Can India be an AI Powerhouse?

With AI alone generating over 2.3 million jobs worldwide by 2020, India’s ambition to carve a niche for itself in an increasingly AI-driven world is becoming a reality. Let’s take a closer look at how AI revolution is impacting Indian jobs and the workforce.

Even as the Fourth Industrial Revolution stares us right in the eyes, we are unable to assess with certainty the scope of artificial intelligence (AI) on our future life and work.  A lack of clarity has given rise to anxieties regarding what the future holds, and at one extreme end is the fear that intelligent machines and robots will render humans jobless and take over the world. However, if history is anything to go by, the previous three industrial revolutions managed to make fundamental structural changes to the society and business without ringing in the apocalypse. While the advancement of technology obviously made jobs, and sometimes entire industries, obsolete, it also gave rise to the automotive and digital industries which created jobs, for instance, a large portion of today’s workforce is working in jobs that were hardly heard of before the 1990’s. TeamLease Services expects AI alone to generate over 2.3 million jobs worldwide by 2020, but since it will also wipe nearly 1.7 million jobs off the market, the impact will be muted.

AI and Jobs

The popular, and inaccurate, notion that robots will replace humans is unlikely to materialize in reality as experts argue that while robots might take over blue-collar and white-collar jobs, they will not eliminate the need for humans completely, simply because, unlike humans, machines are not motivated to rule the world. Ekkehard Ernst, Chief of Macro-Economic Policies and Job Unit at UN International Labour Organization (ILO) opines, It is not so much about losing jobs but about how jobs are being transformed and employees in these sectors will add new tasks to their profile while being supported by computers and robots in others. In the process, however, AI will definitely make some roles and jobs obsolete. This means that new roles which require humans to interact with machines will gain prominence. The Indian workforce is also reaching this conclusion on its own. Data from Indeed, a job site, shows that between June 2016 and June 2018, a remarkable 179 percent increase was witnessed in the number of job searches for AI-related roles. There has been a notable rise in the search for the roles of ‘Data Scientist’, ‘Software Engineer’, and ‘Machine Learning Engineer’, ‘AI Engineer’, and ‘Business Intelligence (BI) Developer’ in the last couple of years. Thus, new roles and jobs are being created and sought, even as old ones see a slump in their demand.

An opportunity for India

India offers experience, expertise, talent, and a vast workforce that puts it in a prime position to become a hub of process automation. For India to be a leader in the wave of automation, a joint effort by all the stakeholders – industry, government, academia, and employees – is indispensable. The workforce’s innate inclination to work in the IT sector, along with strong capabilities and focus can become a huge resource, provided they are given the right training.

The Indian workforce has another advantage that is unique. Indians are one of the most optimistic in the world about AI and robots in the workplace and are actually looking forward to working alongside machines. In contrast, automation isn’t viewed as favorably the western world. A study by Salesforce showed that Indians hold a positive outlook towards AI compared to other nations, and most of them expect the job market will significantly improve with the advent of intelligent technologies.

64 percent of the respondents in the survey were confident that new jobs will emerge from AI and 56 percent were ready to upskill and update their skills to make them future-ready. Even Indian consumers expect AI to make the society smarter (50 percent) and life more convenient (58 percent), As the demand for expertise on AI, machine learning (ML), data mining and analysis, neural networks, NLP, deep learning, encryption, and cybersecurity goes up, employees will have to update their skills in order to act as an interface between machines and processes. The industries of banking, financial services, insurance, manufacturing, automotive, telecom, and healthcare hold immense potential for process automation. These industries have a unique opportunity to leverage the best of technology and human intellect and design the future of work.

The Challenges:

A recent Tata Communications study has shown that AI will diversify human thinking rather than replace it. However, the road to this diversification will be anything but easy, and the early signs are not very reassuring. While it is encouraging to see that Indian job-seekers are making themselves future-ready, the preparation is far from complete. The demand for AI skills has been double the talent supply beginning 2018 which has been consistently worsening, says Indeed. Furthermore, data from the National Institute of Skill Development (NISD) shows that a dismal 2 percent of the country’s workforce has undergone a skills training. If the current situation prevails, the evolution from a labor-intensive business environment to one that also incorporates machines and robots will, undoubtedly, be chaotic and tough. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Organizations and employees need to work on delegating repetitive tasks to machines and make way for current roles to be more creative and thought-driven.

The increasing role of machines in a business and workplace setting needs to be viewed as an eventuality, and steps need to be taken to make the transition to this new paradigm as smooth as possible. As there is an attempt to automate everything that can be automated, the benefits will no longer be limited to a few groups or organizations. This democratization will make the process more inclusive and further the integration of AI and ML into core business models and practices. Preparing the workforce by reskilling and updating their capabilities, and equipping the right people to power AI solutions, is key to a smooth transition into the future of work. At the moment, the rapid pace of change and relative lack of knowledge is posing a challenge to predict the future. As an increasing number of professionals learn the technology better and interact with it more deeply, skepticism will give way to confidence. But the window to build an inclusive and well-planned future is shrinking fast, and if companies want to ride through this disruption smoothly, they need to build on their strengths. India has a unique advantage, which if leveraged smartly, can propel it to the leadership position.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has finally caught the Indian government’s attention:

In his last budget speech, finance minister Arun Jaitley told parliament that the government think-tank, Niti Aayog, will spearhead a national programme on AI, including research and development. The intent showed in the numbers: Budget allocation for Digital India, the government’s umbrella initiative to promote AI, machine learning, 3D printing, and other technologies, was almost doubled to Rs3,073 crore ($477 million) this year.

“It’s extremely encouraging to see the government recognise the need for research in cutting-edge technologies,” Subrat Kar, CEO and co-founder of Noida-based video intelligence platform Vidooly, told Quartz. Niti Aayog’s support will “allow us to indigenously develop technologies on par with our Silicon Valley counterparts, and reduce dependency on them,” Kar said.

Niti Aayog, led by CEO Amitabh Kant, has been a key promoter of various digital campaigns in the country, including the massive biometric programme, Aadhaar, and the India chain project, which is creating blockchain infrastructure to support IndiaStack, a set of codes developed around Aadhaar. That’s why the AI initiative has charged up tech companies.

Meanwhile, the department of science is also set to launch centres of excellence (CoEs), investing in research, training, and skilling in digital manufacturing, big data analysis, quantum communication, and internet of things (IoT). Yet, all this may have come a little too late.

Back of the line

Globally, several countries have already committed millions of dollars to developing AI programmes. The US leads the pack, thanks to decades of public and private investment. Over the last five years, San Francisco’s Bay Area, in It helps that the US is home to institutes that champion AI research. particular, has attracted 41% of all global investments in AI, according to China-based Synced Review. It helps that the US is home to institutes that champion AI research such as Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the world’s biggest tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google.

The Chinese example

China, a close second, is swiftly ramping up efforts. Canada, reportedly the birthplace of AI research, is fast turning into a hub with tech majors like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook setting up research labs in Montreal.

To play catch up, India is following its neighbor’s footsteps.

“Arguably, China has set the example for India,” said Kartik Hosanagar, professor of technology and digital business at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Last year, the Asian nation laid out an AI development plan, outlining goals for the next three years and a blueprint for its strategy until 2030. Not only are its local players, including search giant Baidu, taxi company Didi Chuxing, or internet firms Alibaba and Tencent, spending aggressively on AI, global companies like Google have also set up labs there.

India isn’t faring badly, though. Over half (58%) of the companies using AI in the country work at scale, beyond pilot and test projects. However, the sector is dominated by American firms like Accenture, Microsoft, and Adobe, which have their innovation centres here. Home-grown efforts on the academic, business, and investor fronts are few.

Percentage of companies using AI who are doing so at scale, beyond pilots.

Between 2014 and 2018, AI startups in India raised less than $100 million from venture capitalists. India has a huge potential but also there’s a gap that needs to be filled by today’s and tomorrow’s managers and leaders so that India could become an AI powerhouse!

Lokesh Khandelwal