Nadella woos India Inc. with artificial intelligence

When Binny Bansal, co-founder of India’s largest retailer Flipkart was studying at IIT-Delhi, nobody at his institute was interested in the subject of artificial intelligence. “Because nothing was happening in India,” Mr. Bansal told his co-panelists Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft and Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani during a fireside chat at an event in Bengaluru.

That was 15 years ago and a lot has changed since. On Monday, Mr. Nadella, who leads the world’s largest software maker, announced a strategic partnership with Flipkart, where the e-commerce company would adopt the company’s cloud computing platform, Microsoft Azure.

Flipkart said that it planned to leverage artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and analytics capabilities in Azure to optimise its data for innovative merchandising, advertising, marketing and customer service.

AI is the simulation of human intelligence processes by computer systems and machine learning and gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.

“We are on the right ladder this time, I don’t think we are going back to AI winter,” said Mr. Nadella at the event where the audience consisted of hundreds of start-up founders, investors and industry experts. He said that the real challenge in AI is understanding of the human language, which still doesn’t exist. “(We) don’t have anything that says ‘we have the ability to write like Rabindranath Tagore’,” said Mr. Nadella.

Last March, Mr. Nadella faced a public communication fiasco when Microsoft’s teen-girl-inspired chatbot named Tay which had been programmed to interact with Twitter users mimicked racist and misogynistic lines, which other Twitter users had prompted her to repeat.

Tech entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani said that he was excited about the advent of technologies like AI and the cloud. He said that there was a challenge of taking the country from $2,000 per capita income to $20,000 and there was also a need to fix sectors like healthcare, education and financial services.

He said the classical way of getting more doctors or building education infrastructure would take time. “The only way to square the circle is by using AI and cloud to deliver personalised health, education and financial services to a billion people,” said Mr. Nilekani. Through his social enterprise EkStep, he said that he aimed to fix the learning challenges of India’s 200 million children using AI and smartphones.

Microsoft also runs an accelerator in Bengaluru which counts AI startups such as Uncanny Vision, Flutura and Altizon among its portfolio companies.