Artificial Intelligence, left, and Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh and Rahul Gandhi, right.
  • While China is making serious progress in AI, India is happy making serious jokes on it.

Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi is not making a speech on artificial intelligence (AI) during his tour of America. In fact, he is not even attending the AI conference in question, if his aide Sam Pitroda is to be believed. But, what does it say about a country’s priorities if something as important as AI comes into popular discourse because of a leader like Rahul Gandhi? Clearly, India is yet to even join the AI race, leave alone making a mark in it.

The contrast with its eastern neighbour could not have been starker. China has already made major leaps, ahead of even many Western countries in the field of AI. India Today executive editor Damayanti Datta is absolutely right when she points out that if a Doklam-like situation arises again, China may be in an advantageous position, 'simply because it is leading the AI research race.'

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, in his very engaging recent book Deep Thinking, points out that China has already produced six chess players, who figure in the top 50 in the world, who were not being trained by imported Russian coaches, as it was in vogue, but by “grandmaster machines”. The results are showing. Kasparov points out that although Russia still dominates the world chess circuit with 11 players in the top 50, their average age is 32, while for the Chinese it is 25.

Although chess is only an indicator, it is a very important one. A whole new generation of Chinese experts in various fields are coming up with a very good grasp of AI-machine interaction. Here, it may be very fanciful for many to think of ‘will-machines-take-over’ scenarios or killbots. As Asimov said it rightly decades ago, we are conditioned to view robots (so implicitly AI) as either menaces or pathos. Machine learning expert Andrew Ng, rightly points out that we should be as anxious about machines taking over as we should worry about ‘the problem of overcrowding on Mars’. Incidentally, Andrew Ng, who was originally with Google, is now with China’s Baidu.

Chinese media further boast of the strides the country is making in the field of AI. For example, in March this year, the South China Morning Post wrote triumphantly:

Baidu’s AI-powered facial recognition technology, which beat humans, was recently listed as the “10 Breakthrough Technologies” of 2017 by MIT Technology Review. China has also overtaken the US, leading the world in publishing academic journal articles on deep learning, a sub-discipline of AI research.

In July this year, China announced its ambitious plan to become the world leader in AI by 2030, building an AI-based industry worth $150 billion. Then, in August, Chinese authorities had a real problem on their hands when AI-chatbots went ‘rogue’ (or should we say sane?) and questioned the Communist Party of China. In a bizarre turn of events looking like an anecdote pulled out of former US president Ronald Reagan’s famous Soviet-jokes, when a web user hailed the party with a “Long Live the Communist Party”, AI-based BabyQ chatbot retorted, “Do you think such corrupt and incapable politics can last a long time?” And when asked about democracy, it said that ‘democracy is a must!’ The government pulled the plug off the chatbots and perhaps sent them for a Maoist re-education camp.

Anti-revolutionary AI?  Anti-revolutionary AI? 

Apart from the obvious discomfort the event could cause to Marxist ideologues, it also shows the level of complexity that has been achieved in AI domain in China with huge private investment and robust educational system, which also derives its strength from traditional Chinese skills in mathematics.

Meanwhile, in India

Already the anti-science Left brigade and neo-Luddites are joining hands across India against developmental and science projects. The most apt example of this is the opposition to the neutrino observatory at the Bodi Hills in Tamil Nadu.

Trade unionism and the draconian Right to Education (RTE) Act have crippled the basic science education system in India, making government schools substandard while encouraging religious expansionist forces as the custodians of affordable education in India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has shown the political will to take tough decisions, should look at how India is ill-prepared to counter the wholesome achievement in science its communist neighbour is making. India, with all its handicaps of democracy, needs to set national targets in the areas of AI as it does in space technology. It also needs to invest heavily in primary education, particularly in science. Further, India should make its science and research institutions more streamlined, free of political activism, and more committed to national missions in science.

At another level, India needs to make science a part of the larger culture. Any discussion on AI in India, particularly among the saffron brigade is likely to start and end with that one 1985 paper by Rick Briggs (Knowledge Representation in Sanskrit and Artificial Intelligence). And the discussion around this also would be perversely distorted to say that Sanskrit is the ‘best suited language for computers’. This is a tragedy, because in natural language processing, Indic language theories do have a lot to offer and we have a great innate advantage, thanks to our linguistic diversity as well as because of the great contributions by grammarians like Panini. But then, we have chosen the non-existent luxury of choosing cargo cult science.

So, beyond the Rahul Gandhi memes, and regardless of whether or not he addresses an AI conference in America, any event that helps in creating awareness about AI in India should be welcomed.

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