India looks to broad-base AI workforce to meet growing demand

World Materials 31 December 2021 05:24 (UTC +04:00)
India looks to broad-base AI workforce to meet growing demand

Only 2.5 percent of engineers in India possess technical skills in artificial intelligence (AI) that the industry requires, the annual employability survey by Aspiring Minds, a job skill assessment firm, found, Trend reports citing Money Control.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that 54 percent of all employees in the Information Technology (IT) space will require significant reskilling by 2022. That demand is especially strong for machine learning and AI.

It’s not just the working population that is looking to upskill. Retired professionals, school students and homemakers have joined the supply chain, with the definition of learners changing with the coronavirus outbreak.

“The most important change that we have seen in the recent past globally, accelerated hugely in the last 18 months, has been a change in the definition of learners. Today learners include those who are intergenerational, geo-agnostic and coming from across socio-economic strata,” says Raj Mruthyunjayappa, President- India, Anthology Inc, an education technology firm.

While countries such as Israel, Singapore and the US have begun implementing programs to harness the power of AI, United Arab Emirates (UAE) seems to have stolen the march. It has set up an exclusive ministry dedicated to advanced technology, including AI, to boost the region’s industrial capacity in the “Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)”.

India can do something similar to upskill and reskill the workforce and also others who are interested.

“With guidelines from National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 as a first positive step towards creating an education ecosystem that prepares us to lead in 4IR, we are equipped to move in the right direction to harness technology for change,” says Mruthyunjayappa.

All stakeholders in the education system must come together at a policy, strategy as well as execution level to create an India education stack to enable this change, he says.

“Intergenerational learners”, as a concept, is one of the most important aspects of today and the future. Not just AI learning but access to learning any new technology that is at the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) should be made universal. Inclusion in education, to drive growth is the key to success globally, says Mruthyunjayappa.

In India, higher education enrolment, calculated in terms of Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER), stands at a dismal 26 percent. NEP 2020 guidelines call for an increase in GER to 50 percent, using technologies such as AI, ML and blockchain.

Wider adoption of AI is hampered by people's lack of appreciation of the extent of the role of hardware in successful implementation, says Rohin Y, Founder-CEO of LightSpeedAI Labs. “In the USA, Silicon Valley specifically identified the need for hardware-level innovation to cater to future needs,” he says.

A lot of AI chip startups emerged, as a result, fast-tracking the development of a coexisting hardware-software AI ecosystem developing applications as simple as Alexa's voice recognition chip to complex real-time applications running close to cameras, AR/VR, etc, says Rohin.

Even within the AI software engineer community, not many are aware of the impact of hardware, in terms of power consumption, carbon footprint and real-estate they occupy. They are running their codes on AWS/Azure and are happy. But soon it is going to be unsustainable, says Rohin. Sensitisation of the community towards the impact of hardware is a big challenge to further the adoption.

An alarming issue is the eagerness to deliver, especially applying borrowed algorithms to critical applications. Imagine a face-detection algorithm making a mistake in marking attendance. It might not seem like much of a problem but a similar application to detect traffic rule violation can implicate a non-offender.

“There are some critical applications in the industry (think of self-driving cars making a mistake) also that need to be more aware of what the inaccurate outcomes of AI can lead to, much like an incident caused by human error,” says Rohin.

So, it is of utmost importance that developers and consultants provide only those solutions that they understand well.

Catching them young

Rohini Srivathsa, National Technology Officer, Microsoft India, says as we rapidly move towards a digital economy, the skills of the future will look very different from the skill sets that are needed today.

Digital fluency will not just be a competitive advantage but a necessity and this requires a massive effort to skill India’s talent and workforce, she says.

In early 2020, Microsoft launched a global effort to help 25 million people across the world acquire new digital skills. Over three million people have been skilled in India through the initiative.

The company is working closely with the government, academia and industry partners like NASSCOM, Ministry of Labour and Employment (MOLE), AICTE and National Skill Development Council (NSDC) on several skilling initiatives.

Microsoft recently announced ‘The Code with Minecraft’ program with WhiteHat Jr that will provide students aged 6-14 years an opportunity to learn game-based coding solutions through a unique curriculum.

Corporates are doubling down on efforts to take AI education to schools.

“We have several initiatives underway in collaboration with schools, government and government agencies to drive this. For example, along with CBSE, IBM has developed a curriculum of Artificial Intelligence as an elective subject from class IX to XII, says Shalini Kapoor, IBM Fellow, IBM India Software Labs. “We have covered over 200 schools across 13 states and over 15,000 students have benefitted from the programme,”

Companies are facing a challenge in realising the full potential of AI—unifying complex, siloed data across decentralised IT infrastructures, ensuring security and compliance of the data and technology, building trust in AI and developing a clear strategy with the appropriate skills and cross-functional teams to scale and support AI to meet business needs.

“But with the right architecture, capabilities and approach, businesses can overcome these challenges to achieve sustainable solutions that span the organization and deliver more value from AI investments faster,” says Kapoor.

Intel, too, has launched several initiatives to help with upskilling and reskilling in AI. The Intel AI for Youth and Responsible AI for Youth Programs have trained over 100,000 students between Classes 8 and 12 in CBSE and government schools in the last year. In the last two years, these programs have trained over 200,000 youngsters in AI skills.

“It has, so far, led to several milestones in nurturing AI-readiness in the country, including the rollout of an AI curriculum for students and setting up focused AI skills labs in the country,” says Intel’s Srinivas Lingam, VP, Datacentre & AI Group.

The attempt is not limited to school students. Recently, Intel launched Intel Unnati Programme to help engineering students with industry-relevant skills.

“We’re setting up 100 Intel Unnati data-centric Labs in emerging technologies over the next one year across universities and engineering institutes in India,” Srinivas says.

The initiative will provide the country’s higher educational institutions with long-term capabilities in emerging technologies, including AI, as well as lab infrastructure, enabling a greater focus on research and innovation.

To make AI learning more universal, in July 2021, Intel collaborated with CBSE and the Ministry of Education to launch "AI for All" initiative. It is a free, four-hour, self-paced learning programme that aims to demystify AI for all age groups.

The programme is available in 11 vernacular languages for anyone with digital access. The content is also compatible with various talkback applications to make it accessible for visually impaired people.

“We hope to introduce AI to one million citizens within the first year of the program,” says Intel’s Srinivas.

Starting up

Conversational AI was of great help as demands for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds saw a spike with a sharp increase in Covid cases.

“As a customer support automation platform, we at Verloop.io harnessed the power of Conversational AI to create a communication highway between those who needed oxygen and those who have it, including individuals and hospitals,” says Gaurav Singh, founder and CEO.

Anyone who was looking for an oxygen concentrator, hospital bed, or any medical supply, just had to send a “hi” and the chatbot would assist them in finding whatever their requirement was.

“Through this AI-powered conversational bot, we were able to address more than 500 oxygen concentrator queries and helped most people get access to what they were looking for,” says Singh.

These chatbots are being used to do everything—from helping customers to book appointments with their doctor or operating like “pseudo nurses”.

Medical chatbots are also the way forward to make mental healthcare accessible and affordable to people, says Singh.

It’s not just the big corporate houses that are driving innovation in AI. Startups are playing an equally big role. The maximum impact and contribution towards upskilling people in the area of AI happened because of start-ups, says Rohin of LightSpeedAI Labs. A large number of start-ups are trying to address various use cases be it in video analytics, computer vision/machine vision, speech recognition (in India, vernacular language adoption for example) and industrial automation.

AI is essentially statistics with clever packaging, says Rohin. With the vast amount of information, tutorials, and free code available on GitHub, young students, and fresh graduates tend to think, becoming an AI engineer or a data scientist is as easy as following a few tutorials or running some code.

It is very important to separate the grain from the chaff to go beyond the hype of the buzzwords like machine learning and AI, he says. The theoretical foundations of these AI algorithms were laid 50 years ago.

The crux of learning and mastering the area of AI lies in gaining insights into the algorithms that need to be systematically introduced, Rohin says.