The use of automation was one of the trends accelerated by the pandemic. The adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not limited to businesses, but economies have also turned their focus on building up their AI capabilities as a means to augment growth. Developed economies like the US, China and EU countries are already in the race. Now, India too is set to join them. In the last couple of years, the Government of India had established a Task Force on Artificial Intelligence and mandated the NITI Aayog to prepare a National strategy on AI with a view to leverage it for inclusive growth. However, AI adoption remained at a nascent stage in India. India’s first Artificial Intelligence summit, Responsible AI for Social Empowerment (RAISE) 2020 has turned the possibility of AI adoption into an imminent reality.

Over the last couple of years, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has changed from a technology with potential to an instrument of national importance across the world. The first demonstration of applications of AI happened in the consumer space, and significant economic value has been created, mainly through targeted advertising by internet giants in the US and China. According to a report by PwC, AI could contribute a whopping $15.7 trillion to global GDP by 2030. However, for India, AI is much more than just a piece of this pie.

For India, the real power of AI lies in its transformative potential to address massive societal challenges that were traditionally considered to be beyond the purview of computing. For example, India stands to lose $4.58 trillion before 2030 due to non-communicable diseases and mental health conditions. Cardiovascular diseases (accounting for $2.17 trillion) and mental health conditions (accounting for $1.03 trillion), will lead the way in economic loss. In rural India, approximately 70 per cent of households still depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihood, with agriculture having a shrinking share in GDP. In the transport sector, as per a Government of India report, road accidents led to 17 deaths on roads every hour in the year 2016, outlining the urgent need for smarter infrastructure.

Traditionally such problems require building massive hard infrastructure, which needs significant capital expenditure. Therefore, supply perpetually lagged demand, and vast inefficiencies were created. Today advanced research is shining a light towards a path to address such challenges through AI and computing to enable effective interventions that can grossly reduce capital expenditure.

Amidst the accelerated adoption of AI-based technologies, India seems to stand at the precipice of the fourth industrial revolution. The competitive advantage of low-cost labour may fade away in the near future as economies begin to reap the benefits of AI in the form of increased productivity and cost advantages, and become more profitable than labour. Hence, it would be a timely move for India to build its AI capabilities, lest the global digital divide widens even more and we are left behind.

A report titled “Rewire for Growth” by Accenture estimates that AI has the potential to add $957 billion to India’s economy in 2035. As the post-Covid economy begins to rebuild itself, AI will present an opportunity to leapfrog by opening up newer sources of value and growth, beyond the physical limitations of capital and labour. However, AI elicits excitement and apprehension in equal measures. As much as AI and machine learning (ML) hold immense possibilities for the future of the economy, there are a number of issues and apprehensions surrounding it, and one of them is job displacement and by extension, unequal growth. The ongoing Covid 19 pandemic seems to generally have dispelled a few hardened organisational “myths” (for example, large scale work-fromhome is not possible) and forced companies to relook at how they work and interact with key stakeholders. Companies, and subsequently employees have been compelled to innovate-on-the-go (for example, quickly shipping large screen monitors and printers to the home of employees before lockdowns closed the markets). Perhaps, it would not be an exaggeration to say that even the best drafted Business Continuity Plans (BCPs) for most companies were stretched to the limit and yet struggled to cope with the rapid and unpredictable evolution of the pandemic.

From the evidence available thus far, it seems apparent that the world will have to learn to adapt swiftly and significantly to a “new normal” of work to deal with the current (and potential future) phases of Covid-19. Automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can play a very important role in defining this “new normal” of work in the Covid-19 (and post-Covid-19) world. More specifically, automation and AI can help companies infuse three key attributes of agility/flexibility, responsiveness, and frugality, enabling companies to better adapt to the fast changing situations in the times of Covid-19.

Non-communicable diseases like depression can be treated by achieving a better understanding of the brain and mind using AI and computing. With the rise of wearables, AI can allow individuals much greater control over their health and empower them to make better decisions about their well-being. In agriculture, AI can help us handle the complexity and uncertainty associated with production, making better sense of problems associated with epidemics, price volatility of raw materials and optimal usage of resources such as water, energy and fertilisers. It can empower farmers to deploy tailored interventions ranging from predictable crop planning to precision farming. In India’s smart cities, AI algorithms in collision avoidance systems can give an approximate 1.5 seconds advance notice to drivers to avoid 93 per cent of road accidents.

AI, therefore, provides a strategic instrument in the hand of government to address monumental challenges of unprecedented scale, and an opportunity for global leadership by creating foundational technologies and digital infrastructure. India has been a pioneer in bringing power of technology at a population scale of 1.3 billion citizens with deployment of Aadhaar based services, highest mobile penetration, UPI and largest medical coverage programme in Ayushman Bharat. Now, with the power of AI, it can help the world reimagine implementation and delivery of public services in the 21st century.With the underlying values of social empowerment and inclusion, and building upon the data empowerment mind-set (Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas), India is now embarking on a bold and ambitious journey to bring the power of AI to billions of citizens of this planet and meaningfully improve people’s lives. All this, while upholding the foundational principles of individual privacy, security and user consent. The first step in this direction was taken when, as part of the Union Budget 2020, the finance minister set aside $1.14 billion to invest in artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, machine learning (ML), and data analytics. It is important to mention that AI is not a silver bullet. Tackling these challenges requires a concerted, collaborative effort across all sectors of society – academia, the engineering community, government officials, policy-makers and other stakeholders.

The writer is with Eastern Institute for Integrated Learning in Management (EIILM)Kolkata. The views are personal