then Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka arrived in a driverless car, designed and developed completely by the firm’s engineering team in Mysore. “Who says we can’t build transformative technologies,” Sikka said in a tweet on July 14. This was one of ways Sikka wanted to show that Infosys is not just embracing the digital transformation journey but ahead of the game.

AI Action in India 

A lot of the AI action is being driven right out of India. For instance, Tata group owned Tata Elxsi, a global design and technology services company, recently announced the licensing of its advanced autonomous vehicle middleware platform “AUTONOMAI” to one of the world’s top five automotive OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) for their driverless car R&D. “This solution supports sensor fusion with a variety of sensors from cameras to Radar and Lidar, and leverages sophisticated AI and deep learning-based algorithms to deliver the complex use-case scenarios expected of driverless cars,” the company said in a statement.

The AI startup ecosystem in India is thriving and many of them are working on cutting-edge AI-based technologies. For instance, in July this year, Google acquired Halli Labs, a 4-month-old Bengaluru startup working on AI. This is reportedly Google’s first acquisition in India and it is a testimony of the innovative work that’s beginning to happen out of companies in India.

Several startups in India are now dedicated to AI and some of these are Niki.ai, Arya.ai, Active.ai, Boxx.ai, Cuddle.ai – their domain names significant of the niche they focus on. According to research firm Zinnov, India is the fourth largest geography globally in terms of AI talent pool, home to more than 200 AI startups that attracted about $200 million+ funding in 2017.

Automation Anywhere, a San Jose-based robotic process automation (RPA) company, is also betting big in India. “India is in fact standing in a unique opportunity to be the automation capital of the world. Such an opportunity comes only every 4-5 decades. 60% of all the world transactions could be potentially handed by India,” says Mihir Shukla, co-founder & CEO, Automation Anywhere.

The Sector Advantage 

Agriculture is one of the key areas where India has the potential to leapfrog in terms of AI. After all, India is primarily an agri-driven economy with over 58% of the rural households depending on agriculture as their principal means of livelihood, according to an IBEF report. Agricultural export constitutes 10% of the country’s exports and is the fourth-largest exported principal commodity.

Large technology companies and startups have realised the massive ag-tech potential and are already applying AI in agriculture. For instance, tech giant Microsoft in collaboration with ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics), developed an AI Sowing App that uses machine learning and business intelligence from the Microsoft Cortana Intelligence Suite. The app sends sowing advisories to participating farmers on the optimal date to sow. “The best part – the farmers don’t need to install any sensors in their fields or incur any capital expenditure. All they need is a feature phone capable of receiving text messages,” a Microsoft India report stated.

As per our research, some of the most popular applications of AI in Indian agriculture appear to fall into three major categories: Crop and Soil Monitoring (leveraging sensors and various IoT-based technology), Predictive Analytics (using AI and machine learning tools to predict the optimal time to sow seeds), and Online Marketplace (a smart portal to buy and sell crops under one platform).

Healthcare is the other sector in India where the benefits of AI can be applied. As per a May 2016 Medical Council of India report, for every 1681 citizens in India, there is only one doctor available. As a result, doctors work under enormous pressure, diagnosing and treating thousands of patients every day. AI-based systems can substantially improve the diagnosis process by analysing past patient data and medical records.

AI can also solve healthcare challenges in rural India (about 68.84% of India’s population) where last mile delivery of healthcare amenities is still a major challenge. Technologies such as AI are expected to help the rural population by providing the necessary diagnostic facilities, medical knowledge, and most importantly preventive and predictive technology in healthcare.

Artelus, a Bengaluru-based healthcare startup supplements human expertise with machines based on AI and enables physicians to service an ever-increasing patient load with accurate diagnosis and preventative care. It uses technologies like portable devices, cloud, and deep learning to create and predict early warning systems for preventing fatal diseases and ailments.

No wonder, India can potentially be the AI and automation epicentre of the world. With so much of action already happening right here, it’s only a matter of time that some of the most disruptive innovation in AI will emerge out of India. This is an opportunity India cannot afford to miss!

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Ayushman Baruah
Ayushman Baruah is the founder & Editor-in-Chief of The Startup Observer. With 10+ years of rich experience in journalism spanning across newspaper, magazine, and news wire, Ayushman takes a conscious effort to stay away from the rat's race and the noise of breaking news. The Startup Observer is a noble initiative to serve the readers with ideas that go beyond news. In 2013, Ayushman won the prestigious 15th Annual PoleStar Award in jury's category for excellence in technology journalism. He loves writing, public speaking, observing, travelling, aquariums, and anything that makes him think. He believes in keeping his feet on the ground but eyes on the stars.