AI and Associated Tech Developments Hold Threats But Also Opportunities for Inclusive Growth in India

Technology is often heralded as the ultimate answer to all developmental issues, although it is a mere tool. Through its flagship programs like Digital India, Smart Cities, and Startup India, India is gearing up for a technological revolution, but it holds as many threats as promises for our political and social system. From education to health, jobs to recreation, planning to governance almost all aspects of our life will eventually become digitized and to some extent automated. With big money invested by big players, this transformation will take place sooner than we imagined. Governments themselves are struggling with a lack of knowledge in some instances, and policy frameworks in other. Meanwhile, common folks have been ushered in to this future unprepared and with insufficient safety nets.

The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) India Office, along with its partners, has published a series of papers on artificial intelligence (AI) in India, available here. The current pandemic has accelerated the use of digital technologies, and collection of public data is becoming imperative for designing solutions and planning the way ahead from here.

Within this context, FES organized an interview with its participating partner organizations Tandem Research, IT for Change and The Dialogue.

What are some of the critical challenges for an inclusive and socially just digital transformation in India, especially in the context of the current pandemic? What institutional capacities are needed?

Tandem Research: Digital technologies can be a force for good, catalyzing empowerment and inclusivity. But they also exacerbate inequalities, pose new risks, and raise serious concerns about responsibility and accountability. This has become even clearer during the pandemic. Digital contact-tracing applications and location-monitoring tools, for example, pose grave threats to individual privacy and security. Monitoring and surveillance of workers is increasing under the pretext of public health and safety.

While these examples are not unique to India, the challenges are particularly acute in India because of low levels of institutional and regulatory capacity, and inequitable development and economic growth trajectories. Addressing some of the challenges posed by digital technologies must start by investments in the analogue components of the digital economy.

AI is not a silver bullet against complex social challenges. Rather, it can pose serious risks to privacy, accountability, and can lead to new concentrations of power and knowledge. We need to develop frameworks for responsible AI adoption as well as algorithmic tools to examine the impact of AI on people, markets, democracy, and the environment. We also need to draw red lines around AI deployment, such as automated facial recognition systems. Existing data protection and privacy frameworks are inadequate for an AI age. We need to set new limits on the global data market, holding data collectors accountable for the use and misuse of data.

The pandemic has also contributed to the increasing power and influence of big tech companies. These companies do bring benefits, as has become increasingly evident during the pandemic. However, market policies are needed to check their societal influence, and keep them in line with individual freedoms and societal wellbeing.

How can we ensure disruptive yet constructive contribution through AI in different sectors? Kindly illustrate through examples from the education and agriculture sector.

IT for Change: The Indian context does not offer much possibility for deployment of AI in education. Large parts of the country lack access to devices and connectivity, as well as a reliable electricity supply. The National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) accepted by the Cabinet this July suggests that online education has to be promoted as schools are locked down. It discusses the need to support digital infrastructure building as well.

AI in education needs big data on actual teacher-learner interactions but this is only available in India for a very small percentage of learners who learn online. If we want to consider the possibilities of AI for education, moving towards contextualized content holds promise in the future.

In case of agritech, big data analytics raise concerns of inequality and sovereignty. Big data and AI in agriculture require sizeable landholdings that are not common in the smaller, fragmented landholding patterns in India. Additionally, India’s AI capabilities and data infrastructure are far behind global leaders such as the US, Israel, or China.

However, some local initiatives have emerged that use AI in a holistic way that prioritizes local collectives and their autonomy. Some have collaborated with state governments to scale up local platform models, or connected agritech start-ups to potential investors. These initiatives are locally placed for local impact, but funded by global investment, protecting local economies from monopolistic capture by big tech but allowing them to reap the benefits of AI.

Why is it important for India to upgrade to Industry 4.0 levels? Given the new reality, how can digital disruption help?

The Dialogue: Technology will be key to India’s recovery from the pandemic.

AI has helped understand the structure of the coronavirus, which has been crucial in development of the vaccine, while smartphones have been essential in contact tracing and mapping the spread of the disease. Working from home and social distancing are giving a boost to the industrial internet of things, and information and network security are gaining prominence. We shall have to adopt the latest technologies to remain connected and keep our industrial networks secure.

This Fourth Industrial Revolution does not have to lead to joblessness but merely a change in job roles, as long as the workforce is reskilling and upskilling itself. The key to tackling complex challenges with technology is innovation and agility. For example, when food delivery was prohibited during the early phases of the lockdown, platform-based companies Swiggy and Zomato evolved to include delivery of ‘essential’ groceries.

The government has demonstrated its own agility in rapidly developing a range of policy responses to the evolving data-protection needs. National Health Stack – a nationally-shared digital infrastructure designed to address multiple health verticals and create diverse solution – and National Open Digital Ecosystems, which is an enabling ecosystem for leveraging digital platforms for transformative social, economic and governance impact through citizen-centric approach, are two examples of such responses. It is also crucial at this juncture to appoint an independent Data Protection Authority that can secure both user privacy and national interest.

This interview was first published on the FES Asia site.

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FES AI and associated tech developments hold threats but also opportunities for inclusive growth in India