The NITI Ayog has signed a Statement of Intent (SoI) with Google with an objective of fostering growth in India’s Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning ecosystem through a range of initiatives across the country.

In a press release, the NITI Ayog has announced that the SoI, with a focus on training, hackathons, mentoring startups, and providing research grants, was signed by Anna Roy, Advisor, NITI Ayog and Rajan Anandan, VP for India and South East Asia, Google. Google and its affiliates will be training and mentoring Indian startups in an accelerator programme to help them leverage AI in their business models.

Google will also conduct hands-on training programmes to sensitise policymakers and technical experts in governments on AI tools, and their use in streamlining governance, through its partner NITI Ayog.

Among the initiatives planned are funding of Indian researchers, scholars and university faculty to conduct research on AI, and the availability of Google’s online training courses and particularly the course on Machine learning on AI to students, graduates and engineers in numerous cities across India through study groups and developer-run courses.

Another initiative planned is an AI/ML hackathon focusing on solving key challenges within agriculture, education, healthcare, financial inclusion, transportation/mobility and more, possibly using Kaggle, a global platform to faciliate international participation.

The Press Release states that the NITI Ayog has been entrusted to setup a national programme to conduct research and development in frontier technologies such as AI. In furtherance of this mandate, NITI Aayog has been developing India’s national strategy on AI along with the National Data and Analytics Portal to enable the wide deployment and use of AI.

CEO of NITI Ayog, Amitabh Kant is understood to have stressed the value of embracing “future technologies” such as machine learning and AI to augment its capacity in healthcare, improve outcomes in education, develop innovative governance systems for our citizens and improve overall economic productivity of the nation. He sees NITI Ayog’s partnership with Google as having the potential to unlock massive training initiatives, support startups and encourage AI research through PhD scholarships, and facilitate a technologically-empowered New India.”

MediaNama’s take

Artificial Intelligence appears to be the new buzz word to adopt.

While encouraging students to be more interested in AI can’t be a bad thing, startups are businesses and able to seek technologies they require. It is unclear why the government should be facilitating this in such an open-ended manner for them at public expense.

We have, in the past, and particularly in the case of Aadhaar, seen the involvement of start ups in government projects resulting in conflict of interest and giving a small group of powerful people access to shape policy that impacts the entire country. India lacks data protection laws and there is already an industry being built around the use of artificial intelligence, digitization and big data by being involved in state processes and the use of state funds to create infrastructure with questionable utility for citizens.

In such a situation, when Nandan Nilekani, the founder of Aadhaar himself raised an alarm about digital colonization by global giants last year, the advisability of allowing such companies a route of access to government data is questionable. Ironically, the methods Nilekani raised an alarm about – the penetration of rural India by Google and Facebook offering free services that give them access to data of the people using them – are similar to the expansion of Aadhaar from a voluntary ID project to a mandatory one, where Aadhaar was initially promoted as a “free” ID that enabled delivery of welfare, while the ones petitioning for Aadhaar to continue, are businesses using that data.

While such initiatives allow Indians to learn about Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, it also gives Google unprecedented access to Indian talent to recruit for itself by simply increasing involvement with those that perform – a natural aspect of any initiative! There is also a risk of projects using sensitive big data from government departments that then becomes available to Google. India lacks both laws as well as awareness of the need to restrict access to sensitive data and this can make the country vulnerable to exploitation of its data.

“The uncritical embrace of AI technologies has troubling implications for established forms of accountability, and for the protection of our most vulnerable populations,” cautions anthropolotist and researcher M C Elish, whose work focuses on intersections of artificial intelligence, automation and culture and impact of new technologies, in Don’t call AI “Magic”.

While encouraging the growth of relatively new technologies like Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning in India, it is important that the government identify its own objectives and goals and invest toward them and avoid blindly trusting both Indian businesses that could exploit public funds to meet their own training and infrastructure needs, as well as big data giants that could exploit sensitive data about the country that is available only to a government that present actions that would serve their interests as national interest.

India suffers from no shortage of those who want the government to invest in new technologies, as well as those who see the risks of such technologies and want the government to exert more caution. Instead of the current system of the government largely engaging with those who prefer a specific outcome when making decisions, perhaps the government should utilize the intellectual capital available in the country to be presented with both pros and cons that allow it to make decisions related with such adoption in a manner that allows for more informed decisions on adoption, better safeguarding of public interest and allowing or restricting access to sensitive data and investment of public funds in a manner that benefits a larger section of the country.