There is one area where India, with second largest number of poor, can lead the world. It can use AI to solve problems for the underserved billions.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the 21st century space race where India lags far behind leaders like China and the US. However, there is one area where the country, with second largest number of poor, can lead the world. It can use AI to solve problems for the underserved billions. That’s exactly what Wadhwani Institute of AI does. Launched last February by prime minister Narendra Modi, backed by NRI entrepreneurs (Rs 200 crore grant) – Wadhwani brothers Sunil and Romesh – WIAI is using AI to serve the bottom of the pyramid.
What does it take to work in cutting edge areas like AI, where India has scarce talent, to serve the underserved?
On its first anniversary, P Anandan, CEO of WIAI, reflects back on the challenges and his journey so far in an interview with Malini Goyal.
Edited excerpts: How difficult is it to set up an institute in India in a cutting edge area like AI?
Any new organisation starts with a clean slate. In AI, even more so as nobody has done what we aspire to do. Partnerships are critical. For example, while we may develop AI-based applications but implementation cannot be done by us. We have to work closely with outfits who work closely with the community but may not have the bandwidth to understand AI’s complexity. Hence, we are a much more open-ended organisation.
WIAI just completed its first year. How has the journey been?
It has been exciting. We are working closely with multiple partners including governments like Niti Aayog, Government of India and state governments. We are also engaging with top academic institutions like University of Southern California, Stanford University, University of Washington, New York University and the IITs in India. For problem identification and solution deployment, we are working with outfits like Gates Foundation, PATH, WISH Foundation, Tata Trusts. We are exploring working with LV prasad eye institute on eye related issues. We have five focus areas – agriculture, health, education, infrastructure and financial inclusion. We want to look at problems where AI and use of data bases can help drive better solutions and at a scale. A few areas we have begun work on are TB, infant mortality and pest control for cotton farmers. We will start their pilots later this year.
Working with the government isn’t easy. How has been your experience?
It has been amazingly good. Since we are an Indian not-for-profit and the data stays here, there is lot of comfort factor. To innovate and serve underserved community, the government has a critical role to play. The commercial sector is not motivated to serve the poor. Social sector does not offer the right type of commercial incentive. Take for example education and the messiness in its implementation. Poor people have less freedom to make choices. They don’t have the ability to understand and make trade-offs. We need somebody to do it. Yes, governments don’t do it well. But nobody does it better.
Organisationally, how has the journey been? We have 25 people and will double by 2019 end. About 60% of our staff are part of research and engineering team, senior people with background in AI etc. The remaining 40% work with partners identifying problems and focus on products and programs.
An outfit like WIAI cannot operate like a normal corporate. To build a culture of research, pursue innovation, it must be agile to constantly review things and solve problems. We look to startup culture to deliver amid chaos even as we work with external partners in more corporate-like manner to bring some discipline and meet our goals. Transparency and responsibility delegation lower down the team where they own success makes a huge difference. We work in small teams of five-six people with diverse experiences. Since we don’t control all ends of the pipeline, we must work closely with partners to co-create and implement. Trust is critical.
By next year, we hope to set up an AI innovation hub which will help energise India’s AI ecosystem. The hub will be a broker or anchor connecting AI experts wanting to work on problems with those in the social sector. We want to explore ways in which AI experts globally could volunteer and spend some time solving social sector problems here.
In social sector, with low salaries, how tough is to get top notch AI talent in India?
Our core team will remain small. While we pay competitive salaries, we don’t want people to join us for salary but because they are passionate about what we do. Once we build our reputation, global AI talent will be willing to come and work with us to solve social problems. Creative passionate people want to do new cool things. They want ownership and credit. The significance of the problems they are solving is a big motivator. Having worked in the research area for years, I understand that well.
India is far behind in the AI race. What are our biggest challenges?
India’s biggest challenge is the scarce AI talent. We need to find ways to address it, invest boldly in creating and attracting high-end talent. Industry has a role to play. The government alone cannot do it. There is the problem of datasets. But it is a surmountable problem. Talent issue is harder.
P Anandan, 63, CEO, Wadhwani Institute of AI
BIO: An alumnus of IIT Madras and the University of Massachusetts, Anandan taught at Yale University before joining Microsoft in the 1990s. An expert in computer vision, he led Microsoft Research India for nearly a decade. In 2017, he helped set up Wadhwani Institute of Artificial Intelligence.
WIAI: Backed by Wadhwani brothers Romesh and Sunil, not-for-profit WIAI uses technologies such as AI, machine learning and data science to help solve issues in education, health, infrastructure and agriculture.
JOURNEY SO FAR: With a team of 25 — mostly AI scientists and engineers, WIAI works with NGOs and governments to solve social issues.
Maternal & child health: Low birth weight babies account for 48% of newborn deaths. Current processes fail to identify such babies making timely interventions difficult. WIAI has created an AI-powered virtual weighing machine to provide accurate, tamper-proof, geo-tagged measurements on a smartphone without additional hardware or data connectivity.
Tuberculosis: Despite a strong TB eradication programme, almost half of TB cases in India go undetected. Working with the Central Tuberculosis Division, WIAI’s AI-backed applications will help estimate and identify cases at district level. The fear of drop-off among TB patients is high. WIAI’s applications will also help health workers prioritise TB patients.
Cotton farming: Pests and heavy pesticide usage for cotton, India’s third largest crop, has added to farmer distress. WIAI’s has developed low-cost AI based detection tool for two major pests for farmers. The field trials have been done in partnership with Maharashtra government and Better Cotton Initiative.
Read more: Economic Times