The Debate | Opinion

Artificial Intelligence in a Natural Partnership: India and the UK

Both countries have much to gain concretely from AI collaboration.

Artificial Intelligence in a Natural Partnership: India and the UK
Credit: Flickr/WCN 24/7

On May 4 2021, the prime ministers of the United Kingdom and India met virtually. The meeting ended with a 1 billion British pound ($1.4 billion) trade deal and a promise of generating thousands of jobs on both sides, and toward a future free trade agreement. The package includes 240 million British pounds (about $338.56 million) investment to U.K. by the Serum Institute of India into their vaccine business supporting research, clinical trials, manufacturing, and export of drones utilizing artificial intelligence (AI).

India and the U.K. have a long history of productive cooperation and have helped each other during the pandemic. The two major economies are on the frontlines of AI innovation and regulation and are therefore primed to cooperate in developing AI-driven technologies. In addition, both countries are founding members of the global partnership on AI  and have spent considerable resources on devising their policies for the proliferation of AI.

The U.K. has aggressively deregulated its technology sector, and AI development in particular. The most precise understanding of government policy on AI development has been through the 2017 House of Lords Select Committee on AI report. The report conveys that the onus of AI development and research has firmly bestowed efforts on the private sector and academia and emphasized leveraging AI to diagnose and treat diseases, upskill the workforce, and end unsafe jobs.

For India, AI is vital in sectors like medicine, financial services, education and agriculture. The Indian government established the “National Program on Artificial Intelligence” (NPAI) under the auspices of the government think-tank NITI Aayog, crafting a national strategy to build a vibrant AI ecosystem in the country and collaborate with multiple experts and stakeholders. There are currently significant barriers to AI development in India, including lack of broad-based expertise in research, absence of enabling data ecosystems, privacy and security. However, India aims to provide an ideal framework and act as an “AI garage” in establishing solutions for the developing and emerging economies.

There is significant overlap between the aims of the two governments in the development of AI. To this end, a greater exchange of ideas, technology and talent is needed. The two countries have already formed a “Tech Alliance” in 2018 to increase collaboration in emerging technologies. Targeted cooperation in areas of mutual strategic and national interest is the need of the hour.

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The agriculture sector remains a low-productivity sector in India despite accounting for 49 percent of labor and contributing 16 percent to the country’s GDP.  One crucial factor is the lack of research into the implementation of new-age technologies that could increase agricultural productivity at various levels of the supply chain. The Government of India has prioritized agriculture in the country’s National AI Strategy. Here, we see glimpses of cooperation between the U.K. and India. ‘Transforming India’s Green Revolution and Empowerment for Sustainable food Supplies” program is a collaboration between academia in the U.K. and India. The research program, hosted by Cambridge University, attempts to finance interdisciplinary research in AI in agriculture. Researchers and data scientists are trained to collate data that help enhance farm production and supply chains. Private sector agro-start-ups in India that use AI to tackle soil monitoring, crop health monitoring, mechanization, and more, also require further investment and knowledge exchange.

The pharmaceutical sector in both countries has collaborated on AI technologies and research for a long time. Now, national governments are catching up too. The Indian government prioritizes the use of new technology to detect and treat deadly diseases. The U.K. digital health industry stands to gain from this. In cooperation with the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS), there are plans to develop 5,000 diagnostic centers equipped with healthcare AI catalysts in India.

Under this program, three British companies will focus on AI-driven technology to screen diseases like cancer. Expert teams within consulates and embassies facilitate the U.K. government’s cooperation. Opportunities to collaborate further on emerging medicinal AI, such as exploration of the biomolecular sciences, abound.

Both governments stand to gain tremendously through increased collaboration on new technologies such as AI. India needs to generate more jobs for its young workforce; arguably, these should be in future-proof sectors like AI, while the U.K. would benefit from increased cooperation as it looks beyond Europe post Brexit. Increased investment from the U.K. in start-ups, development and research ventures and local government projects in India is essential. The AI partnership between the U.K. and India is a step in the right direction to bring the relationship into the 21st century. However, more government-to-government cooperation is needed to synchronize areas of shared strategic concern in the development, deployment and regulation of AI.

The authors are co-chairs of the U.K. India AI Partnership Program at AI Policy Labs. Keshav Khanna contributed to the article through research and support.