Nepal should gamble on AI

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A statue of Beethoven by German artist Ottmar Hoerl stands in front of a piano during a presentation of a part of the completion of Beethoven’s 10th symphony made using artificial intelligence at the Telekom headquarters in Bonn, western Germany. AFP

Artificial intelligence (AI) is an essential part of the fourth industrial revolution, and Nepal can still catch up to global developments.

Although unrelated, the last decade has seen two significant events: Nepal promulgated a new constitution after decades of instability and is now aiming for prosperity. At the same time, AI saw a resurgence through deep learning, impacting a wide variety of fields. Though unrelated, one can help the other – AI can help Nepal in its quest for development and prosperity.

AI was conceptualised during the 1950s, and have seen various phases. The concept caught the public’s imagination and hundreds, if not thousands, of movies and novels were created based on a similar idea – of a machine’s intelligence being on par with humans.

But human intelligence is a very complex phenomenon and is diverse in its abilities like rationalisation or recognising a person’s face. Even the seemingly simple task of recognising faces, when captured at different camera angles, was considered a difficult challenge for AI as late as the first decade of this century.

However, thanks to better algorithms, computation capabilities, and loads of data from the magic of the internet and social media giants, the current AI systems are now capable of performing such facial recognition tasks better than humans. Some other exciting landmarks include surpassing trained medical doctors in diagnosing diseases from X-ray images and a self-taught AI beating professionals in the strategy board game Go. Although AI may be still far away from general human intelligence, these examples should be more than enough to start paying attention to the technology.

The current leap in AI is now considered an essential ingredient for the fourth industrial revolution. The first industrial revolution, via the steam engine, that started in Great Britain during the late 1700s and quickly expanded to other European countries and America led to rapid economic prosperity. This further opened floodgates of innovation and wealth creation leading to the second and third industrial revolution. A case study of this could be the relationship between Nokia and Finland.

Both of them failing miserably in economic terms in the late 1980s. But both the company and the country ‘gambled’ on GSM technology, which later went on to become the world’s dominant network standard. In a single decade that followed, Finland achieved unprecedented economic growth with Nokia accounting for more than 70 per cent of Helsinki’s stock exchange market capital. This single decade transformed Finland into the most specialised countries in terms of information and communication despite it being under a severe economic crisis since World War II.

The gamble involved not just the motivation to support new technology, but a substantial investment through the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation into Nokia’s research and development projects. This funding was later returned in the form of colossal tax revenue, employment opportunities and further demand for skilled human resources. All these resulted in an ecosystem with a better educational system and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Owing to the years of political turmoil and instability, Nepal missed out on these past industrial revolutions. But overlooking the current one might leave us far behind.

Global AI phenomenon

A recent study of the global AI phenomenon has shown that developed countries have invested heavily in talent and the associated market and have already started to see a direct contribution from AI in their economy. Some African countries are making sure that they are not being left behind, with proper investment in AI research and development. AI growth in Africa has seen applications in the area of agriculture and healthcare. Google, positioning itself to be an ‘AI-first’ company, has caught this trend in Africa and opened its first African AI lab in Accra, Ghana.

So is Nepal too late to this party? Perhaps. But Nepal still has a chance of catching up. Instead of scattering its focus and the available resources, the country now needs to narrow its investments into AI and technology. It will all start with the central government beginning with a concrete plan for AI development for the upcoming decade.

Similar policies have already been released by many other countries, including its neighbours India and China. It is unfortunate to note that AI strategy from China, reported in the 19th Congress by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2017, received close to no attention in Nepal, in comparison to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) strategy that was announced in 2013.

An essential component of such a strategic plan should be on enhancing Nepal’s academic institutions. Fortunately, any such programme from the government could be facilitated by recent initiatives like Naami Nepal, a research organisation for AI or NIC Nepal, an innovation centre started by Mahabir Pun.

Moreover, thanks to the private sector, Nepal has also begun to see AI-based companies like Fuse machines or Paaila Technologies that are attempting to close the gap. It has now become necessary to leverage AI for inclusive economic growth to fulfil our dreams of prosperity.

Prashnna K Gyawali/THE KATHMANDU POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK