This Article is From Mar 28, 2023

Opinion: Don't Just Drink AI Kool-Aid - Make It Work For People

From startup pitch decks to corporate boardrooms, school classrooms, and coffee table discussions, Artificial Intelligence or AI has gone mainstream. Almost every conversation is about an AI tool that can help us live, work, play and look better. Then there's the fierce rivalry between Google and Microsoft that analysts keep drooling over. 

But with the world's largest population, a restless young demography and pockets of poverty, hunger and social inequality, along with the mission to become a $5 trillion economy, India must do more than just drink AI Kool-Aid. 

India is where the world must learn how to democratise AI for social good and population-scale transformation. India is where AI must be tamed for social good. 

The questions need to pivot from the noise of AI to signals that will help bring a societal change, transform a generation and leverage technology for fighting the battles of malnutrition, accessible healthcare, and so on. 

How can AI increase agricultural productivity?

How can AI teach new skills tailored to the individual capabilities of learning?

How can AI help to bring down the cost of healthcare and exponentially increase its accessibility?

How can AI transform justice, lower the burden on the judiciary and make justice accessible to everyone?

The Kuthalam experiment: Where AI meets education

Nestled amidst the verdant Cauvery delta, the unassuming town of Kuthalam in rural Tamil Nadu is quietly making history. Through an innovative project called "The Language Lab", this tiny district is leveraging AI to transform language education for primary students. By breaking down barriers to quality language instruction, The Language Lab sets the stage for a more inclusive and equitable society in India and across the globe.

The Language Lab combines interactive exercises, games, and assessments to create a personalised learning experience. By tracking students' progress, analysing their strengths and weaknesses, and offering targeted feedback, the AI-powered system empowers students to improve their language skills.

Inaugurated earlier this month by Tamil Nadu's Minister for Youth Welfare and Sports Development, Udhayanidhi Stalin, the AI-powered language laboratory at the Government Model Higher Secondary School in Kuthalam is just the beginning. With plans to upgrade 6,029 existing language labs in government schools at the cost of Rs 23 crore, the initiative aims to enhance linguistic skills for nearly 90,000 students studying in classes 6 to 8.

In a country where English is often seen as a gateway to upward mobility, the ability to learn multiple languages is crucial. But navigating the linguistic landscape of India - where over 21 languages are spoken - poses immense challenges for rural students. Enter The Language Lab, a groundbreaking initiative that customises language instruction to each student's needs and abilities.

Kuthalam, a town steeped in culture and tradition, faces the same challenges as many rural districts in India - limited access to education and technology and the need to adapt to a rapidly changing world. The AI-powered language lab offers hope for students in Kuthalam and beyond.

India and the age of AI

India, with its rich cultural tapestry and immense linguistic diversity, stands on the cusp of a unique opportunity to demonstrate the transformative potential of AI. As the age of AI converges with India's vast population, the nation must lead the world in harnessing modern AI tools for population-scale social good. 

Beyond boardrooms and online retail wars, AI's true essence can be realised in its power to uplift, empower, and unite communities.

Harnessing AI for social good has never been more vital. As AI-powered tools like ChatGPT gain popularity, governments play a critical role in ensuring that AI for social good is accessible to all. The Language Lab exemplifies how government support can bring AI-driven education to rural areas, leveling the playing field and fostering a more equitable society.

The Language Lab's impact surpasses the quick language learning courses peddled by edtech startups and coaching institutes. By harnessing AI to provide tailored language education, it pioneers a new model that prioritises individual needs over a one-size-fits-all approach.

The Language Lab's influence reverberates globally. AI-driven language learning tools are already making waves, from China's Liulishuo app, with over 144 million downloads, to Duolingo, which boasts over 500 million users worldwide. 

India has made strides in making AI work for its population over the past few years. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has established the Bhashini initiative, an ambitious project to gather data in each of India's 22 official languages. This comprehensive data collection process enables the creation of rich datasets for training AI models. Also, the Unified Language Contribution API (ULCA) was developed to standardise formats for language datasets, models, and benchmarks.

Since its inception just a year ago, the Bhashini initiative has developed over 380 open-source AI models. These models encompass speech recognition, machine translation, text-to-speech, and optical character recognition across all 22 of India's official languages.

It's also encouraging to see a generation of nonprofit organisations work at the cutting edge for societal good. 

Bengaluru-based EkStep, an education nonprofit, has been working over the past few years to help modern AI tools and tech meet population scale challenges. Jagadish Babu of EkStep captures the transformative potential of language AI in leveling the social playing field. He says, "The biggest benefit of language AI is how it can bring social parity." With language AI, students from government schools can gain fluency in English and confidently engage with their counterparts from elite convent schools. Babu's words highlight the power of AI-driven language education to dismantle long-standing barriers and bridge social divides. By democratising access to quality language instruction, AI transcends the traditional confines of socioeconomic status and empowers students from diverse backgrounds to embrace new opportunities confidently, ultimately fostering a more just and equitable society. 

"By understanding each individual's knowledge and learning profile, we can tailor the educational content to present the most suitable material for their next learning steps. This ensures a personalised and efficient learning experience," Babu says. 

By pioneering AI-driven initiatives that transcend profit-driven applications, India can rewrite the AI narrative and create a legacy of innovation that fosters a more equitable, inclusive, and prosperous society - a testament to the transformative power of technology when wielded for the greater good.

While Silicon Valley is the birthplace of AI, the technology will meet its true societal purpose only in India. 

(Pankaj Mishra has been a journalist for over two decades and is the co-founder of FactorDaily.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.