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Emerging technologies find limited applications in public e-services: Sundar Balakrishna, IFS In conversation with ObserveNow Media

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Right after the foray of Information technology (IT) in India in the early 1970s, the wave of transformation has taken over everything from traditional to modern. After the successful penetration of the IT revolution in India, now the country is exploring the recently discovered technologies that are transforming every sector possible with its emergence — AI/ML.

“As far as artificial intelligence (AI) is concerned, we understand that the most popular component of AI, as of the date of writing this article, is “Large language models” (LLM), which are merely advanced forms of natural language processing (NLP). NLP was around even during the 1950s, and like other emerging technologies, their use cases are few, far between, and not compelling”, highlighted Sundar Balakrishna, IFS, Special Secretary, Department of Information Technology, Electronics, and Communications, Government of Andhra Pradesh in an exclusive conversation with Shivani Babbar from ObserveNow Media.

The conversation unfolded the various facets of developments that the Department of IT. E&C is undertaking in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Also, the recent collaborations of departments and the usage of emerging technologies to address the governance challenges were explored in this insightful interaction.

Here is the edited excerpt:

What initiatives is the Department of IT, E&C undertaking to promote digital literacy and inclusion in Andhra Pradesh?

To promote digital inclusion, the fundamental requirement is robust internet connectivity, especially in the rural hinterland. The ITE&C department is the nodal agency for facilitating installation of telecommunication towers to enable “fourth generation” (4G) communication in the state and interfaces with the Department of Telecommunications, BSNL, the Forest Department, and the Revenue departments. Under the Universal Services Obligation Fund (USOF), the Government is implementing three projects: (i) Left-wing extremism phase 2 (ii) Aspirational districts (iii) 4G saturation projects. About 5423 villages bereft of all forms of telecommunication stand to benefit from the project. The sites for 98 percent of the towers were handed over to service providers for installation of towers as on 31 March 2024. The process of installation is ongoing.

Can you outline the key strategies employed to enhance the state’s IT infrastructure and foster a conducive environment for tech startups?

The state maintains and infuses the AP state data center (SDC) in Guntur, with state-of-the-art information technology infrastructure. A key strategy is to help transfer the eGovernment applications into the SDC, which are presently hosted outside the SDC to optimize costs, and to improve cybersecurity and also maintain videoconferencing facilities to enable seamless communications between the higher officials in the Secretariat and the offices in the mandal level. The earlier strategy of endowing all the officers with video conferencing facilities (like licenses, and desktops) is now being re-considered towards restricting access to enhance cybersecurity.

To foster tech startups, the ITE&C department has created a separate organization – the AP Innovation Society – to handhold start-ups, provide them with incubating space, help network with investors, and provide entrepreneurial support.

How does the department plan to leverage emerging technologies like AI, blockchain, and IoT to address governance challenges and improve service delivery?

We recognize that emerging technologies like Blockchain, and Internet of Things (IoT) are expensive, difficult to scale up, niche, and find limited applications in public e-services. The combination of these factors makes these technologies prohibitively expensive, and some research shows that even the private sector is wary in subscribing to these technologies. Hence, the ITE&C department is adopting a “wait and watch” strategy, and would leverage these technologies after sufficient number of use cases are amply demonstrated.

As far as artificial intelligence (AI) is concerned, we understand that the most popular component of AI, as of the date of writing this article, is “Large language models” (LLM), which are merely advanced forms of natural language processing (NLP). NLP was around even during the 1950s, and like other emerging technologies, its use cases are few, far between, and not compelling.

What collaborations or partnerships has the department formed with other governmental bodies, private sector entities, or international organizations to advance its IT and electronics agenda?

The ITE&C department is implementing the AP IT policy 2021-2024, and the AP Electronics policy 2021-2024 to partner with IT, and electronics manufacturing firms for creating employment in the state, through a slew of attractive incentives in the form of tax reimbursements, subsidized land costs, free infrastructure, provision for housing, and subsidized electricity tariff.

The International Institute of Digital Technologies (IIDT), Tirupati, an educational arm of the ITE&C department, through its knowledge partners in the AI and ML space, is offering 240-hour online courses in core IT: cybersecurity, full-stack development, and Introductory AIML. A research project with IIIT Kancheepuram in computer vision application is on the anvil.

How does the department plan to address challenges such as digital infrastructure gaps, internet connectivity issues, and affordability barriers in expanding digital access across the state?

Strategy that paid rich dividends was to involve the public representatives like the MLAs, and MPs, in these projects. The public representatives, and the political class in general, enthusiastically stepped in and lent us support in these projects.

The telecom service providers in the private sector find it commercially unviable to establish connectivity in sparsely-, and very sparsely populated villages in the rural parts of the state. The cost of establishment is also expensive. These constraints are being handled on a case-by-case basis.

In what ways is the government ensuring data privacy and cybersecurity for citizens and businesses operating within the state?

The e-Government applications that consume citizens’ data are being hosted in the AP State Data Center (APSDC), as explained. The central, single-point hosting enables the ITE&C department to secure the data and applications with state-of-the-art cyber tools like firewalls. The applications are also hosted after securing a cyber-audit at the desired frequency.