There was a brief, almost passing, mention about Artificial Intelligence in Interim Finance Minister Piyush Goyal's maiden budget speech. He talks of an artificial intelligence portal being created soon, and centres of excellence that will be set up. That much we should be grateful for - at least the Indian government took note of a technology that is changing business and life. In the last four budgets, AI did not find any mention. The government itself has not made noise about artificial intelligence being a focus area in the past four years. The expenditure documents do not shed much light on exactly how much the government plans to spend on AI and what exactly it plans to do? One thing is clear though, the government's idea about harnessing AI is all about using it for various ministries-not really about spending money on cutting edge AI research that will give it an edge in tomorrow's world.
Now, let us take China, a country we are so fond of comparing ourselves with. China started focusing on AI research as early as the 80s and 90s-even though it was acknowledged that it was way behind in research on AI, when compared to the US.
Since then, however, both private research as well as government spending on AI research has shot up dramatically in the country. A study estimated that the spending by the Chinese government on AI research has gone up by 400 per cent in the past decade.
There are commentaries already that China might be pulling ahead of even the US in AI research and development. In fact, the AI race between US and China now resembles the nuclear arms race between the erstwhile USSR and the US in the days of the Cold War.
We are talking of a digital revolution and a digital India. The budget talks of one lakh digitally enabled villages. It talks about e-governance. But here, we are still playing catch up with yesterday's technology. And that is worrying as this will again push us back in the race for developed country status. The countries that were in the forefront of Industrial Revolution 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 became developed countries while those that failed to capitalise on them quickly-like India-became relegated as the world became increasingly dependent on industries and manufacturing.
Briefly, between 2000-08, it seemed we had made strides in technology. Though we did not create many original things, we were excelling in low cost service delivery. And that was bringing in enough revenues and profits to start thinking of more ambitious projects.
The problem is that it has become apparent that we are again falling behind in Industrial Revolution 4.0. And that is possibly worse than falling behind in the first three industrial revolutions.