The tech corridors of Silicon Valley, and the sacred paths of the Indian Himalayas may seem worlds apart, but in today’s AI-driven age, they intertwine in a story that moves from scepticism to self-realization.
Whether taken out of context or not, remarks by OpenAI’s CEO Sam Altman on the unlikeliness of India’s tech community creating a foundational AI model sparked a spirited backlash from both the tech sector and India’s industrial stalwarts. Contrast Altman’s scepticism with the commitment of Industry captains in India to lead in creating India-specific AI models and provide AI for everyone, and it’s clear that there’s no lack of belief in India that it can lead in AI.
The Indian ethos of “anything is possible” is exemplified when you consider the role of Indian-origin CEOs that are leading the global AI scene. Sundar Pichai at Google, Satya Nadella at Microsoft, Shantanu Narayen at Adobe, and Arvind Krishna at IBM are testament to India’s intellectual export. Their leadership, rooted in Indian values combined with global experiences, is redefining the trajectory of AI.
India’s ability to spot emerging technology trends and quickly harness them for commercial and societal advantage comes as not surprise to me. A fusion of entrepreneurialism and innovation is hardwired into our DNA.
Take digital payments as an example. A little over a decade ago, the average Indian made only six non-cash transactions a year, today we’re world leaders, accounting for 40% of all transactions globally! When the National Payments Corporation of India launched its Unified Payments Interface (UPI) platform in 2016, its timing was perfect. Increased competition in the mobile phone sector and great enthusiasm from Indian consumers for smartphones meant that handset costs and data tariff prices tumbled. Innovation and disruption combined, taking India from being one of the most unbanked countries in the world to a global leader. UPI has been called Indian’s most successful deep-tech financial innovation. It’s hard to disagree.
Enter the era of artificial intelligence, and the question of the role India will play in it. Eminent economist and AI expert Tyler Cowen said recently in his Bloomberg column that AI will most benefit nations with ambitious and innovative economies. Is this not India? A country of nearly six million software developers, with an expansive and collaborative start-up ecosystem and, just as importantly, a vibrant, diverse, and rich culture.
I firmly believe India is ideally positioned to lead the world, as it does in digital payments, providing government and technology leaders identify, understand, and get ahead of the key challenges. I see two primary areas where focus is required:
- Regulation and policy
The consensus among world governments and technology leaders is that a path needs to be found that both encourages and supports innovation and development, while ensuring there are the necessary safeguards in place to limit harm. Until recently, India was advocating a regulation-lite approach, believing that was the best path to innovation and leadership. However, that approach must surely change as AI-usage becomes widespread and potential issues become more apparent. Often cited challenges around widespread job losses, dissemination of fake content and model bias towards or against a certain sex or religion have the potential to cause significant problems in a country like India.
Encouragingly, India’s policymakers seem to be shifting to a more balanced approach, focusing on cyber security, safety, legal and ethical issues while also putting an emphasis on skilling and reskilling to ensure the country can take full advantage of the technology. This is to be welcomed, but I would also advise that as AI is still an emerging sector, regulations and policy should be flexible enough to adapt to a rapidly changing landscape.
- Technology Infrastructure
A significant barrier to AI research and development is the financial implication of accessing advanced tech infrastructure. This is especially relevant to India, who’s infrastructure, though ever-improving, still lags other major economies. Remembering the India call for “AI for all”, this can only be achieved by ensuring that every aspiring Indian developer, irrespective of their financial stature or background, can access the technology needed to explore and build the next generation of AI-powered applications.
India’s AI odyssey is reminiscent of the philosophical path of Jnana Yoga – the pursuit of knowledge, be it the understanding of the Self (‘Atman’) or the intricacies of AI, remains central. By understanding the potential barriers to success, India’s self-awareness and confidence increases, regardless of what others may think. Only Altman knows if his comments were a meant as a realistic appraisal of India’s AI potential, or a stark reflection of the global competitive landscape but either way, India remains undaunted in its belief that it can become a global leader in AI.
However, India’s AI odyssey should not be framed solely in algorithms and data sets; it’s also a philosophical journey. The endeavours of Indian CEOs globally, the indomitable spirit of Indian entrepreneurs, represent the harmonious confluence of Western technological advancements and Eastern spiritual wisdom.
In this intricate dance of Altman and Atman, India is not just scripting its AI story but is showcasing to the world how ancient wisdom can illuminate the path of modern innovation. We invite the world to join this odyssey, an exploration that transcends technology, delving deep into the essence of human existence.
The article has been written by Ashok Reddy, CEO of KX