AI will be the biggest disruptor in our lifetime: Amitabh Kant, CEO, NITI Aayog

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By 2021, digital transformation will add an estimated USD 154 billion to India’s GDP, and increase the growth rate by 1 percent annually, according to an IDC study commissioned by Microsoft. The study also predicts that approximately 60 percent of India’s GDP will be derived from digital products or services by 2021.

With the government’s vision of becoming a USD 5 trillion economy by 2024, Amitabh Kant, CEO, NITI Aayog believes technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) will propel India to achieve that target and even go beyond.

“Our ambition should not just be to become a USD 5 trillion economy. Instead, we should aim to become a USD 10 trillion economy in the long run, growing at 9-10 percent year after year for three decades or more, to be able to lift our young population above the poverty line. All of this is not possible without using a large amount of data, AI and Machine Learning (ML) and bringing disruption in a vast range of areas,” Kant said during a fireside chat with Anant Maheshwari, President Microsoft India at the Digital Governance Tech Summit 2019 in New Delhi.

“If we use technologies such as AI and Machine Learning (ML) to find solutions to the problems of 1.3 billion Indians, we are actually finding a way to help 7.5 billion people of the world who are to move from poverty to middle class in the next generation and a half. That vast segment is really the market if we can reskill our workforce for AI and cloud computing. India can become the artificial intelligence garage for rest of the world through frugal engineering solutions,” Kant added.

Here are some edited excerpts from their chat:

Anant Maheshwari: How do cloud, AI and digital fit into India’s USD 5 trillion economy vision?

Amitabh Kant: India is in the midst of a once-in-a-generation disruption driven by AI. This will transform our lives in many, many ways. A study estimates that AI will generate USD 15.7 trillion in the economy by 2030. This figure is more than the combined output of USA and China. The sheer power of transformation and use of technology to leapfrog really lies in our ability to adapt and embrace AI.

India is among the very few countries globally where the government has driven digitization in a big way. For instance, almost 99.3 percent of Indians pay their Income Tax online. Almost 96 percent of these filings are cleared within three months because they are digital. The new Goods & Service Tax (GST), is digital – cashless and paperless. The Ayushman Bharat scheme is portable, paperless and digital. It provides health insurance to 500 million Indians. The number of beneficiaries is greater than the population of the USA, Europe, and Mexico put together. Every single rupee released through the Public Finance Management System (PFMS) is tracked to the last point digitally.

“The sheer power of transformation and use of technology to leapfrog really lies in our ability to adapt and embrace AI.”

By integrating technology into various aspects of the economy, the government has generated vast volumes of datasets. It is important that we use this data along with computing power and new algorithms to drive huge disruption. That’s the only way we can radically leapfrog and catch up with advanced economies.

Our ambition should not just be to become a USD 5 trillion economy. Instead, we should aim to become a USD 10 trillion economy in the long run, growing at 9-10 percent year after year for three decades or more, to be able to lift our young population above the poverty line. All of this is not possible without using a large amount of data, AI and machine learning (ML) and bringing disruption in a vast range of areas.

Two person discussing a topic in a seminar
(From left to right) Anant Maheshwari, President, Microsoft India, and Amitabh Kant, CEO, NITI Aayog, at the Digital Governance Tech Summit 2019

Anant Maheshwari: That’s fantastic and I am going to take that to turn a little bit. Because I think that creates opportunity for the country; it means opportunity for the million people who come into the job market every month. And a lot of skilling and enablement is required. I’d love to have your thoughts on the same.

Amitabh Kant: India produces about 2.6 million STEM graduates every year. This figure is four times the number of STEM graduates produced by USA. We have seen in the case of IT, vast number of generalized training courses – similar to what NIIT did at one point of time – led to reskilling our youth in a very big way.

We need to disrupt our education system. We’ve inherited an Anglo-Saxon education system where you study books and get into the next class. Through the NITI Aayog, we have opened about 3,500 tinkering labs in schools. These tinkering labs provide robots, 3D printers, Internet of Things (IoT) to students from class six onwards. We plan to open close to 10,000 tinkering labs in the next three years. Through these, we have suddenly seen innovative spirits from class 6 onwards just leap forward.

To give an example, we had this innovation contest from students from IIT and children from a slum school and public school came. We found that students from the slum school where we had set up the tinkering labs did better at problem solving than students from IIT and public schools. Because, you know, these children are confronted with day-to-day problems like water, sanitation, and waste management.

Silicon Valley is the most innovative place in the world. But it has no challenges. As a country we are also confronted with challenges such as expeditious implementation of projects, raising agriculture productivity, providing better health management, water and waste management. As Indians, we must find solutions to these problems. If we use technologies such as AI and ML to find solutions to the problems of 1.3 billion Indians, we are actually finding a way to help 7.5 billion people of the world who are to move from poverty to the middle class in the next decade and a half. That vast segment is really the market if we can reskill our workforce for AI and cloud computing. India can become the AI garage for rest of the world through frugal engineering solutions.

“India can become the AI garage for rest of the world through frugal engineering solutions.”

Anant Maheshwari: From the ecosystem point of view, where do you see the skilling movement picking up in India? What’s working well and what’s not working well?

Amitabh Kant: Skilling private sector executives in areas such as AI is very important because manufacturing is becoming a digitized process. Manufacturing used to be dirty, dark, and dangerous, on the floor shop. From the consumer to the shop floor, everything is getting manufactured based on digital inputs. And therefore, it is not possible for India to become a manufacturing nation without disrupting the manufacturing process through the adoption of AI and ML.

We used to say that India does not have the size and scale to penetrate. Our labor laws and land laws have held us back. Suddenly, AI has turned this into an advantage. Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) use technology to produce global excellence.

The challenge really is that the government, in terms of digitization, has moved progressively forward. The Indian private sector now needs to catch up. The government needs to do is put out large datasets in public domain so that start-ups in the AI domain can leverage the data.

Look at what is happening in healthcare. In India, 6.6 million families are pushed below the poverty line because they cannot afford tertiary healthcare such as cancer care. To prevent this from happening, we require huge amounts of data, biobanks, and drive the movement on health education.

If we want to bring about a massive revolution in agricultural productivity, we have to leverage precision farming, which is based on data being used and farmers being told what seeds to use, what fertilizers, based on weather and soil conditions on a real-time basis. If we want the agricultural productivity to increase, we need data on the usage of seeds and fertilizers. The next green revolution in India has to be from the use of AI to increase agricultural productivity.

Anant Maheshwari: I’m really inspired by your focus on learning. Are there any summary thoughts you have for the industry, on the ecosystem and for us to move forward?

Amitabh Kant: We’re in the midst of the biggest disruption that is going to take place. AI will be the biggest disruptor in our lifetime. It’s a once-in-a-generation force. The advantage that India has is that we have a vast number of STEM graduates. The second big advantage is that we have already demonstrated our ability to lead through information and technology. And therefore, this is an opportunity to really use AI.

There’s nothing complex about it. It’s about data, it’s about machine learning, it’s about, using data sets, better algorithms, and the computing power to really drive. The Prime Minister is a great believer in using the force of AI. And therefore, the government wants everybody to adapt AI – every government department must disrupt using AI. They must use the data available to them and use the power of many of start-ups.

This is the only way India can become a USD 5 trillion and subsequently a USD 10 trillion economy. This is the only way we can lift people above the poverty line. Use the power of AI to disrupt India in a manner which the world has never seen. This is a rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Please use this opportunity to take India forward.

Microsoft India has launched the Digital Governance Tech Tour, a National program to deliver critical AI and intelligent cloud computing skills to government officials in charge of IT across the country. The initiative comprises a series of physical and virtual workshops and aims to train 5,000 personnel over a period of 12 months. For more information click here.

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