Insights - Design & Product

Tanuj Bhojwani, Head, people+ai, on India’s AI Future

Tanuj describes himself as a ‘storyteller who codes’ but he’s worn many hats: drone startup founder, investor, and co-author of ‘The Art of Bitfulness’ with Nandan Nilekani. He currently heads people+ai, a non-profit focused on building an AI ecosystem for India.

Photo of Tanuj Bhojwani in blue circle witjh text Adhbut India and mascot for

In his current role, Tanuj Bhojwani leads the efforts of people+ai, an offshoot of the EkStep Foundation. Founded in 2015 by Nandan and Rohini Nilekani and Shankar Maruwada, this non-profit champions ecosystems that build digital public goods. The leadership team has a significant overlap with the one that built Aadhaar, a key part of India’s Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI).

I talked to Tanuj about how the AI landscape in India is evolving, what people+ai hopes to do and what advice he has for founders and creative professionals.

What is the AI future looking like for India?

Tanuj: The impact of AI is already bigger, wider, and faster than anything we have seen so far. AI could account for up to $500 billion to India’s GDP by 2025, which is almost equivalent to our agriculture sector that forms 10% of the GDP. 

This brings up a lot of concerns: Will AI take away jobs? Will it lead to new monopolies? Will it widen inequalities? If we do nothing, then we are heading into a future by default, where the evolution of technology shapes humanity.  What we need is a future by design, where technology serves us, not the other way round. 

That’s what we are trying to do at people+AI. Even in our name, people come first, then AI.

Broadly, our work falls into 4 buckets:

  • Identifying what are the population-scale use cases for India
  • Helping to build the infrastructure to run these use cases at scale
  • Enabling collaboration by putting together teams to solve specific AI problems.
  • Celebrating and publicising the work being done in AI from India.

We do all this with a tiny team and many teams of talented volunteers.

People+ai mascot writing in register while seated in front of indian girl in orange saree
people+ai aims to capture AI use cases at scale for India. By using their mascot Adarsh, they want to reframe the conversation around AI to make it less intimidating.

What makes you so bullish about India’s role in the AI future?

I’d go so far as to say that India is going to be the AI use case capital of the world by 2030. This prediction hinges on three things: India needs AI more than any western country, India is ready for it, and India will do it.

In the West, there are legacy systems to overhaul. In India, our tabula rasa means that we can build AI systems from the ground up. While the West is curious about AI and seeking real use cases, India has hundreds of use cases wherever you look, thanks to our incredible diversity and socioeconomic setup. 

We have a young, connected population who form a massive user base for AI. We have quickly adopted Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI), from Aadhaar to UPI, faster than any other nation. And we have a plethora of talent, a vibrant startup ecosystem with venture capital, and government backing.  

Any advice for founders?

Tanuj: The AI economy is not going to be an attention economy. Even the likes of Google and ChatGPT charge you $20/month for access. For AI to be viable, it has to be a transaction economy. 

So the most important step is to identify not what can be done with AI but what should be done. That is, identifying population-scale use cases for India where there is massive opportunity for transformation.

How mature is India’s AI ecosystem right now?

We are seeing a lot of AI startups trying to solve uniquely Indian problems. But they face ecosystem-level challenges that slow down innovation, make things inefficient, or end up concentrating AI access to the hands of a few.

When we talk about the ecosystem, we talk in layers.:

  1. Use cases: What problems are we trying to solve?
  2. Infrastructural challenges: This includes data gaps, a lack of foundational models for the Indian context, and extremely high computing costs. 
  3. Talent:We need to re-skill people rapidly to ‘plus-ai’ talent to remain competitive on the global front. We also need to create opportunities for deep AI research within India to avoid a talent leak.
  4. Policy: We don’t yet have a clear, innovative AI policy although the government has made a start with the IndiaAI Report 2023. It’s only when samaaj (people), sarkaar (government), and bazaar (market) come together that we will truly understand what India’s AI ecosystem needs to succeed. One of our initiatives in this regard is the AI Promise, a self-declared pledge for AI developers and organisations, to enable trust between builders and users.

Is this where Adbhut India comes in?

Tanuj: Adbhut India is a conceptual destination we are working towards, where India has fully leveraged AI to solve all the ecosystem challenges I mentioned. The name comes from the Navarasas and means ‘a sense of wonder’. (It’s also a play on AI.)

We have four guiding principles to create an Adbhut India. 

  1. Be use case led: First look at what problems need to be solved that haven’t been easy to solve. Then see if/how AI can help. Starting with the tech and then finding a problem to solve is not people-centric.
  2. Be collaborative: Like with open source, we need to collaborate at an ecosystem level to build on each other’s ideas, avoid duplication, innovate faster, and reduce inefficiencies and costs.
  3. Build and share (digital) public goods: Goods here mean knowledge, tools, code, etc. By sharing these freely, we will grow collectively and avoid getting trapped in low-level competition.
  4. Ensure an inclusive, equitable, responsible future.

We are deliberately going beyond the ‘Responsible AI’ term. We want to think of second-order consequences and practical implications of actions, not just high-level morality.

Tell us about your mascot — Adarsh Intelligence.

Adarsh Intelligence is our way of changing the conversation about what these technologies can do and are meant for.

The west is pitching AGI, something bigger than ourselves that will run the world. These are Nietzschesque, Ubermensch kind of ideas that are inherently scary, powerful, and too complex for the average human to understand. 

We wanted to reframe the conversation and model Adarsh Intelligence as much more approachable, inclusive, and fun. So we adopted the persona of a helpful, playful child. Older millennials would have grown up seeing Adarsh Balak posters in our moral science classes. These depicted “an ideal boy/an ideal girl” character traits. Adarsh Intelligence is inspired by those.

Among creative professionals, the tech-savvy, top 5% talk about embracing AI as a tool to make work better. But what about the remaining 95%? AI has definitely hit them hard. How do you think they can navigate this landscape? 

Tanuj: Here’s the hard reality of the market: People will pay for the value they perceive.

It’s very hard to get people to do something because it is ethically correct. Which means creatives can respond in two ways:
I as an artist will never be able to compete with AI photos, so I’m now unemployed.

Or

How do I now create even more (perceived) value with these tools? 

I look at people like Pratik Arora as showing us the way. Pratik seems to be a kid who loves sci-fi and India, and is disappointed by the lack of Indian sci-fi. And he’s managed to single-handedly fix that! Part of the job of being a creative is to tell timeless tales in new ways. The stories follow the same arcs (hero’s journey, etc.) but we never tire of them. The artists we most celebrate today found ways to break away from the norm. 

When cameras came, portrait painters also said this would kill their profession, and it did. But a new class of creatives – photographers – were born. I think there are more photographers now than there ever were portrait painters. Sneaker designers are today probably one of the most successful forms of artists. 

So I’d suggest – adopt. Let go of the old ideas of art and you are now a pioneer who gets to define what art is.

As an author yourself, how do you see AI influencing the future of writing and storytelling?

If I had to write a book again (I won’t), I do think I’ll liberally use AI. The main superpower I have is not that the AI can write for me – that’s very reductive. AI ensures two things: First, that I never have to start from a blank page again. And second, that I never have to think alone again.

6 Comments

  1. What’s the best way to educate oneself? Besides the obvious – use GenAi in your every day work etc, If I take the example of the Internet, there was a wave of print-based creators who got left behind. If a similar thing is happening now, how does one upskill? please do an event on this Meeta and Team THC.

  2. I like that the name is somewhat gender-neutral (at least in the North) but why does Adarsh have to be male? And why show him filling out a form for a woman? The last thing People+Ai should do is reinforce stereotypes, nah?

  3. I dont think thats the point of this. We all know there will be disruption. Point is we cant stop it – but what can we do? Being scared shitless aint getting us nowhere bro.

  4. I wish I could be as optimistic – while there may be many AI use cases for India to improve productivity, there is going to be mass scale job losses and we have zero safety mechanisms for that unlike west. Just look at the corporate results coming out. Demand is down. Inflation is up. And layoffs everywhere. The average middle class family is on the edge of a precipice already

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