Preparing India’s young minds for AI

By Jibu Elias


If India is to fully prepare for seizing the enormous opportunities that AI presents, then we must mould a strong AI-ready workforce by preparing our young minds.

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I remember clearly, the first time I experienced a computer. I was in 5th grade when our computer science teacher took us to the computer lab. It was air-conditioned and was treated like a place of worship. We students have to leave our footwear outside the lab. But inside was a dozen of beige coloured desktop computers, with many of them adorning a photo of Kajol from the movie Minsara Kanavu (Or Swapney- the Hindi version) as the wallpaper.

There began my decades-long relationship with computers. For the best part of the next three years, we visited the lab every fortnight and spent all of the allocated 40 minutes playing Dave, Prince of Persia and other games. In fact, our favourite game was Wolf 3D. With one computer shared by up to 4 students, Wolf enabled one to operate the movement with the arrow keys while others pressed the shooting keys in turns. 

Nevertheless, what didn’t happen was anything substantial in terms of computer science education. Our tests and classes often focused on questions like which key is known as the Return key or what’s the function of the Print key on the keyboard? Ironically, my school was one of the best private schools in the state and one amongst the handful with a computer lab.

It was when I reached the 11th grade that I finally got to have a good hands-on experience with a personal computer when my progressive-minded father decided to get a PC for home, even though it wasn’t something he could afford back then. By then, my academic interests had been set, and future plans were laid out, and that certainly didn’t feature computers. Despite spending five years “learning” computer science, none of us knew or even were taught the basics of coding. 

If you thought I was talking about the 80s or 90s, then you are wrong. Rather this was the 2000s, the new millennium, a couple of years after the burst of the dotcom bubble, the period when Gmail finally established itself as the defacto email service overtaking Yahoo Mail and Rediffmail in India. 

Now, the reason I had to take you through a ride of my personal memories from my school’s computer lab, that were filled with the revolting smell of sweaty socks, is to demonstrate the kind of training and access I gained as one of the privileged students in the country to computer science. And, importantly, how pointless the whole exercise was.

We live in a culture of glorifying the Gates, the Musks, the Pages and the Zuckerbergs of the Valley, and at the same time compare and brand the aspiring young minds in our country as inferior, lazy, and unmotivated. However, what we often miss out is the access these pioneers of information revolution had during their childhood days to then-emerging technologies as well as proper training. In fact, Bill Gates was known to have coded regularly in his school computer in the 80s while Elon Musk was making and selling computer games during his childhood in South Africa. 

Of course, we have our Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai, Narayanmoorthy and Nilekani. But they are anomalies, exceptional minds that fought and won against all the odds. The ugly truth is that we pretty much missed out the opportunity to create a generation of computer scientists who would have gone on to pioneer research and development for the country.  

Coming to the present, we as a country are witnessing a remarkable transformation in its mindset, a complete shift from our approach to education in the early days of the IT revolution. As the world is entering another epoch of technology revolution, our country seems to be in no mood to repeat its past mistakes.

Future impact of AI on India

If the IT revolution was big, then the AI revolution is going to be enormous. Various estimates point to the fact that by 2030 the global market for AI is likely to worth around 15 trillion dollars. According to NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant, “India can add at least 1.3% to its GDP on an annual basis through the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence.” 

“AI can find solutions to the challenges of becoming a zero-emission world, improving learning outcomes, curing disease like tuberculosis, cancer etc. If we can find solutions to these challenges for the 1.3 billion people of India, we can find solutions for the 7.5 billion people of the world too,” said Mr Kant in one of the events held by Atal Innovation Mission earlier this year.

As of 2019, India had around 72,000 professionals in its AI workforce. The AI industry in the country also doubled its revenue to $415 million from $230 million in the year before. Various reports from Accenture and McKinsey predict that by 2035, AI has the potential to add over $ 957 billion to India’s economy.

But, India still has a long way to go to be fully prepared to seize the enormous opportunities that AI presents, and that includes moulding a strong AI workforce in the country as well as preparing the minds of the future to evolve with and to leverage this incredible technology. And that process definitely starts at the schools. 

“AI has become a strategic lever for economic growth across nations and will continue to be one of the most crucial technologies of the future,” says Debjani Ghosh, President of NASSCOM

“Given its impact, we need to introduce AI to students as young as possible so that the right foundations are built over time and can be leveraged to take the country on a high-growth path. K-12 segment is an important segment to onboard onto future technologies to prepare them fully for the digital and AI era. Important to focus on learning ability as a key lever for enabling the younger generation to keep up and achieve better in the 21st century,” she added. 

ATL AI-Base Module: Getting the basics right

Today, there are numerous government and private organisations such as CBSE working to bring AI education to schools, and one of the notable initiatives is ATL AI-Base Module, prepared in collaboration with NITI Aayog’s Atal Innovation Mission and NASSCOM Futureskills with a focus on rolling out resources for students to learn the fundamentals of AI.  

The ATL AI-Base Module was introduced through the Atal Tinkering Lab. The module contains activities, videos and experiments that enable students to work through and learn the various concepts of AI. The hands-on module is formulated to encourage young students to contribute to the journey of nation-building. 

“We want to make learning artificial intelligence great fun so that children can enjoy it, they can evolve and learn and take India forward,” said Amitabh Kant during the launch event of AI-Base Module in February this year. “This module is path-breaking. It combines playing and academics, and our job is to make things very interesting,” he added.

According to Yudhisther Yadav, one of the key people behind this “the module will be a catalyst for the youth to explore, ideate and learn the latest technologies and build a generation of innovators at the grass-root level.”

Developing the AI-Base Module came with lots of challenges, points out Yudhisther, who is also the Lead Strategic Initiatives at FutureSkills. “Finding the target audience, time available (development, deployment and engagement), school context (rural, remote, urban), and elimination of preferential bias have all posed serious challenges,” he added.

This was tackled with extensive research and development works that included numerous discussions with stakeholders and workgroups. 

According to Yudhisther, the research also included tracking the progress of AI education worldwide. That meant researching developments and concepts from China, AAAI and CSTA - AI framework for US schools, Finland, Canada, UK’s AI in Schools program, alongside programs designed by global universities such as the University of Helsinki, the University of Oregon. These were then incorporated with elements from the UK based company’s ‘Drag and Drop ‘coding environment and Micro-courses from various providers.

“AI is going to be an integral part of the new 21st century innovations, and we are proud to introduce the Learn-It-Yourself module in all our 5000 Atal Tinkering Labs with over 2.5 million students having access to it,” said R. Ramanan Mission Director at Atal Innovation Mission during the launch.

“This is the first-ever industry-government academia initiative on such a scale to keep the school students abreast of latest technologies,” he added. 

The first version of AI Base Module was introduced to the ATL students on 27 February with an AI Step-up Module currently under development. 

Responsible AI for Youth: Taking AI to rural Indian schools

According to World Bank estimates, India has over 66% of its population living in rural areas. This reinforces the fact that how crucial it is for us to empower the youth in these regions with the right skill sets, mindsets and tools if we are to create a robust AI-ready workforce for the future. 

With this vision in mind, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology along with Intel India has launched the Responsible AI for Youth - a national program for government schools. This program is currently aimed at students from class 8-12 across all government schools in district headquarters. 

“India must be a leading country in the development of Artificial Intelligence in the world, leveraging upon its vast Internet-savvy population and data it is creating,” said Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Union Minister for Electronics and IT, Law and Justice and Communications, at the launch event on 30 May 2020 in New Delhi.

The Responsible AI for Youth initiative aims to provide an equal opportunity to all Indian youths - in urban, rural and remote corners of India - to become human-centric designers who can create real AI solutions to solve economic and social impact issues of India.

This initiative is designed by industry experts and academicians to familiarise students with AI skill sets along with the right mindset, to enable them to contribute to AI advancement through social impact solutions via providing a democratise access to AI tools and training and overall equip the youth for a better tomorrow. 

“I want India to become synonymous with AI. It is important because the world will see at least $16 trillion more in the next ten years or so. And I want to see how India can get most of this into our economy” Nivruti Rai, Country Head, Intel India.

Presently, India has over 250 million students enrolled in school today, with 60% of this population studying in government schools in rural areas. 

“Children of the government schools can’t afford (access to advanced studies like AI), but we can’t deny their talent. What they don’t have is an opportunity. Let this program create an opportunity for the young,” implored Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad.

The Responsible AI for Youth program will achieve its aims over the next six months in three phases. In phase one, each state will select ten teachers and 20-25 students for the program who will undergo orientation and 33 online training modules of over 176 hours that cover both - theoretical and experiential learning. Based on this education, stunts will submit a video outlining their AI-centric social impact project. The top 100 students will be shortlisted for phase two based on this submission. They will deep dive into AI subjects and further refine their project. In phase three, 50 students will get to showcase their projects, of which 20 students will be declared winners.

The program has already got its start in various states across the country including Tamil Nadu. “In the first session more than 35 teachers have attended the sessions from more than 16 districts of the state, and each teacher has enrolled a minimum of 25 students,” said Dhilip S, a teacher with the Government Higher Secondary School, Sathyamangalam, Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu who also works as a coordinator for the programme to INDIAai’s KTP Radhika. “We have created a WhatsApp group and oriented students on how to attend the class. We are delivering lectures through YouTube live and marking attendance too,” he added.

With hundreds of billions of dollars of economic growth at stake, as well as the global AI race heating up, we cannot afford to be complacent in terms of building AI-ready workforce. Unlike past mistakes, today, we have more reason to be optimistic as the government itself leads the effort in preparing our future generations for AI. 

About the author

Jibu Elias

Content & Research Lead, INDIAai

Jibu Elias is the Content and Research Lead at INDIAai, currently lending his wide knowledge and keen insight into artificial intelligence for building a unified AI ecosystem in India. He specialises in ethical and legal implications of AI. He is an alumnus of the London School of Economics (LSE), where he studied International Relations, specialising in Sino-India relations.

With inputs from KTP Radhika and Sangeeta Rane.

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