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Union Budget 2019: Govt Reaffirms AI Intent But Is It Enough?

Union Budget 2019: Govt Reaffirms AI Intent But Is It Enough?

Interim FM Piyush Goyal announced measures to drive AI tech in India

Govt has identified nine priority areas, and a national portal on AI: FM

AI Industry welcomed the initiative

The interim Union Budget 2019 announced yesterday (February 1) had a special mention of the government’s continued interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI). While presenting the budget, interim Finance Minister Piyush Goyal announced to establish a national centre in the field of AI and related technologies.

Following the announcement, industry watchers, especially startups, have lauded the move as being a “catalyst to propel India on the path of leveraging advanced and disruptive technologies.”

Goyal said, “A national programme on AI has been envisaged by the government. This should be catalysed by the national centre for artificial intelligence as a hub, along with other centres of excellence.”

The ambitious initiative has identified nine priority areas, and the national portal on AI will be developed soon, the union minister said.

“The budget acknowledges the innovation taking place in the country. The budget has clearly recognised the importance of technology in the growth of the country,” Subho Ray, president of the Internet & Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), said.

AI — which can perform tasks such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making without requiring human intervention — has the potential to add $957 Bn to India’s economy by 2035, management consulting firm Accenture in a report said. Country’s AI industry is currently estimated to be bringing in $180 Mn in revenue annually.

“In the interim budget, we had expected a significant boost by the government. We are glad to find out the government’s plans of developing a national AI  portal, which will significantly boost research and development measures,” AI startup Staqu cofounder Atul Ra said.

“We also believe that there must be a national initiative on reskilling to create future-ready talent,” apex tech industry body NASSCOM said.

Execution: The Key To Progressive Govt Initiatives

On the other hand, some startups have raised questions on its execution, which will be the key towards the success of this progressive government initiative.

“We would like to see more clarification from the government on whether this portal will build a talent pool, where will the funding for this program come from, and eventually the success stories from this initiative,” Pankit Desai, cofounder of a cybersecurity startup Sequretek, said.

Desai opined that Public Private Partnership (PPP) model will work well to realise this goal.

Shobhit Bhatnagar, the founder of an edtech startup GradeUp, also reiterated along similar lines. “Policy is much needed from the government around usage of data and AI. If this policy is made and executed correctly with the right system design, it will also be a great value add for consumer startups,” he said.

This is the second year running that the government has given attention to AI and other deeptech sub-sectors. In Budget 2018, the government had allocated $480 Mn (INR 3,073 Cr) fund to support the country’s AI, machine learning (ML), Robotics and IoT sectors. As part of this initiative, the government think tank NITI Aayog on June 2018 published a draft ‘National Strategy For Artificial Intelligence,’ outlining the scope of research and for the adoption and commercialisation of the technology.

NITI Aayog had envisioned AI use cases particularly for sectors healthcare, agriculture, education, smart cities and infrastructure, smart mobility and transportation.

The commerce and industry ministry has also set up task forces to explore the use of AI and big data technologies in the country. According to task force report, almost 38% of AI professional in India are employed with large-sized companies such as Accenture, Wipro, Adobe, JPMorgan, Amazon.

With the help of AI and related technologies, numerous startups have already made successful forays into these sectors. The task force report further points that Indian startups employ 33% of AI professionals.

According to Inc42 DataLabs, India boasts more than 1,500 AI and big data startups till 2018. In terms of funding, AI and big data startups across sectors — adtech, deeptech, ecommerce, edtech, enterprisetech, fintech, healthtech, media and entertainment — raised $5 Mn last year.

For instance, Deeptech startup Intello Labs is using AI for crop inspection and agricultural products grading, Harvesting Inc is using AI remote sensing technology to provide data on farms and farmers to enable agri-lending institutions to carry out pre-loan and post-loan activities more efficiently.