Why industry – academia collaboration is essential for creating an AI ecosystem

Industry-academia partnerships are instrumental in advancing research and creating a skilled workforce. Ashoka University has been contributing towards the development of an AI ecosystem through collaborations with IT companies, publications of cutting-edge research studies and several policy briefs on the topic. In an interaction, Prof. Subhashis Banerjee, Head of Department, Computer Science, Ashoka University, highlights the larger societal / development impact of the varsity's AI driven initiatives

How is Ashoka University focused on creating an AI ecosystem ? What have been your key initiatives in this direction?

Prof Subhashis Banerjee, Head of Department, Computer Science, Ashoka University

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is transforming the technological landscape all over the world. In India, it has a lot of potential. AI is widely being deployed across all major sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture, healthcare, retail, banking, financial services, public utility, and also being used for national defense and security.

Considering the increasing scope and relevance of AI in the Indian context, Ashoka University has been contributing towards the development of an Artificial Intelligence ecosystem in the country through collaborations with IT companies, publications of cutting-edge research studies and several policy briefs on the topic.

In 2020, Ashoka University collaborated with Mphasis, an Information Technology solutions provider specialising in cloud and cognitive services to set up a laboratory for machine learning and computational thinking, through a grant of INR 10 crore from Mphasis F1 Foundation, the CSR arm of the company.

Last year, Ashoka University also released a collection of policy briefs on Artificial Intelligence. These Collection of Policy Briefs is an outcome of an interactive webinar on Artificial Intelligence (AI) hosted by Ashoka University in 2020 with leading experts from academia, government and the industry.

Ashoka University also plans to set up a Centre for Data Analytics to deepdive into data analytics and focus on research across categories such as food and nutrition, health, epidemiology, malnutrition, sustainability and climate change. Funds have already been sanctioned for setting up this data centre, that will be partly hosted on cloud, and partly in private.

What kind of collaboration do you have with leading IT companies and startups for AI research?

For AI research, Ashoka University has collaborated with IT solutions provider Mphasis to set up a laboratory for machine learning and computational thinking.

Apart from collaborations with IT companies, last year Ashoka University also entered into an agreement with IIT Delhi to establish “Ashoka University-IITD Collaborative Research Platform”. The platform will undertake joint activities on academic research and human resource development, which will have a great economic and social impact on the society. For this platform, proposals will be invited for joint research projects in interdisciplinary areas such as AMR/MDR infectious bacteria, epidemiology, immunology, Artificial intelligence/Machine Learning in healthcare, economic data, socio-economic, gender inequality and policy issues etc.

Please tell more about your laboratory of machine learning and what kind of work you are doing there.

The Mphasis Laboratory for Machine Learning and Computational Thinking applies ML and design thinking to produce world-class papers and compelling proof-of-concepts of systems/prototypes with a potential for large societal impact. The laboratory formed through a collaboration between Mphasis and Ashoka, is pioneering in its effort to establish a centre of excellence for collaborative and human-centred design that aims to fuel data-driven solutions for real-life challenges and address key areas of reform at the larger community level.

The laboratory is establishing avenues for knowledge exchange in the areas of core machine learning, information curation, accessibility for persons with disabilities, health and medicine. It is the setting for cutting edge research and a novel educational initiative that is focused on bringing thoroughly researched, pedagogy-based learning modules to Indian students. The laboratory also works to translate research activity into educational modules focusing on the construction of entire systems that allow students to understand and experientially recreate the project. This approach to education is aimed at creating a more engaging and widely accessible mode of learning.

Examples of some of the research work being done by the laboratory includes the ongoing development of BharatSim, India’s first ultra- large-scale simulation of 100 million-1 billion agents representing the population of India together with a detailed synthetic population. BharatSim can help governments, NGOs and others in the health care sector understand areas where targeted interventions in health care may make a difference to outcomes and to test these in simulations. Such simulations, since they assimilate details of economic activity as well, should also be useful in other fields.

To prevent any adverse impact caused by superintelligence AI systems, the laboratory is also currently working on machine explainability techniques that allow humans and machines to speak the same language. These algorithms can then build on human common sense, making machines more robust. It also helps quantify and therefore benchmark their performance.

Your views regarding the larger societal / development impact of your AI driven initiatives?

The AI initiatives of Ashoka by promoting world-class research are having wide-ranging positive impact in areas such as healthcare, medicine, epidemiology, nutrition, air pollution, etc. Most importantly, the University through its courses in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning as part of Undergraduate, Graduate and PhD Programmes is creating a workforce skilled in these technologies. Creating such a industry-ready workforce is essential if India is to become a global hub for data and AI in the coming years.

Ashoka has also done work regarding how suitable policies can be created for use of AI in India. The Collection of Policy Briefs on Artificial Intelligence that was launched by the University this year underlines some of the pressing issues concerning AI’s deployment in different areas and provides a set of policy recommendations for a better future. Also in 2020, Anjali Taneja and Ravi Kothari of Ashoka University had published a paper examining the potential of AI in promoting economic growth and policies that may amplify the efficacy of AI in helping India achieve its growth aspirations. Work such as these on applications of AI in India by Ashoka will significantly help our policymakers create enabling policies for utilisation of AI for India’s development.

Why are such industry-academia partnerships so important for India’s growth and development?

Collaboration between industry and academia promote innovation and growth in technology. Industry partnerships are instrumental in advancing research and creating a skilled workforce. From these partnerships, industry gains work-ready talent with specialist knowledge and practical training, and universities benefit by having opportunities to work on relevant technologies and issues. As digitisation increases in India, the country has the opportunity of having a young tech-savvy population ready to apply its learnings in key fields such as AI and Big Data to solve major challenges facing critical industries like healthcare and energy.

As we enter the next decade of emerging technologies, substantial changes will take place in healthcare with personalised medicine, digitisation of the economy and society with AI and high-performance computing. These will require solutions that can be deployed sustainably in India. Therefore, industry-academia collaborations with an enabling government framework will be imperative to innovate and commercialise these solutions.

Any other important factor you wish to highlight.

With the increased deployment of AI and automation, India has to create an educational ecosystem that is equipped to utilise Artificial Intelligence as well as other technological advancements. Through its AI initiatives and its courses as part of Undergraduate, Graduate and PhD programmes, Ashoka has been contributing towards establishing this educational ecosystem in the country and creating an AI skilled workforce in India. As part of these efforts, Ashoka in 2019 had also set up a Science Policy Initiative (SPI) with the objective to promote data-driven research, policy work and advocacy on India’s science, technology and innovation space. In the new decade, such initiatives and increasing collaborations between industry, academia and the government will be essential for India to become a global hub for AI and data.

Artificial IntelligenceAshoka UniversityCollaborationeducationIT industrymachine learning (ML)Mphasisresearch
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