Techtonic 2018

“The time from lab to land is much longer than what it needs to be”

Rajiv Kumar, vice-chairman, NITI Aayog on leveraging the Digital India initiative and extending innovation from the classroom to the shop floor

Since we already have an overarching Digital India initiative in place, what’s the underlying thought behind pursuing a new policy for artificial intelligence?

It’s not a different policy. The objective of Digital India is to eliminate the digital divide in the country and implement the BharatNet project to connect 250,000 Gram Panchayats with high-speed broadband connectivity, with a focus on last mile connectivity, especially for schools, hospitals and primary healthcare centres. It lays the foundation for a digital society that will build on the growing internet penetration in the country. In the absence of a digital economy, one can’t talk of participating in any of the new technologies, be it artificial intelligence, robotics or Industry 4.0. Besides bridging the digital divide, the focus is also on how to integrate innovation in our education system, comprising schools, universities and even some of the R&D-focused institutions which are not exactly seeped in a culture of innovation. The time from lab to land in our country is much longer than what it needs to be. Though there have been some breakthrough inventions from the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) or the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the journey to the actual application still takes too long. Moreover, developed nations have already completed their digital transition and have taken the lead in artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, 3D printing and cloud. Hence, we too need initiatives to make the transition as swiftly as we can.

What’s the task force’s mandate?

There are professors in IITs who are already teaching and working on artificial intelligence. Industrial labs are already using machine learning to create new molecular frameworks. Even in agriculture, machine learning can get farmers to predict the response of the soil to particular seeds better. Now, we want to bring all that together. So, you’ve got a situation where you have theoretical work going on in AI and then there is the applied aspect of AI, which is where you want to bring all the stakeholders together, interface with each other, and create the necessary synergy rather than parallel platforms. So, the role of the task force, essentially, is to bring about the synergies. First, eliminate digital divide; second, create an innovative ecosystem; and third, generate or create the synergies among all the stakeholders so that the country’s artificial intelligence program can go right ahead and in the manner that it should with everybody participating.

Where does the Atal Innovation Mission fit in?

The principal objective of the scheme is to take forward an innovative society concept. One of its components involves setting up of Atal Tinkering Labs, and we have already set up 2,000 labs across primary and secondary schools. Over the next one year, we will put up 5,000 labs and the target over the next five years is to set up 30,000 labs. The idea is to encourage and excite primary and secondary school level children about new technologies not through rote, but by innovation. All of this at no extra cost for students. For example, all the labs have 3D printers, optic sensors, motherboards that go into a mobile and so forth. Nearly 50% of labs are in government schools and 50% in private schools. The target groups are children from 5th to 12th standard. These labs get Rs.2 million as grant from the Centre for equipment. The school has to provide the space, teachers, and all other allied services. What we provide are mentors, who could be from the IITs and willing to work voluntarily with the kids in the labs. It’s an amazing initiative. For an instance, there was this school where the 9th and 10th standard students had designed a jacket for the visually impaired. The jacket had optic sensors connected to a walking stick, to let the users know exactly what was in their immediate vicinity. Instead of just tapping around things with the stick as the visually impaired usually do, now they would virtually know where they are going. For children to be exposed to such an innovation is simply incredible. We are committed to set up a lab in every district. The icing on the cake would be if these young students can come up with something patentable and, if not, at least something that is commercially viable. An ideal situation is that the tinkering lab produces an idea that can go into the incubation centre and later turn into a full-fledged innovation. Though it’s a possible scenario, these are still early days. For the moment, let’s just get our kids excited and not be scared about technology. Unfortunately, the narrative around all of us is of technology versus jobs or technology versus humans. That should not be the narrative in a young country like ours, but it continues to be so. What we want to achieve in the tinkering labs is the lack of fear about embracing technology.

How is the incubation playing out?

It is, essentially, just a way of reinforcing the ongoing start-up and incubation movement underway in the country, and infuse more synergy into the ecosystem. For example, the government is setting up incubation centres in IITs to get them to work together closely. Also, the incubation centres could be connected to, say, the CSIR. So, the idea is to have an integrated mechanism where one can take innovation from start to fruition. Of the 19 incubation centres sanctioned, 13 have already been set up and each centre has been allocated a grant of Rs.100 million.

What kind of innovation is underway at these centres?

It’s too early to say as the initiative is still underway and just a year-and-a-half old. For now, each incubation centre gets Rs.100 million in funding and is also inter-connected to industries and universities. We are also starting the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programme, wherein relevant ministries will be the prime sponsors. The idea is to help small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to adopt new technologies and take away the fear that these new technologies will create a huge disruption.

Can you elaborate on that?

We will soon launch the Indian equivalent of the SBIR that the US has put in place for early-stage small businesses. The programme is the first-ever attempt to create an ecosystem where SMEs will be encouraged to innovate by allocating resources and helping them to commercialise the innovation. For example, work closely with SMEs in textiles, which are more likely to be impacted by changes in technology and AI. The second part of the programme involves bringing CSIR closer to MSME (Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises) clusters. So, you will have academic expertise interfacing real time with SMEs and finding solutions to their problems. The idea is to find high technology solutions for day-to-day problems and never let the situation of jobs vis-a-vis technology appear as a trade-off, but as an opportunity. The third aspect is about skilling and involves doubling or tripling our apprenticeship system. We want at least 10 million apprentices in this country ready for jobs of tomorrow, otherwise the industry will not offer them jobs. Apprenticeship, in my view, is a much better option than trying to continuously skill and catch-up because by the time you finish the skilling, the dynamics would have changed. That’s one reason why the Germans and the Japanese have thrived. They get young people to learn on the job for six months to a year, and the government pays a stipend. It should not be seen as a fiscal burden, and the government should give as much stipend as needed to encourage this culture. In fact, we have the Apprentices Act since 1961 but it hasn’t been implemented well.

How much of AI or Digital India’s success will depend on the close cooperation of states?

One of NITI’s mandates involves cooperative federalism. Some states will come back to us saying what works or what doesn’t, or we will put them in touch with different departments based on their needs. Now, clearly, states such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu or even Telangana won’t need too much support, but others would. The next stage of cooperative federalism is competitive federalism. For example, states can be ranked on how effectively their wellness centres are using telemedicine and so forth. The idea is to rank states based on performance.