Indian billionaire brothers launch AI development research institute

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center) at the inauguration of the Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Mumbai, India. Photo by: Narendra Modi Office

SAN FRANCISCO — On Wednesday, Indian billionaire brothers Romesh and Sunil Wadhwani announced the formation of a $30 million nonprofit research institute focused on applications of artificial intelligence to solve global development challenges.

Based in Mumbai, the nonprofit will partner with the government of the Indian state of Maharashtra. Within the next two to three years, the goal is to have 30 to 50 researchers working full time on leveraging AI to “improve the quality of life for the bottom 2 billion in the world,” Sunil Wadhwani told Devex.

The group will partner with Mumbai University, several India Institutes of Technology, and American universities including the University of Southern California and New York University. These universities will send students to India to work on these challenges so that at any given time 70 to 100 researchers are doing this work.

Examples of projects might include leveraging AI to help farmers understand when they should plant their seeds, or to improve the training of community health workers, or to address high dropout rates in rural schools. Within the first year, the goal is to have developed solutions that demonstrate the potential of AI to benefit the poor and then continue to build on those early examples.

The Wadhwani brothers aren’t the first billionaires to invest in an initiative to maximize the benefits, or minimize the risks, of AI. But the brothers believe they are in a strong position to close the gap between the rhetoric on AI for good and the actual impact of technology on the lives of the world’s poor. After studying in India, pursuing careers in tech that turned them into billionaires, and launching nonprofits of their own, the brothers want to apply AI to development challenges in sectors such as health care, education, and agriculture.

Based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Sunil Wadhwani is the founder of the Wadhwani Initiative for Sustainable Health, or the WISH Foundation, which focuses on bringing primary health care to underserved populations. And based in Silicon Valley, Romesh Wadhwani recently joined the Giving Pledge, and his foundation, which focuses on skills and entrepreneurship, is part of a new model for collaborative philanthropy. The nonprofit resulted from a conversation the Wadhwani brothers had about how the rapid advances in AI were not benefiting the people they aim to serve through their own foundations.

The promise and pitfalls of AI for global development

With growing talk to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, what can the global development community do to ensure that this new era of technological advancement does not leave the poorest falling further behind?

“No one in the world seems to be actually using these very powerful technologies to accelerate social development and address society’s greatest challenges,” Sunil Wadhwani told Devex on Wednesday. “There are isolated researchers working on this … but nowhere in the world is there an institution where there is a critical mass of researchers focused on social good.”

“This institute is a prime example of how the public sector and the private sector can combine with good intention to build a world-class institute, aimed at benefiting the poor,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said when he formally inaugurated the organization on Sunday.

Beyond its primary goal of developing AI-based solutions to help the underserved, Wadhwani AI aims to be the hub of a growing ecosystem of AI for good researchers and practitioners, and to build capacity for universities in developing countries to offer coursework in AI.

“Success means bringing innovative solutions that achieve large-scale positive social impact,” Romesh Wadhwani said in a press release. “We hope this will transform how AI research is conducted and applied to help societies throughout the world.”

The institute will be led by Dr. P. Anandan, a researcher in computer vision and artificial intelligence, who was the founder of Microsoft Research India. “Ultimately we have to produce innovations using AI technology in terms of solutions and services that reach end customers,” he told Devex. He talked about the need for this model, partnering with government, social sector organizations, and other research institutions, to pursue work beyond what any academic research institute or think tank could offer.

Sunil Wadhwani acknowledged that one of the challenges Wadhwani AI may encounter is skepticism among some donors and practitioners in international development regarding the applications of AI that he sees so clearly.

“Anytime technology comes in, there are always early adopters, people who see the promise, and the same thing will happen with AI,” he said. “There is a set of them who are more forward looking who will see the potential of this and get engaged in the work. Other will sit back and wait, which is fine. As we show that change can actually happen, they will come on board.”

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.