India can be global leader in AI for social good: Sunil Wadhwani

India can be global leader in AI for social good: Sunil Wadhwani

From an AI stand point, India is quite far behind. One of the reasons is that we don't have a robust educational system, which would give us the talent pool that can develop AI tools, says Sunil Wadhwani.

Sunil Wadhwani Sunil Wadhwani

Billionaire brothers Sunil Wadhwani and Romesh Wadhwani have funded several high-profile not for profit initiatives that utilise innovation and technology to solve social problems in India. The most recent one, inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi early this year, was the Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence (WIAI), a research institution that aims to harness the power of AI to address challenges in healthcare, agriculture and skilling among others. In an interview with Business Today, Sunil Wadhwani, who in his individual capacity also funds four-year-old Wadhwani Institute for Sustainable Healthcare (WISH Foundation) in India, explains the significance of both the initiatives, and the progress made so far. Excerpts:

BT: Prime Minister Modi had launched your AI institute in February. What has been the progress?

Wadhwani: It's still early; only a couple of months. We are building our team. We have started identifying specific research areas, where we will develop solutions in the next four to six months. One of these areas include AI for frontline health; to make frontline health workers more productive, second is AI in tuberculosis, very specific areas where AI can help in detection, treatment etc. And third is in farming. How do we help small farmers become more productive, especially in cotton, because there are large numbers of suicides among cotton farmers. AI could also potentially be used in several areas to help farmers increase their crop yields, to get higher prices.

BT: Do we have AI research capabilities?

Wadhwani: From an AI stand point, India is quite far behind. Two countries that are extremely far ahead are -- the US and China. Then there are others like Japan, Germany, UK etc. India is really far behind and one of the reasons is that we don't have a robust educational system, which would give us the talent pool that can develop AI tools. You need people to be trained in data sciences. We have virtually no master's level programmes in data sciences. So, that's the starting point. Because we haven't had that, we have a very small number of researchers in India. I was reading somewhere that the number was less than 50 while in the US and China, such researchers are in thousands.

BT: How will you carry out research in India if we are so short of talent?

Wadhwani: We have found good people in India as well as people overseas, who are open to come back and work with us. We have partnerships with leading AI institutes globally. This includes Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, MIT, University of Washington, and University of Southern California etc.  They will be sending faculty members and doctoral students to work with us in Mumbai. That will expand our talent pool further. We are also starting to work with universities in India to set up Masters in Data science programme. Mumbai University is the first such university. We help them in curriculum development, faculty training, and will also provide some funding. Over the next 3 to 7 years, we will develop sufficient AI talent pool in India. The other aspect is developing the research ecosystem for AI in India.  Two months ago Niti Aayog released India's first AI strategy. We were honoured to work with Niti Aayog on this and if you look at their plan, they have a very robust strategy for developing an ecosystem. So for the next three to four years, you will see a lot more talent developing in the AI space in India.

BT: What has been the progress so far?

Wadhwani: We have an office already in Mumbai and the team is growing. This will be the first AI institute globally for social causes. This initiative along with the efforts of Niti Aayog, can turn India into a global leader in AI for social good. Even US and China with all the talent they have, most of it is used either for commercial purposes or for security purposes and very little is going into helping the bottom 2 billion people.

BT: So AI Institute is more oriented towards research, while your own initiative, the WISH Foundation is more of healthcare service?

Wadhwani: Correct. AI institute will be developing solutions, but not directly implementing it. They will be working with partners starting with government, and other civil society partners. At WISH foundation, we work on innovation, we work with innovators, and we also want to see how it actually works. And then we work with government to see how we can scale up. So the two organizations are already working together. AI in Mumbai and WISH in Delhi are working closely to come out with AI solutions in healthcare.

BT: How critical is AI as a healthcare tool?

Wadhwani: Artificial intelligence, which is again technology and innovation at a higher level, can help across the board. By implementing Ayushman Bharat the government is planning to provide insurance coverage to 500 million people. The programme will also generate huge amount of data and if it is analysed very rapidly, it can provide tremendous value to the government. For example, if someone goes to a facility in India today, let's say in Madhya Pradesh with dengue, AI algorithms can analyse that real time and provide data to the government instantaneously and say look dengue breaking out over here, this is what it looks like, and this is where it is likely to go next, so that the government can then take preventive action to stop the spread.  This is just one example. There are many ways it can be utilised.