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India paving the way for integrating diverse linguistic datasets into AI

Mountain View, California: India’s rich tapestry of languages is emerging as a significant driving force behind future advancements in mainstream artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, according to Josh Woodward, vice president and global head of Google’s innovation engine, Google Labs.

Woodward said India may be paving the way for integrating diverse linguistic datasets into AI systems, thereby unlocking new possibilities in revolutionizing AI technologies.

For instance, a state-backed initiative, such as the Bhashini project, which is spearheading efforts to harness the potential of the 22 official Indian languages, could be a major catalyst.

Bhashini is spearheading efforts to harness the potential of all 22 official Indian languages. “Innovation in AI could be country-specific, and not just global. There is a platform shift happening to move AI into a general purpose technology. This will happen around the world, but some specific cases can be seen in, say, Gemma—our open AI model,” Woodward said in an interview with Mint on the sidelines of the company’s annual conference, Google I/O.

“That’s an area where India’s language diversity and richness makes it very unique. Here, India can take a general purpose model and customize it into 15 Indic languages in a hybrid AI approach. Innovation can therefore happen in very custom ways.”

‘Developers, language diversity take India to top’
“We’re seeing so much energy and excitement from Indian developers to invent new ways in making AI useful for more Indian customers. Developers, along with the language diversity, make India a top contributor to the innovation that we at Google Labs do for creating future mainstream technologies,” Woodward added.

As the head of Google’s global innovation engine, Woodward has a profound understanding of India. Previously, he spearheaded Google’s ‘Next Billion Users’ initiative, focused on investment and innovation in India. Besides, having traversed several Indian cities, he also has a nuanced understanding of jugaad, the concept of improvisation, ingrained within Indian culture.

This, he said, is working to India’s benefit in a modern world. “Look at Google Pay in India, for instance, as an ideal example of how India took an existing technology domain of digital payments, and had a very specific way to innovate and make it what the industry is today.”

“With AI, too, there is a possibility that innovation will come from outside of Silicon Valley—be it from India, Indonesia or even Nigeria. We’ve seen this happen when mobile devices were just taking off globally, and we got a lot of innovations that grew from around the world,” Woodward said.

For Google, India is already contributing a great deal. A “significant” number of the 500-odd Google Labs team is of India origin, and are working with Google’s Research team in Bengaluru on a range of projects, including language research and development, he said.

During a press roundtable on Thursday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai also echoed Woodward’s sentiments. Responding to a question from Mint, Pichai emphasized that the technological shift propelled by AI presents India with the chance to either catch up or leap ahead in terms of innovation.

“India was never going to cross developed worlds in personal computing penetration. But on mobile, more people got access as a percentage of the population than the prior generation. With each technology shift, you get an opportunity to drive that penetration. I think that’s genuinely true with AI. India is the number one geography for a lot of our products in terms of our user base. We see a lot of developer activity from India on top of our AI platforms already—this will be an exciting moment, and India will be well positioned as the shift to AI happens,” Pichai said.

Industry stakeholders, on this note, are not surprised with Google’s push to rope in India’s developer base in hope of taking on rivals such as Meta, Microsoft and OpenAI. Kashyap Kompella, analyst and founder of tech advisory firm RPA2AI Research, said that a key factor amid the innovation will be “quality versus distribution”.

“OpenAI has had a head start, and its developer approach and interfaces are more flexible. Meta, because of open sourcing its foundational model, has made a leap too. But, Google has the world’s biggest distribution platforms, and India is one of its biggest markets on many of its products. We’ve seen distribution trump just quality in the past, which is why it’s important for Google to push for roping in India’s developers extensively,” Kompella said.

To be sure, roping in India’s developer base in its favour would give Google a substantial edge in taking frontier technologies to mainstream consumer and enterprise markets—which Woodward said is a clear goal for Google Labs.

To do so, however, the unit is taking a people-centric approach. “We have musicians come in and create music like never before on our AI tools. But, there’s the other side where non-musicians are coming in and creating music using our technology too—which makes production of music so accessible. We’re witnessing a barbell effect where we have innovators work with Labs to create results that were never possible before, helping AI evolve,” Woodward said.

Eventually, Woodward said a future may exist where copyright tussles with artists are resolved alongside innovation. “We are working through it, and may have more to share in the future,” he said.

A final tenet of innovation, meanwhile, would lie on the innovator’s ability to understand how platforms evolve. Woodward, on this note, agreed that some degree of AI innovation will be derived through philosophies.

“At Labs, we do think of what the undefined future looks like. The answer we reach is that it’s not about small features here or there—it’s an entire workflow that has to come together and change. We also talk to a lot of people to take our innovation forth—many have very specific opinions. One of the things we do is to find ways that are pain points, and we go about understanding and resolving that,” he said. Livemint

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