The Wadhwani Institute of Artificial Intelligence Inaugurated in Mumbai

By K S Venkataraman

Sunil Wadhwani and his wife Nita are well known in our region’s city and county governments and civic institutions. He was the founding CEO of i-Gate, a global software company, known in its previous incarnation as Mastech, a company he co-founded with Ashok Trivedi.  At the peak of his career as the CEO of i-Gate, over 30,000 employees were on its payroll in 70-plus offices worldwide with over $1 billion in annual revenue.

In the middle of this, Sunil took great interest in promoting Pittsburgh, a second-tier US City, as the destination of choice for national and international businesses to relocate or open their offices. At the same time, Wadhwani also worked with city and county elected officials to diversify the region’s population making it attractive for immigrants, a feature that global businesses consider desirable in their decision to relocate or open a new office in a new place. After all, our region has all the accoutrements needed — affordable housing, good public and private schools, excellent medical facilities, universities, sports teams, museums, and other entertainments…

Sunil Wadhwani is extreme left and his elder brother Romesh Wadhwani is extreme right. Maharashtra’s Governor Mr. C Vidyasagar Rao is third from left and Chief Minister Mr Devendra Fadnavis is third from right, on the stage during the inaugural function. Prime Minister Modi is in the middle.

In 2015, Capgemini, a French IT services company, acquired i-Gate for over $4 billion. Now, Wadhwani is in semi-retirement, yet active in running SWAT, a venture capital company based in Moon, as a managing partner, along with Ashok Trivedi.

“Most of us who grew up in India and moved to the US have been extremely fortunate. We had parents who cared for us and had the means to educate us in good schools and send us to the US. Many billions of people around the world — especially those struggling in poverty in India and other developing countries — are not so lucky. It is up to us to help our fellow human beings who have not been as blessed.” Sunil’s thoughts have been drifting along these lines for quite some time.

So he decided to put a small portion of his resources to good use in India, with possibilities of having a global impact. Joining with his older brother Romesh Wadhwani, a California-based venture capitalist, the two Wadhwanis each donated $15 million and founded the Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence (WIAI).  The thrust of the Wadhwani Institute is “harnessing the power of AI to solve deep-rooted problems in healthcare, education, agriculture, and infrastructure to accelerate social development.” Though the institute’s beneficiaries can be global, its immediate focus is on the Indian subcontinent and Asia, where it is most needed, and where the impact can be high.

In March of this year, in Mumbai, the Wadhwani Institute of AI went on-stream, with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurating it in the presence of the Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis,  its Governor Vidyasagar and many other dignitaries. In the opening ceremony, Modi said, “The Wadhwani AI institute is a prime example of how the public sector and the private sector can come together with good intentions to build a world-class institute, aimed at benefiting the poor.”

Sunil said, “The government of Maharashtra has committed land, but the details are still being worked out. Currently, ten full-time employees are working at the institute, which is likely to go to 30-plus full-time employees specializing in AI in three years.” Around one hundred researchers from affiliated institutes outside India will be working on AI applications for social good at the institute.

The Wadhwani Institute, a fully independent body, will be closely working with the University of Bombay to develop a master’s program on Data Sciences and AI.

In a press release on the occasion, Sunil said, “AI is a game-changing technology. There’s a lot of research being done at companies like Amazon, Google and Alibaba, and at universities like Carnegie Mellon and MIT.  However, virtually all of that is targeted at commercial applications, and there’s little or no research on how to use AI to accelerate social development. Our goal is to have, within the next two years, over 100 researchers working on leveraging AI to improve the quality of life for the bottom two billion people in the world.”  So founding this institute is gratifying to the Wadhwani brothers and their families.

Responding to a question, Sunil said, “The institute is looking for hiring the best AI researchers from around the world who are also passionate about social development. Because of our location in India and our initial focus on applying AI to social development in India and other developing countries, most of these have been of Indian origin so far. As we expand, we expect our workforce to become more global in nature.”

Continuing, he said, “We are forming partnerships with the world’s leading AI research institutions to work together on applying AI to accelerate social development.  We have already formed such partnerships with MIT, Carnegie-Mellon University, New York University, the University of Washington, and the University of Southern California.

As part of the launch of the institute in March in Mumbai, Wadhwani Institute hosted a summit of seventy-five leading AI researchers, social sector experts and senior government officials to identify challenges that could be addressed using AI.  Ideas discussed included using AI to help farmers on when they should plant their seeds for best crop yields, improving the effectiveness of community health workers, addressing high dropout rates in rural schools, making educational content available in local languages and dialects, and facilitating the early detection of diseases.

Indeed, ambitious objectives for social good on many fronts.  ♣


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