India wants to fire up its A.I. industry. Catching up to China and the US will be a challenge

Key Points
  • A government-appointed task force has come up with a plan with recommendations to boost the AI sector in India, from developing AI technologies and infrastructure, to data usage and research.
  • But experts said that it's unlikely to catch up with China or U.S. It would first have to resolve some stumbling blocks, such as poor data quality and lack of expertise in this field.
  • But Asia's third-largest economy still has a chance to excel in some domains, such as industrial electronics.
A tech start-up at its office in Gurgaon, India.
Pradeep Gaur | Mint | Getty Images

India has ambitions to fire up its artificial intelligence capabilities — but experts say that it's unlikely to catch up with the U.S. and China, which are fiercely competing to be the world leader in the field.

An Indian government-appointed task force has released a comprehensive plan with recommendations to boost the AI sector in the country for at least the next five years — from developing AI technologies and infrastructure, to data usage and research.

The task force, appointed by India's Ministry of Commerce and Industry, proposes that the government work with the private sector to develop technologies, with a focus on smart cities and the country's power and water infrastructure.

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It recommends a network of infrastructure — a testing facility, and six centers focusing on research in generating AI technologies, such as robotics, autonomous trucks and advanced financial technology.

A data center could be set up to "develop an autonomous AI machine that can work on multiple data streams in real time," the plan said. Calling data the "fuel that powers AI," the report said data marketplaces and exchanges could allow the "free flow of data."

Yet despite those aspirations, experts said that insufficient research support, poor data quality, and the lack of expertise in the field will be stumbling blocks for India.

Rishu Sharma, an associate research manager for enterprise infrastructure at research firm IDC, said: "India is lagging the global dominance presently in the AI space ... It will take time before (it) positions itself at a global standing."

India's Ministry of Commerce and Industry did not respond to a request for comment from CNBC.

India's plans to deploy A.I.

From crop management to fighting terrorism, there's a plan to deploy AI in 10 sectors in Asia's third-largest economy. Those include manufacturing, health care, agriculture, education and public utilities.

Here are a few areas proposed by the task force:

  • National defense: Secure public and critical infrastructure by predicting terror attacks, robots for counter terrorism operations.
  • Crop management: Using AI for crop prediction, health management and selection based on historical data and current factors. Crop monitoring and collection of data can be done by using drones and robots.
  • Environment: To automate and control — at the source — the levels of smoke and waste being released into the air, soil and water.

Can it succeed?

India's efforts come as the AI competition between China and U.S. intensifies, with China aiming to be the world leader in the space by 2030.

India, meanwhile, is late to the game, and will probably not dominate in the field except in a few areas, experts said.

IDC's Sharma said the country needs to resolve some issues first: "India stands a chance to compete at a global level, provided the hurdles are overcome." Challenges, she said, include poor data quality and integrity, as well as a lack of expertise.

Those critiques would not be news to New Delhi.

"The most important challenge in India is to collect, validate ... distribute AI-relevant data and making it accessible to organizations, people and systems without compromising privacy and ethics. Data is the bedrock of AI systems and reliability of AI systems depends primarily on quality and quantity of the data," the government report said.

Milan Sheth, a partner at EY covering intelligent automation, added: "There is a need to reskill a large number of people in a short span of time. It will take a couple of years, but tech developments will also take that same amount of time. To keep pace with adoption, that is the challenge."

While India is unlikely to be able to fully compete anytime soon, it can still aim to be a leader in a few areas such as industrial electronics, Sheth said.

"It will make a bid for dominating in a few areas but can't compete with the U.S. or China on academic investment," he said, adding that very few companies in India are getting sufficient funding for research.

India's GDP could reach $6 trillion in 2027 because of its digitization drive, according to a previous forecast by Morgan Stanley. That would make India the third-largest economy in the world — behind the U.S. and China, which recorded $18.5 trillion and $11.2 trillion in 2016 GDP, respectively.

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