AI Superpower: The Leaders and The Contenders

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Utpal Chakraborty
Utpal Chakraborty

Russian president Vladimir Putin stated – “AI is the future and whoever becomes leader in AI will become the ruler of the world”. Chinese president Xi Jinping declared that “China wants to be the world leader in AI by 2030”. US White House administration voiced – “America has been the global leader in AI, and the Trump administration will ensure our great nation remains the global leader in AI”. Similarly, National strategy for Artificial Intelligence, India published by NITI Aayog indicates its vision as “AI-for-All in India”. These statements clearly indicates that the race for the supremacy in the field of Artificial Intelligence had already taken a great momentum and AI has managed to influence even main stream politics and the world leaders in a great way.

On the other hand, many experts across the globe are already in a big hurry to proclaim which country is going to be the AI superpower and who is already ahead in the race. Some of them even persuasively claiming themselves to be an AI superpower just by building a simulated bobble to attract the extra attention from the world and some investors. Keeping aside all those hidden agendas and before even jumping into some conclusion, we should first consider the pre-requisites to be mere a contender in this race. Because it’s not going to be a wholesome competition especially when we have contenders who are not going to shy away from attempting any possible means whether ethical or unethical to be ahead of the competition. Few of the countries are already leading in the race, at the same time there are strong contenders who have huge potential to be in the list of leaders in the near future.

Artificial IntelligenceBefore taking this debate further we also need to define the parameters to measure the supremacy and the factors influencing the same. Is it how much dollar generated utilizing AI by a country or what all core problems solved for humanity by uplifting the quality of life of the citizens of a nation? Also, priorities to be addressed are country and region specific. For example, predicting what movie or what ad an user will like using AI may not be something so compelling when it comes to a developing country like India; rather if AI can address some of the core areas like healthcare & medicine, agriculture, food, water, education, urbanization etc. will be much more compelling; and the success of AI in this case should be measured in much higher terms. To understand this let’s take a step back and discuss the factors that can essentially fuel contenders to be the leaders.

Technically there are five major pre-requisites which are essential for an AI ecosystem to flourish in a country but there could be many others that can largely contribute to its advancement and implementation.

AI Research – AI is essentially an evolving field and many of the AI technologies are maturing and getting better off with research, evolutions happening in terms of the better approach to tackle some of its technical limitations. There may not had another groundbreaking breakthrough after the “Deep Learning” in last couple of years but there has been many improvements and there were small and medium innovations in terms of how deep learning and other AI technologies can be applied effectively in many different areas; and all those are essentially due to continuous researches happening in the field. So, an ecosystem embracing AI research is very essential for a country to progress in the field of AI whether such researches to be carried out in academia, within R&D cells of AI companies or in collaboration with the government.

Usable Data – Usable data comes from the real-world physical services that has been digitized so far, which means how many physical services has been digitized in the country and the data from those services has been collected, stored and made available for AI companies, researchers to use for feeding and enriching their AI models.

Wealth of AI Engineers and Data Scientists – Traditional software engineers to become AI affluent needs special skills in the areas of machine learning, deep learning, NLP etc. AI researchers coming from data science background need even higher skills and background to carryout research on different areas of AI. Adequate pool of such AI engineers and AI researchers are essential for AI to grow in a country. The more your Tech colleges and universities producing these skilled resources the more your chances to be the leader in the race.

Support from Government and awareness among citizens – Backing from the Government and their support; may it be building infrastructure for AI, framing policies that supports AI to grow, encouraging enterprises in adoption of AI or whatever other form it could be; the government of a country plays a major role democratizing a rising technology like AI.

Funding and VC Ecosystem – Proper funding and a mature Venture Capitalist ecosystem is vital for AI startups and other AI initiatives in a country to grow. Sometimes it’s not just funding the AI startups but essentially guiding them through their journey, believing in and being part of their vision is very important which can only be expected from a mature VC ecosystem. Despite having all other AI ingredients most of the developing countries like India and its young entrepreneurs and startups are essentially struggling in this particular space.

I will try to list down few of the leaders and some of the strong contenders here. But the order in which the contenders has been listed down in this article and the length of the text written for each has no significance on their capabilities and position in the race.

USA – Undoubtedly USA is ahead in the race both in terms of AI research and some of the large scale AI implementations. US has got most of the best AI researchers of the world, most of the tech and AI giants are US based. Some of the AI applications used globally are again US products. US has huge data available for AI to flourish as most of the physical services there are already digitized. US has the best universities and talents, best AI labs and the best funding ecosystem so far. But there is a twist in the story – unlike other technologies, in case of AI few of the countries are not far behind US and in fact there is a possibility of leaving behind US in future.

Canada – is well ahead in AI research, it has got the finest AI researchers and universities. Canadian universities produces some of the best AI researchers every year. Also talented professionals from all over the world land there to do research on different areas of AI and translate their ideas into implementable solutions. Unfortunately Canadian talents are very academic and research oriented and there is an actual shortage of real entrepreneurs who can take AI beyond the classes and the labs to the road. That probably is the reason, despite having most of the talented AI professionals of the world still they were not been able to produce best AI products or AI companies. Seems Canadian government has now realized the fact and currently having huge focus on AI implementation and exploring how to generate revenue out of it. Also, recent imposition of immigration restrictions in US has essentially become blessing for Canada and few other AI contenders to attract more and more talents from across the globe.

China – has emerged itself from a copycat to a unique form of inimitable entrepreneurism. The word copycat may sound bit offensive but trust me the word in this particular context of the article has a great significance which we are going to discuss in next few paragraphs. Personally I have got a great regard for China and Chinese entrepreneurs, specially how it has transformed itself in past few decades is incredible and we all has a great lesson to learn from them. Essentially they have gorgeously demonstrated the fact that you can begin with as a copycat and through hard work and dedication can become an innovator. It is not true that you need a great out-of-the-box unique innovative concept or a product to be a successful entrepreneur that many of our young Indian entrepreneurs sometimes wrongly assume. You can essentially transform your ordinary concept into an unique innovative product by adding factors like operational excellence, better usability taking into consideration your user needs; and the same can come out as a great product and that’s what happened for many of the Chinese successful products you see today.

Two decades ago, China started with what we call a straight copycat and they build replica of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Whatsapp and so on, the Chinese version of such products that suits Chinese market and Chinese users. Soon they realized that if they can provide the best of the breed world class services to their users and customers with an addition of regional flavor on top of it, works much better than a generic global product. That’s probably one element of the secret recipe of China’s unique form of entrepreneurism. Imagine you are capable of copying a market proven product and you have the capability to do innovation on top of it; you will always have an advantage over your competitors. China’s formula of entrepreneurism, innovation and value creation lies on the fact that there is a huge competition among the Chinese entrepreneurs in every domain and the only way to stand out among these competitors is to take your product to a level at which it is far better and inimitable. Many Chinese entrepreneurs has already proved their excellence in execution, product quality, speed of bringing products in the market and better utilization of data in decision making in the business. In terms of excellence in execution and product quality they have been consistently excelling and has reached a stage today which is not only far superior to their competitors within and outside China but also inimitable and not replicable. That’s the reason Chinese and neighboring markets embrace these products. We all know that any entrepreneurial journey starts with a great vision and an aggressive execution plan to achieve milestones to chase the vision. But we often forget the fact that execution plan needs continuous modernization and monitoring to make it relevant as per the demand of the situation and the dynamics of the market. Chinese entrepreneurs know how to survive in such highly competitive environment where the only way of survival is not just to win but to abolish all other competitors so that they can’t come back again someday.

Also, an advantage the Chinese economy and the Chinese market carries, which again holds true even for India is these two countries has a huge domestic test-ground and user base to try and test any new concept or any product. The affinity of the market is so huge that it can absorb any product or service within that you need not have to even think of any other markets at least in the initial stages.

Another reason China leading in AI essentially because it has been able to transformed itself into a Cashless, Card-Less, Mobile-Only economy. This helped collecting huge useable data which became incredibly useful for AI companies and other researchers to accelerate their AI development.

China is focusing hugely on AI Research as well. In the last 3-4 years the highest number of AI researcher papers and patents are been filled by Chinese companies and Chinese researchers. The reason China is paving its way towards AI superpower is because of the following reasons. Firstly, China has huge amount of usable data which is basically fuel for AI. Chinese companies along with Chinese Govt. has been able to digitize many of their services used by the citizens because of which China has complete length, breadth and depth of data which is fundamental for AI to grow. China is the first truly mobile first country and Chinese market and Govt. embarrassed these transformation. Secondly, China has a powerful Venture Capitalist enterprise ecosystem. Huge fund is flowing to Chinese market and investors are ready to invest on Chinese companies and startups. The third reason is Chinese entrepreneurs are hardworking, huge hunger for success and compete like a true gladiators, do or die approach. The forth reason is, huge support from the Government democratizing AI. Protectionist nature of Chinese Govt. provides domestic startups a space to settle down and grow to a level till it becomes ready to compete with the big global players in their early incubation period. Also, Chinese education is more about road learning, practical approach of learning and implementing. Chinese government and authorities are fully convinced about the fact that AI is the future and hence building their infrastructure to be “future AI ready” like a new city is planed near Beijing which is designed for autonomous vehicles. Similarly it is building a highways with sensors for autonomous vehicles as the lighting conditions in the road affects the autonomous vehicles the most which can be substantiated by sensors along the highways to avoid any kind of accidents.

It is also important to mention one major disadvantage of Chinese AI products that they has not been so successful in expanding beyond China. Moreover the language becomes a roadblock for Chinese entrepreneurs when it comes to globalizing their products. So, probably China is doing very good in the Chinese market but not great when it comes to expanding the business globally which is very essential in today’s context. Also, Chinese products whatever it could be has a bad reputation on the quality front.

UK & Europe, Japan, Russia – although having the potential and most of the ingredients for AI; has not yet been able to leverage those fully to come top in the list. They have huge usable data but they have lots of restrictions around it. So, companies probably are not been able to utilize it to the fullest. Moreover, despite having some of the brilliant AI researchers and AI professionals they don’t have the kind of tenacious and hardworking entrepreneurs at least in AI space. The VC ecosystem in UK and Europe is not that strong and mature. So the governments and the union need to do a lot of work to be ahead in the race. Similarly Japan and Russia- although having great potential but needs aggressive execution. Certainly they are strong contenders provided they work on the aspects mentioned above.

India – has a huge number of IT professionals ranging from highly skilled to moderate skilled who are already working on different top global companies and playing key roles developing global products or managing global operations. They understand such products, they have fair understanding of business models and many of them has already jumped into the startup world in India building their own products. Most of these startups are developing AI products in many different domains starting from known areas like banking & finance, healthcare, manufacturing, retail etc. to uncommon domains like agriculture, fisheries, marine resources, water management, alternative medicines, Ayurveda, safety and empowerment of women just to name a few. AI revolution in India has already started in a big way touching across almost all the areas that you can imagine and the world will see the actual results of the same in coming few years.

Also, the National strategy for Artificial Intelligence, India published by NITI Aayog couple of months back is an exhaustive plan and roadmap with a slogan of “AI-for-All in India”, which shows how seriously Aayog (commission) as well as Government has taken AI and trying to integrate it with every aspect of our country and its citizens. This is a landmark and stepping stone for a developing country’s great ambition to integrate technology as main stream in its transformation journey which I believe no country has thought through it in that diversified manner. This strategy clearly shows how our Aayog and our Government has been able to identify the core areas very specific to Indian conditions where AI can play a crucial role and uplift the economy and hence all other sectors. It has given equal importance to the Government, private and public sectors while fabricating such strategy; so you can imagine the depth of thought process, expertise, seriousness and die-heart effort that has gone into it to make AI Indianize.

AI is going to bring huge opportunity and will boost the Indian economy with an estimated annual growth rate of 1.3 percent and in a decade’s time an addition of extra one trillion USD is just humongous. As per experts India provides the perfect “playground” for enterprises and institutions globally to develop AI solutions which can be easily implemented in the rest of the developing and emerging economies and “Solved in India” mission is in perfect sync with Artificial Intelligence as a Service (AIaaS). In healthcare Tata Memorial Hospital has started working on the “Cancer Heat Map” that can minimize with the adoption of AI for India’s cancer woes. The ‘Digital Pathology’ and another project under discussion namely the ‘Imaging Biobank’ for cancer will help the detection of the disease accurately and precisely in a very early stage. Indian start-up ‘Forus Health’ which has developed a portable device named “3Nethra” that can screen for common eye problems as well as complicated conditions like diabetic retinopathy. The Indian government has been making a series of large scale interventions to address India’s healthcare challenges, transformation of 1.5 lakh ‘Health and Wellness Centers’, developing district hospitals to cater to long-term care for non-communicable diseases, ‘Ayushman Bharat Mission’, promoting e-Health where AI has started playing a crucial role for its success.

In Agriculture, in last couple of years approximately 50 Indian agricultural, AI technology based start-ups, AgTechs raised more than USD 500 million. Indian start-up, Intello Labs, for example, uses image-recognition software to monitor crops and predict farm yields. Aibono uses agri-data science and AI to provide solutions to stabilize crop yields. Trithi Robotics uses drone technology to allow farmers to monitor crops in real time and provide precise analysis of their soil just to name a few. Also, solutions like crop health monitoring and providing real time action advisories to farmers and using image classification tools combined with remote and local sensed data brining a revolutionary change in utilization and efficiency of farm machinery in Indian farming. AI powered applications for Soil Care, AI app for Sowing, App for Herbicide Optimization and AI app for Precision Farming are been implemented in many states in India.

In Education, Indian startups along with Central and State governments has already revolutionized rural and other education systems using adaptive learning tools for customized learning and intelligent and interactive tutoring systems. An example, Andhra Pradesh government is predicting School Dropouts using AI and taking measures to reduce it. AI tools has been used to automated rationalization of teachers and development of customized professional courses for identification and fulfillment of knowledge and skill gaps by couple of state governments and other educational bodies.

In the area of Smart Cities and Smart Leaving, a huge investment has been initiated for building Smart Parks & public facilities, Smart Homes, AI driven service delivery (such as predictive service delivery on the basis of citizen data, rationalization of administrative personnel on the basis of predicted service demand and migration trend analysis, and AI based grievance redressal through chat-bots and smart assistants), Crowd management, Intelligent safety systems, preventing cyber-attacks and many more.

In Transportation and Smart Mobility India Government has great attention on implementation of Artificial Intelligence to address issues related to Mobility and Transportation, specifically challenges we encountered in India on a daily basis.

 Some of the challenging areas mentioned are Congestion and road accidents, High number of traffic deaths, Lack of public transportation infrastructure etc.

 AI aided smart technologies like Assisted Vehicle, Greenfield Infrastructure, Autonomous Trucking, Intelligent Transportation Systems, Travel Route & Flow Optimization and Community Based Parking will be used to address many of these challenging areas.

But the most important areas which will take India to the fore front in AI race is the ‘National AI Marketplace (NAIM)’ and ‘Data Marketplace’. Some initial effort on these two areas has already been started but the day these two initiatives comes to a good shape, no one can stop India to be top in the list of AI Superpowers.

Many of the recent happenings in India on AI front brought about by Indian startups in collaboration with Tech Giants and in association with premier Tech Institutes and the government has not got that media hype globally but trust me, there are many brilliant things has started happening in this country and the whole world will see the results in coming few years.

Although lately but the entrepreneurial mindset of young generation in India has already set to fire. The risk taking capabilities, the desire to do something new, the compassion to do something for country and the country men, to show the world that “It can very much happen in India” attitude of our new generation is becoming a blessing for the technological revolution in India.

India has magnitude of IT professionals who has been part of IT journey from the then most legacy systems of 80’s till the latest technologies of 20’s. Many of them are data scientists and AI engineers and a huge mass has already skilling themselves into data science. Producing more and more data scientists in India is very easy compared to any other country as our engineers are already been grownup in an IT environment, so turning them into decent data scientists is a matter of only few months. Secondly, any technical training be it AI is very cheap and easily accessible in India. We have numerous forums to mentor our young entrepreneurs and aspiring AI professionals. Many of our premier educational institutes provides latest curriculum in data science and AI. So India in fact has a conductive environment for AI to flourish better than any other country of the world. India is already an IT powerhouse and in other words an IT Superpower and it has got tremendous potential to come top in the race of AI Superpowers.

Views expressed in this article are personal opinion of Utpal Chakraborty, Head-Artificial Intelligence, Yes Bank Ltd

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