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Arpan Shah

Arpan Shah is a technologist, investor and data scientist based in the Bay Area. He grew up in India and did his bachelors and masters from Stanford university focusing on Systems and Data. He currently heads data engineering at Robinhood, one of the most successful Fintech companies in the Bay Area and has been responsible for developing a lot of their core infrastructure and data science.

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Double Edged Sword of AI

Developing institutional capability in AI requires substantial investments. The investments both in terms of Hardware and Software as well as the human capital are tremendous.

Photo Credit : Shutterstock,

Artificial intelligence or synthetic intelligence is the ability for machines to act and perform intelligent function. Whether we are aware or not, AI is all around us: from Siri in our phones to the Ads targeting us all over the internet. This trend is only increasing. No matter how long it takes or when it occurs, the inevitability of the age of AI is clear for all those looking for the signs. This essay explores certain societal impacts and the lens with which India should view them.

Loss of Jobs / Increased standard of living

With every automation, there are people whose professions will be made unnecessary and the productivity of enterprises will increase so as to require fewer people to produce the same amount of wealth. For instance, the advent of modern machinery made labor intensive operations mechanized. Agriculture is the classic example of this phenomenon in India. From 1960s to today, the use of tractors in farms in India has grown over 60 fold. Alongside this development the percentage participation over labor in Agriculture has fallen steadily over time . One may think that such a massive mechanization drive would have resulted in the kinds of massive protest and displacement that we fear AI will cause; but this is far from what occurred. In fact, due to the rise in food production (more than tripling over the last 50 years), people are better off than they ever were. In other words, the standard of living in India has never been better. While it is true that the improvements have occurred disproportionately amongst the wealthier; life has gotten better for most Indians. This is witnessed by all markers of the human development index over the last 50 years.

A similar trend is visible across industries. More Indians own cars today than ever did before as well as access to other services and technologies is more than it has ever been; smart phones being the most visible example. It is not a coincidence that vast increases in automation in the manufacturing and creation of these products have driven prices down exponentially; it is this rationalization of prices that has led to the ability of 1 billion Indians to have a cell phone.

We must look at AI in a similar way. The speed with which AI will make humans redundant will be unique, however, the scale and nature of price improvements will occur at a similar pace. As Uber and Ola release self driving cars, inevitably the cost of transportation will fall. As Foxconn replaces workers with smart robots, the cost of our iphones will come crashing down too. It is therefore not unreasonable to imagine that the advent of AI, while it will result in the loss of jobs for many, will also make the cost of living come down exponentially. A careful management of this balance will lead to the correct AI policy and outlook in the future.

Large Scale Investments / Leapfrogging potential

Developing institutional capability in AI requires substantial investments. The investments both in terms of Hardware and Software as well as the human capital are tremendous. Large scale applications and research facilities require millions of dollars of capital just to set up . The human capital needed to establish expertise is also immense. Most of the top AI researchers work at elite US / Chinese companies and American and British universities. This may seem like a very tall order for any Indian company or policy maker to try to match but unlike a lot of the revolutions in the past the steps needed here are completely known. The knowledge around machine learning is democratized like never before. On Coursera, for example, Stanford’s machine learning class was the most popular class amongst all Indians . Furthermore, since the number of elite AI researchers is quite a small number, and producing groundbreaking developments is a question of quality and not quantity; attracting the best minds is a race amongst those willing to make the long term investment. The return is sure to match the investment in most cases.

It is therefore not inconceivable for Indian companies willing to make such an investment to also develop the competency and expertise; especially since so many Indian students are already interested in the domain. The benefits of doing so would be incredible: As the steam engine kickstarted the Industrial Revolution and the Internet sparked the age of technology; AI will spark a whole new era of wealth creation. Leapfrogging other industries by using it to become a major player in the 21st century will become essential for India as replicating a manufacturing based GDP looks increasingly difficult.

In conclusion, with the double-edged nature of AI, the policies and attitude India develops towards it is crucial. Needless to say; India’s relationship with AI will be the defining factor of India’s growth in this century.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house


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