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America’s excellence in tech developments is already famous. It is one of the most adept countries when it comes to technology, so much so that various other countries rely on their exceptional resources. For example, China’s dependency for the past two decades on chips from the US companies has resulted in a situation where ZTE, one of the leading Chinese telecom company, is at a brink of collapse because of the US government’s trade embargo. It could be said that over-reliance on American technology crippled the functionality of this company.

Fearing similar consequences for India, Ashim Roy of CardioTrack believes that India should thoroughly use indigenous AI solutions, as that is the best way to protect the interests of the nation. In technologies involving AI, Indian companies and entrepreneurs are largely dependent on technologies from the US tech giants such as IBM, Amazon and Google. Although these frameworks provide the fastest way to launch a product in the market, Roy believes that Indian companies and government is leaving themselves and their customers at the whims of the US trade or foreign policy. In areas such as healthcare and cybersecurity, it is vitally important to develop indigenous solutions such that no foreign country can jeopardise lives and the wellness of the citizens of this country.

In his efforts towards the indigenous AI, Roy aims to start a campaign to create awareness around the same. Analytics India Magazine caught up with Roy to understand his views on the need for implementing indigenous technology, about his initiative, how he plans to implement it, and more.

Analytics India Magazine: When it comes to AI, Indian companies and entrepreneurs are largely dependent on technologies from US tech giants. Do think it leaves Indian companies and government vulnerable to vagaries of the US trade or foreign policies?

Ashim Roy: This is a very significant problem on multiple levels. Artificial intelligence, machine learning or deep learning applications are being used in many aspects of day-to-day activities and has helped in automating various process with a very high level of accuracy.

US has become a dominant player in AI because of its significant investments in research and development over the past two decades. Some of the other players are China, Israel and several European countries. Despite these developments, a large number of Indian and global AI applications are still being built on third-party AI engines and most of these AI engines are developed in the US. For instance, in India, many AI and ML applications are being developed on IBM Watson, which could be a significant problem based on the recent situation at ZTE. The Chinese telecom equipment giant, ZTE, is the latest victim of the recent trade embargo imposed by the US Department of Commerce. This embargo has stopped the shipment of components from US companies such as Qualcomm and others to ZTE and has led to a factory shutdown leaving 75,000 workers without jobs.

If US were to impose similar restrictions on IBM to license Watson, many Indian companies offering AI applications built on top of Watson will be in peril. Moreover, if these AI applications are in critical areas of healthcare and cybersecurity, lives of many Indians will be endangered.

It is, therefore, essential not to become completely dependent on partners from countries like the US or China or Europe in areas that are critical to the safety, security and well-being of the citizens of India.

AIM: How can India’s dependency on AWS/Google cloud engine raise security issues?

AR: Many problems can arise when the AI engine from a foreign partner is used. For instance, while training the AI engine, large volumes of data must be shared with the AI engine. Personal data security is on everyone’s mind since the Facebook’s misadventure with personal data, and there are many questions to be answered, such as:

  • Has the AI application developer taken precautions to protect user identity?
  • Has the AI application developer taken proper authorization to use and share the user data?
  • Has the AI application developer taken proper measures to keep the data safe from the hands of hackers and terrorists?
  • Is the AI application developer complaint to General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), which came in to effect on 25th May 2018?
  • Does the AI engine take care of all these data security issues? And others.

In general, most of the AI engines and framework companies will not provide answers to most of these questions in a way to give confidence to regulators and policymakers that personal data is being kept safe. Last two decades of playing loose with personal data at all levels – Governments, Businesses and Consumers – has led to the very serious concern about misuse of personal data and AI engines “see” a lot of data.

The Indian government has been developing its own data privacy laws. These are designed to protect consumers in case of a data breach. The regulatory framework specifies what data elements need to be protected. The AI application developer needs to ensure that the overall solution that includes the application, AI engine and all of the elements of the solution that have access to personal data adhere to these requirements. A tall order for an upstart AI entrepreneur. No wonder, one of the technology visionaries of our times, Elon Musk, thinks of AI doomsday.

AIM: How important is it to develop indigenous AI solutions when it comes to sensitive areas like healthcare?

AR: Future of India’s safety and security depends largely on its ability to develop indigenous technologies for areas such as healthcare, cybersecurity and data privacy.

Being dependent on foreign technology for mobile phones is acceptable because if the US stops Intel and Qualcomm from selling chips and stops Google from licensing Android to Micromax, consumers in India still can buy phones from Samsung or HTC. However, if IBM is banned from licensing Watson to Indian healthcare solution providers, the situation can have disastrous consequences for the well-being of the population. This can seriously impact the success of Modicare because without AI interpretation there can be no intervention.

One might find the idea that IBM, Google, Intel and Qualcomm not selling their products in India as preposterous. Think again. The only reason the US did not put a similar embargo on Huawei was because it wanted to avoid an all-out trade war with China, since Huawei is a much bigger company with deep-rooted political connections. The scenarios of a trade embargo are not far-fetched.

AIM: Indigenous AI solutions based on global research is the need of the hour. But how well-equipped are Indian companies and research institutes to achieve it? For instance, Indian IT companies may not have the infrastructure/platforms like Microsoft, AWS or Google? How can one remedy this situation?

AR: There is a huge amount of information on AI research and scholarly publications about it, in the public domain. Two of India’s IT majors – Infosys and Wipro have developed their own AI platforms. These activities are to gain knowledge, support various IT services and customer requirements. The reason many of the AI platform developers from US made the AI platform available to the global AI application development community at a low cost or no cost is the access to the data that the platform companies do not have.

Here’s how this works – Application developers using the AI platform need to constantly feed the AI engine with data to train the AI engine. The platform owner gets access to a steady supply of valuable data without having to pay for it. Which makes this a really sweet deal. Not surprisingly US IT majors are aggressively staking their positions in this wild west AI terrain.

In India, Wipro HOLMES and Infosys Nia are two notable entries when it comes to AI platforms. However, these are proprietary platforms. It would have been great if Infosys and Wipro had made them open access platforms to help develop the AI community in India.

This situation can be remedied however. All that is required is a sound AI policy framework, aggressive investment, political will and collaborative implementation. Sounds simple. Right?

AIM: What are the steps that Indian companies, government and policymakers can take to overcome this issue?
AR: Some of these steps are:

AI policy framework: Policy framework that encourages development of a complete AI platform. This will also ensure that foreign players abide by the rules to develop AI knowledge-base in India, ensure that platform infrastructure is implemented within national boundaries and in case of an adverse geopolitical situation, access to the platform cannot be denied.

Data Protection Regulations: All data sourced in India remains in India. Data is protected to ensure citizen’s privacy. Unless explicitly directed by the owner of the data, it cannot be shared with anyone else. Owner of the data cannot be denied access to their data under any circumstances.

Collaboration: Collaboration is the key to rapid progress on this front. Unless there are funds available from the government, neither academia nor the industry are likely move forward quickly and actively engage in collaboration. The current AI activities are akin to a set of silos that do not benefit from each other. This is India – Show me the money!

Investment: Government should lead the way by providing grants, debt and equity investment. Government must ensure that these funds can be easily accessed by entrepreneurs and scholars and used for the purpose it was allocated and ensure that it happens smoothly it has to eliminate red-tape and corruption. The current process of accessing government grants is archaic, inefficient and lacks transparency. Funds allocated to promote entrepreneurship in India in 2014 still has not found its way to entrepreneurs and startups.

Monitoring: Measuring progress against the policy framework and expectation of a set of outcomes is a MUST. If progress lacks, then implementation must be changed. The age-old saying that what is not measured or monitored does not work applies here as well.

Regulatory Enforcement: Without regulatory enforcement, the initiative will fail. When it comes to companies like Facebook, it is only through regulatory enforcement one can hope that the data and privacy of the Indian citizen be protected.

AIM: What are the challenges on the way when it comes to having this in place? Do we have the talent to sustain the momentum or build cloud infrastructure?

AR: One thing India does not lack is talent. However, talent alone will not solve the problem. What we lack is leadership. We also lack of strategic and policy level thinking about issues related to new technologies such as AI, ability to envision impact of AI on diverse areas from agriculture, waste management, transportation and politics. However, it is not fair to put all the blame on the government. If forums can be created where strategic thinkers from the industry can exchange their viewpoints and create awareness for policymakers (It does happen in certain industries), which leads to policy level initiatives in a reasonably short span of time (under a year), only then we can expect rapid progress. While India may not be a rich country; however, building cloud infrastructure, use of high-end CPUs and GPUs and creating a flourishing AI development environment is well within our capability. It is essential that government funding be available to support private players and entrepreneurs to offer such solutions to the AI research and development community within India. These types of easily accessible infrastructure will promote R&D in AI.

AIM: Please tell us about the campaign that you have started to create awareness about the policy issues Indian companies might face when it comes to technologies like AI?

AR: I would not say that I have started a “campaign” to create awareness about the need of indigenous AI development. However, I feel very strongly about the need for action from policymakers, industry and academia. Whenever, I get an opportunity speak about AI, I do bring up these issues about the need for policy level discussions and other emerging technologies that are shaping the world around us. Perhaps the publication of this interview will help start the “campaign”. And, I am absolutely committed to help in this process.

I do hope that policy hacks and business leaders and academia come together and join hands to develop these ideas and implement solutions that will protect the interests of the people of India and secure the country from failing trade talks and the whims of developed countries.

AIM: This campaign would also mean serious re-work and re-evaluation of government policies? How far do you think it is possible in the current context?

AR: We need to actively engage with various government agencies and convince political leaders about the urgency of the need. And, the list can go on and on. However, this will require funding to make the representation, develop the ideas further, collaborate with industry and academia, learn from global policy and technology initiatives and create an environment where everyone can see the outcome of these activities. If the initiative is for protecting the interests of the people, then it is essential that they become aware of the initiative and support it.

AIM: What is your action plan for this? Can you highlight how this will affect India’s talent and IT ecosystem?

AR: Some of the ideas about the action plan have been outlined above. I cannot say that I have the knowledge or expertise to create a complete action plan. However, I will be happy to work closely with other experts to create such a plan. There is a need for many qualified minds to come together for a cohesive AI policy. This is good news indeed for the Indian IT ecosystem because there will be a need for high caliber talent to make this happen. And most importantly, it will deliver “AI Made in India” from start to finish.