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India Uniquely Positioned to Become AI Lab of the World - Interview with CEO NITI Aayog

India Uniquely Positioned to Become AI Lab of the World - Interview with CEO NITI Aayog

Amitabh Kant, CEO Niti Aayog


Q1: How has the current government’s focus on Digital India helped the country during COVID?

India innovatively leveraged technology to tackle the COVID-19 crisis in the country. Perhaps, there can be no better example of this than the successful development and deployment of the Aarogya Setu app. This Bluetooth based contact tracing app has been able to predict over 3,500 hotspots in the country and has warned lakhs of people of the potential risk of infection. The Aarogya Setu app became one of the fastest entrants to the 100 Mn club and was globally, the most downloaded COVID-19 contact tracing app. We all realize the importance of contactless transactions when it comes to protecting ourselves from COVID-19. In India, it is the evolution of the Unified Payments Interface which successfully facilitated contactless payments during this entire period. Today, you can make a payment by just making a UPI transfer, tapping your phone or scanning a QR code. UPI, which is just 4 years old has double the number of transactions that American Express has, globally. The strong digital backbone that we have been able to develop in a relatively short span of time ensured that the most vulnerable continued to reap the advantages of Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) throughout this period of crisis. We have witnessed lakhs of telemedicine consultations on the eSanjeevani and eSanjeevani OPD platforms, which have been implemented by 23 states in India and cover around 75% of the population. Under the guidance of the Prime Minister, the private sector worked with the government to develop the Swasth Telemedicine Platform to facilitate contactless consultations and the app has already witnessed lakhs of COVID consultations and triages. Today, testing and treatment for COVID-19 is available for free under the PM-JAY. With one of the lowest data costs in the world and over 650 million internet users, one being added every 3 seconds, the deep focus of the government on Digital India is the single most important factor in making this possible – from predicting hotspots to facilitating contactless payments and consultations. During the COVID-19 crisis, when the whole world was reeling under distress, India attracted foreign investments of over USD 38Bn, most of which went into technology companies. This is testimony to the efforts of the Government of India in creating an enabling environment under Digital India.

Q2: Which are the areas where do you think the programmes have been the most impactful? Which are these programmes?

Digital India has been a key driver in not only introducing new technology programmes, but also to rapidly execute and scale up these programmes to reach our 1.3 billion plus population. In the last 5 years, the Digital India programme has seen an upward growth achieving numerous milestones and flagship initiatives which has led to a massive leapfrogging in technology adoption across sectors. These achievements cover a wide range of sectors and include development of digital infrastructure such as laying down optical fibre cables, access to mobile and broadband connectivity and e-governance among others. Many major initiatives come under the aegis of the Digital India programme. Almost every Indian now has the digitally authenticated Aadhar identification number. The linkage of Aadhaar with bank accounts and mobile phones (the JAM trinity) - is the bedrock of much of the digitization drive under the Digital India movement. Look at UPI- where else in the world would you see a platform such as UPI scaling to a level that it now manages 18 billion transactions annually with a 20X boost in both, the volume and value of transactions. Similarly, look at the digitization of Goods and Services Tax (GST). The whole system runs on the GST Network (GSTN), the digital platform which inputs information such as sales, purchases, and the tax returns filed which ensures complete transparency in the system. Another revolutionary initiative has been the Government e-Marketplace, the GeM portal which has successfully been able to leverage technology to completely transform public procurement. And there have been many such efforts - RuPay, DigiLocker, Smart Cities Mission that has changed the way physical and digital systems interact. To my mind, digitization has been a prominent theme in this post-COVID world. India was already on a digital-first trajectory when the pandemic struck and we had taken massive strides in our digital capabilities for the past several years and thus, we were prepared for any technology disruptions.

Q3: What are some of the big projects in the offing which will take the digital India journey forward?

It is absolutely imperative that we have a state-of-the-art digital infrastructure in place upon which Digital India initiatives can be delivered. And it is imperative that we look at models of technology adoption that promotes last-mile connectivity in the most remote areas of our country. And within this context, the PM’s clarion call of laying down optical fibre cables in every village in the next 1000 days is a step in the right direction. Such a commitment to take the country’s over six lakh villages into the 21st century and providing digital infrastructure to link every village with internet connectivity is most crucial to a massive digital and economic transformation of the country. Not just technology companies, the world is watching India’s UPI platform. In fact, Google in its letter last year to the US Federal Reserve detailed the successful example of UPI-based digital payment in India and has asked the Federal Reserve System of the United States of America to follow India's footsteps. This provides a massive opportunity for us to make UPI a global and scalable architecture for digital payments that could be used across the world. The National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) has set up an international subsidiary to take our unique payment system behind the RuPay network and Unified Payments Interface (UPI) to global markets. India has a significant stake in the AI revolution. Recently, the Hon’ble PM inaugurated the global virtual summit on artificial intelligence called Responsible AI for Social Empowerment (RAISE), 2020 to chart a course for using AI for social transformation, inclusion and empowerment in areas such as healthcare, agriculture, education and smart mobility. We were able to bring together global AI leaders to develop national AI capabilities. India houses the world's third largest startup ecosystem, it has premier institutions such as IITs and IIITs, a robust digital infrastructure, and millions of newly-minted STEM graduates every year. Therefore, to my mind, India is uniquely positioned to become the AI laboratory of the world and contribute to inclusive development and growth through empowerment.

Q4: What kind of impact do you foresee of projects like the Digital Health ID card?

The National Digital Health Mission will transform, end to end, the way in which healthcare is delivered in our country. The delivery of healthcare in India will become totally technology-enabled through data-integration and standardization. Paper trails in our healthcare system have led to system wide inefficiencies. A digital identity will enable easy access for patients to their own medical records and will also enable them to share their own health profiles with doctors and healthcare providers for treatment. Such a system will ensure safe and permanent storage of data and these records shall prove very useful for monitoring health status of an individual and ensuring the correct line of treatment based on their previous records. Data protection is at the heart of all efforts of the government of India and in the case of the NDHM, the health and data policies have been formulated to ensure privacy and data security. The data shall be encrypted and there shall be no unauthorized, third party access. All Indians can get a unique, easy to remember health ID, just like one’s UPI ID. This would carry their records and history and they would be able to search for hospitals and labs, evaluate the level of services besides others. Doctors, hospitals, diagnostic laboratories, and pharmacies will also be given a digital identity which will lead to standardization and reduce their administrative burdens. This initiative will bring about a paradigm shift in the delivery of healthcare services in India and will lead to the evolution of a technology driven, accountable healthcare system which will ensure a “Swasth India”.

Q5: What are similar projects which are going to have the same transformational impact on the lives of common citizens

I am a firm believer that our ability to develop technological solutions for a country as vast and diverse as India will provide us with the unique opportunity to present a roadmap for addressing the needs of the next 7.5 billion people of the world. Therefore, we must become global champions in sunrise areas of the technology industry such as 5G technologies, Artificial Intelligence, Genomics, Data Storage, Cloud Computing, Internet of Technologies, Blockchain and Quantum Computing. India Stack takes the Digital India campaign to a completely new level. It is the ideation and design of these set of APIs that allows governments, businesses, startups and developers to utilise a unique digital infrastructure to solve India's challenges towards contactless, paperless, and cashless service delivery. We already have a set of deployments such as Aadhaar for authentication, e-KYC documents, e-sign and the unified payment interface that are currently operational over the India Stack. Platforms like these open up many opportunities in financial services, healthcare and education sectors of the Indian economy. Recently, the Prime Minister encouraged the private sector to work on developing cutting-edge technology products which would enable India to leapfrog in the post-COVID era. The private sector has worked in collaboration with the government and seven technology solutions were developed. These innovative solutions address themes which include providing virtual higher education, accelerating financial inclusion, digitizing India’s supply chain, connecting millions of job seekers with job providers, contactless healthcare through telemedicine as well as agriculture interventions. Moving forward, it would be these open full-stack solutions that would impact the lives of common citizens.

Q6: What are some of the glaring gaps that you think still need to be filed through focus on digital technologies

Today, India’s IT/ITeS industry is a global powerhouse. It’s a massive $167 billion IT industry that comprises companies that provide software services and backend IT support and have a 55% share in global IT services & outsourcing. However, you will find is that while India is a global software powerhouse, there is still a noticeable dearth of world-class platform companies. Our experience with the agile development of Aargoya Setu as well as our experience in developing new and innovative products in partnership with the private sector have taught us the crucial role of the private sector in bringing in advanced and efficient capabilities to deliver public goods. I believe that there are many gaps that need to be filled in various sectors and while the government should act as a catalyst bringing the size, scale and an enabling environment, it is the private entrepreneurs who should undertake building solutions with their skill base and technology capabilities. This would lead our shift away from being a “Software Outsourcing” destination to being a “Product Platforms-first” nation. A lot of the glaring gaps in the education sector have been well taken care of by the introduction of National Education Policy, 2020. The NEP sets the basis for the technology disruption by way of promoting technology in development of online teaching platforms and tools, creation of high quality digital content and adoption of AI. At the same time, we require skilful application of artificial intelligence by promoting young entrepreneurs and AI engineers, building out computational capabilities and AI-enabling policy environments. COVID-19 has also induced a need for mammoth investment in healthcare and biotechnology. I also feel that ramping up investments in disruptive and emerging areas such genome sequencing and CRISPR will create an ecosystem for the evolution of personalized healthcare. Technology has the potential to break barriers and create a new wave of inclusive social and economic development which can be scaled to unimaginable levels.


The interview was originally published at this link -