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No country for AI
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Opinion: is India no country for AI?

There are things technology can achieve, and then there are things it might never be able to do at all. Could self driving cars be one of those things?

I was reading a report recently about our union road transport and highways minister making a comment about never allowing driverless cars in India, because it would take away jobs. I was then reading a few opinion pieces on that, and also (as is customary) reading opinionated social media posts, and of course, politics reared its ugly head. Most of the opinions I came across were biased on way or the other depending on political leanings. Thankfully, I’m a very vocal None-Of-The-Above (NOTA) voter, so I’m able to focus on the technology instead of the political party.

As an Indian living abroad, I know the stark differences between the state of roads and driving in India and elsewhere.

Australia (where I live) is one of the top 10 nations in terms of driving licence acceptance across the world, and amongst the hardest countries to get a driving license in… and still there are those who drive like idiots. Road rage, lack of road sense, no courtesy, accidents, etc., are all part of a daily commute here as well. However, there’s one thing first world countries don’t have too many of, and that’s people.

I’m not educated in governance or economics to definitively know whether driverless cars in India would lead to more or less jobs, but I do know it’s insanity to think that AI is anywhere close to as sophisticated as it needs to be before it can drive a car in India! The sheer amount of variables is just insane: if it’s not the potholes, then it’s swerving human drivers, lack of lanes painted on the roads, and lack of people respecting those lanes when they are painted… Then there’s cyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians and even animals to navigate past, not to mention the average signal jumper and jaywalker…

Uber self driving car
An Uber self-driving car prototype

I want to be clear, this is not a criticism of our country, merely a reality check of our rather unique situation. I genuinely believe that if there were over a billion first-worlders crammed into spaces and cities the way we are in India, the roads would be warzones littered with dead bodies and millions seeking therapy!

There are things technology has accomplished, things it will achieve, and then things it might never do at all, and it’s OK to admit to those areas in which it might never make any inroads. Will driverless cars never come to India? Who knows, but for the foreseeable future, don’t hold your breath.

However, is it justified to extrapolate this lack of AI-love to all fields, just because AI might never drive a car in India?

Big corporate houses with international clients and those with billions or trillions of data points will need big data analysing machine intelligence to help them sort through everything. Our vibrant stock market is another area where AI thrives. Translation services, personal assistants, recommendation engines, pretty much everything digital will have AI embedded in it, as it should.

I think the mistake people are making is to confuse the idea that foreign solutions cannot be applied to India with the concept of AI itself. Of course, whatever algorithm is developed in order to make a recommendation to an American cannot be applied “as is” to India. In fairness, is anyone stupid enough to even suggest that? The algorithm might need to be much more complex for Indians (or simpler even, because maybe we’re more alike than we’d care to admit?). Whatever the case, an algorithm can still be used, because we’re all human, and humans follow patterns.

What we really need to do, is get over this fear of AI. There are plenty of problems that only AI could solve for India. China and the US are investing a lot of money in AI development, and there is genuine concern that a lot of India’s software-based outsourcing could soon be replaced by Chinese AI. If you think you’re suffering because you’re stuck in an uninspiring code-monkey job, imagine what happens when you can’t even get that job anymore? It would be better for Indian companies to pioneer and lead the field of AI, and ensure that there are plenty of AI-support skills in the country which can also be outsourced.

It’s not just for business that we need to ensure that we have enough human masters of AI in India, but also for national security reasons. We don’t want to be pitted against smart bots intent on stealing our data; not when we’re making a push to go digital in such a big way!

While I agree this may be no country for driverless AI, it would be a huge mistake to make this no country for all AI!

What do you think the future of AI holds in store for India? Tell me what you think in the comments section below.

Robert Sovereign-Smith