One of the first things that Kalyan Krishnamurthy did after assuming office as chief executive officer at Flipkart in January last year was to tell his team of top engineers that they needed to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) across all functions of the e-commerce company in order to stay relevant in the industry.
“We have obtained a certain amount of scale and profitability using human intelligence and domain knowledge and can continue down this road maybe for another year or two. But beyond that, if we do not embrace AI and machine learning, we won’t be able to sustain ourselves as a company,” Krishnamurthy is said to have told the engineering team at that meeting.
That was in 2017 when AI was hardly being used in business applications. But the intent became clear this year when soon after Walmart took over Flipkart for $16 billion, the Bengaluru-based company acquired Liv.ai, an AI-led speech recognition firm. Although it was a small acquisition, the idea was to leverage the platform to offer voice recognition solutions in regional languages in order to target the next 200 million users who are expected to come from smaller cities and semi-urban areas.
“2018 has been the year of AI, with the consolidation of deep learning and the maturing of Generative Adversarial Networks (a class of AI algorithms). Applications have been in agriculture to increase productivity, in retail to understand consumers, in health to predict and prevent disease, and even in art and music as a creative aid,” says Gopichand Katragadda, group chief technology officer at Tata Sons, adding, “2019 and beyond, AI will enter every device and system in homes and factories. If data is the new oil, AI is the new electricity.”
India has, in fact, been considered to be either on a par or even ahead of several developed nations when it comes to harnessing the potential of AI in sectors such as health care, financial services, e-commerce, and governance. And it is not just the large technology companies such as Google and Microsoft that experimented with AI, entrepreneurs and investors were equally keen not to miss out on this game.
For example, Sachin Bansal, one of India’s most successful entrepreneurs, is looking to back home-grown AI firms, while his other Flipkart co-founder, Binny Bansal, recently participated in a $7-million round in Niramai, a firm which uses AI for breast cancer detection.
“I think AI arrived in 2018. Many AI applications are getting built by companies and start-ups right here and these have started touching our daily lives,” says Phanindra Sama, chief innovation officer, government of Telangana, who is helping the state improve governance with the help of technologies.
Sama points out that while it was very difficult earlier to convert voice to text, this is now one of the core applications of AI that is working very well. Intelligent chatbots - powered by AI - have started replacing human workers in sectors that thrive on customer engagement such as banking and e-commerce.
“In some ways, 2018 could be called the watershed year for the democratisation of AI. We now have chatbots, dialogue systems, voice recognition — nobody seems surprised anymore that your phone understands you,” says Balaraman Ravindran, Professor at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and the Robert Bosch Centre for Data Science and AI at IIT-Madras.
Law is another area where AI is making a foray. And this, experts say, could impact the jobs of lawyers. Vaultedge, a Bengaluru-based start-up which uses AI to analyse contracts, extract relevant provisions of the law and identify risks, is helping lawyers and finance professionals check and draft legal document in quick time. No wonder global companies like Accenture and PwC have started using this platform.
AI is finding innovative applications in medicine too. For example, you can now walk into an Aravind Eye Care clinic and have your retina scanned by AI in order to test for diabetic retinopathy. The scan is processed by Google’s AI in the cloud which then gives out a positive or negative answer.
Microsoft and SRL Diagnostics are developing another use of AI wherein the pathology lab has shared 1 million biopsy reports of patients to train its AI to find the traits of cancerous cells. Today, this job is done manually by pathologists who look at a slice of the patient’s tissue on a glass slide.
Human resource management is also getting a boost from AI, especially in the field of employee retention, which is one of the key challenges in the information technology services industry in India. IBM is using its cognitive platform Watson to help in the hiring, retention, skilling, training and studying of the behavioural patterns of its 150,000-odd employees in the country.
“At the same time, a slow-motion button has been pressed on blockchain as industry grapples with it to find revenue generating use cases for decentralised ledgers and decentralised authentication. Big tech companies are facing up to the realities of data privacy, consumer digital detox, government regulations, and the human faces of tech superheroes,” adds Katragadda of Tata Sons.