AI Policy Development in South Asia: An Introduction

by Arun Teja Polcumpally - 3 September, 2020, 12:00 3875 Views 0 Comment

Artificial Intelligence is going to be the bedrock of the fourth industrial revolution and almost all the developed nations are racing to have an upper hand. Mere digitalization of records and process would not help automation. Computational capabilities and decision-making techniques become the necessary addition to the existing machines. Such upgraded machines form the basics of industrial automation and AI is its fundamental functionary. Nearly 60 countries have released policy papers or discussion papers on Artificial intelligence. Even though states are in a rush to catch up on the speculative economic disruptions caused by AI, South Asia has seen only India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka releasing their policy papers on AI. While Sri Lanka is the only state where the policy has been outsourced to – Sri Lankan Association of Software and Services Companies (SLASSCOM) and launched a draft policy paper on June 26, 2019. All the drafts emphasize on the basic requirement of data regulations, Investments, and private collaborations, in developing the AI strategy. The common focus of the region on AI usability is observed to be on health care, education, agriculture, smart mobility, and governance. India is found to be the only country emphasizing on smart cities in its AI policy paper.

It is interesting to note that all the policy papers in South Asia have considered AI to be inherently good and it has to be deployed for the development of human society.

Major initiatives and focus areas of South Asia

India, noticing that it is not in the same position as the US or China, has drafted its policy to maximize the late mover’s advantage in adopting AI technology. With its #AIforAll brand, the state of India initiated policy discussions on the usage of AI in the field of Agriculture, health, education, and smart mobility and transport (Niti Aayog 2018). Two national-level institutes have been proposed viz. Centers for Research Excellence in Artificial Intelligence (CORE), whose focus is on the fundamental research. International Center for Transformational Artificial Intelligence (ICTAI) focuses on product development and deployment. There is also an overarching body that Center for Studies on Technological Sustainability (CSTS) which looks into the market impact and international competition of AI products.

Apart from this, Task Force on AI has released its report detailing on the sectors to be focused (The Artificial Intelligence Task Force 2018). The questions:

  • What are the sectors where the government should play a role?
  • What are the sectors where AI generates employment?  
  • How is AI used as the next-generation problem solver?

These have been given due importance but it lacks the question of how exactly the above questions are to be answered. As it is a successor to the NITI Aayog paper, challenges to the judicature are expected to be addressed but AI development & deployment has been considered as a new business venture.

Sri Lanka’s policy paper is not yet in the public. The launch event of draft policy paper emphasizes the sectors which have already been mentioned in the case of India. How Sri Lanka is going to realize this is yet to be seen.

Of the three policy papers, Bangladesh appears to have drafted a well-researched plan with the timeline of the AI deployment in the priority sectors along with the legal framework. It has a procedural framework with research, AI skilling of the workforce, setting up of digital infrastructure, drafting a legal framework, investing in the AI development, commercializing lining up respective order (Information and Communication Technology Division 2019).

Pakistan has an educational forum – Presidential Initiative for Artificial Intelligence and Computing which provides skill enhancement and foundational courses in different parts of the country (Presidential Inititiative for Artificial Intelligence and Computing n.d.). However, it lacks a national policy to lead the various AI initiatives.

Afghanistan, with its political instability and ongoing peace talks with the US and Taliban, it has other priorities to AI. While Nepal and Bhutan could have leveraged the neighboring countries’ policy developments and made an effort to have joint effort with either India or China. It would have ensured a spot in the Global AI race.

Even though Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India stepped up for the AI race, the entire region has a diverse set of challenges. Countries have not digitalized most of its data which becomes a major concern for even developing ethical and accountable AI models. There are a good number of government departments where the records are not yet digitalized. Also, skilling becomes a difficult job for the state. For example, ASER report of rural India, which focuses on the evaluating learning outcomes of schoolchildren found that only 27.2% of Standard III, can read Standard II level text, 50.3% of Standard V students can read standard II level text and about 73% of standard VIII students can read standard II level text (ASER 2018). Research similar to ASER is absent in other countries of South Asia, but it would be reasonable to assume that there would be similar learning outcomes in the rural regions of the sub-continent.

Given these fundamental challenges, AI adoption by South Asia would require revamping education policies, industrial policies, legal frameworks and to have an umbrella institution catering to the inter-departmental coordination between the emerging technologies and societal requirements. Such institutions would be established at the national levels. As all the countries are not equipped to accelerate their developments to match the AI era, a regional institution within SAARC would be a welcome move.

Disclaimer – This article was originally published as a part of O.P. Jindal Global university’s research center blog (Jindal Center for Global Studies).

Arun Teja Polcumpally
Author is a Doctoral Fellow at Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), O.P. Jindal Global University, India.

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