Nepal in the decade of AI


Much more than today, in the next decade smartphones will become the primary means of accessing the internet in Nepal, making social media an even greater influence in society. At the same time, financial technology, AI and e-commerce will transform the economy.

Already, 96% of households in Nepal have at least one mobile phone and more than half of those were smartphones. A survey this year showed that nearly everyone here who accesses the internet does it through a smartphone — and almost everyone who is logged on also has a Facebook account.

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“Once you are introduced to the smartphone and the features that come along with, it is very difficult to go back, and this trend is growing exponentially,” says Madhu Acharya of Sharecast Initiative, which conducts the annual social media survey. He forecast that the digital divide between urban and rural is going to narrow in the coming decade.

“More older people will be accessing the Net through smartphones, which will get cheaper,” adds Acharya. He gives the example of his father, who used to own a feature phone but switched to a smartphone to communicate with grandchildren and relatives abroad through Facebook.

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The trend of using the internet to access media sites is going to grow in coming years, as digital portals replace television to become the key source of national and international news for Nepalis. People will get more and more used to watching content whenever and wherever they like rather than wait for the 7 o’clock news bulletin.

In terms of online finances, Sumana Shrestha of Fusemachines says that the latest algorithms will provide a larger section of the population access to financial technology in the coming decade. AI has been making progress in Nepal, and possibly the biggest change will come when the technology that digitises handwritten application forms, through Nepal’s AI Office of Civilian Requirements, will be smart enough to produce an editable document both in English and Nepali.

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Nepal has a wealth of software talent in information technology, and this need to be converted to work with AI, Shrestha says. Fusemachines and other AI-centred companies are already collaborating with local engineering colleges to build a critical mass of AI expertise in Nepal.

Kai-Fu Lee, the former president of Google China and an AI expert, wrote the book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. He predicts that in the coming decade a country will forge ahead if it has ‘an army of well-trained engineers and entrepreneurs, AI scientists ... with abundant data and a supportive policy environment’.

‘China is able to apply skilled AI in various areas, like healthcare, finance, safety systems and systems for smart houses,’ Lee writes, adding, ‘poor countries will stagnate while the AI superpowers take off.’

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Shrestha thinks Nepal has not done enough in AI adoption compared with other countries. “Nepal has a very young population, which means we can incorporate AI in the curriculum to reach a huge segment of the population, and we are hoping to be able to develop talents within a year or two on a mass scale. There is a tremendous opportunity for Nepal to lead and make a huge impact,” says Shrestha, who sees immediate applications of AI in the tourism industry.

“Nepal can zero in on the right kind of tourist and make sure our ads and messaging is getting to them. That will increase the volume of tourists coming to Nepal and will make sure tourists have a good quality of experience,” she adds.

Nepal will also have to catch up with its immediate neighbours in opening payment gateways on the Internet and promoting e-commerce. For example, China has already moved beyond phone-based payment with AI-based face recognition systems on Alipay, in which people pay their bills by scanning their faces at a checkout point without having to use their mobiles.

Although online payment gateways such as eSewa and IMEPay have been established here, Nepal is still miles away from having a mature e-commerce system. The government’s 2019 Digital Nepal Framework admits: ‘The growth of e-commerce in Nepal is inhibited due to the lack of a supporting ecosystem such as limited digital payment options.’

While others have already taken a leap in device-free commerce, if Nepal can at least make internet payment through mobile phones secure and convenient during the coming decade, that will already be an achievement.

What do you think will be the most popular IT advancement in the next 10 years in Nepal?

The media is the medium

Despite the migration of eyeballs to digital portals for news, Madhu Acharya says it is too early to declare print media dead. “People still prefer to read news holding a physical paper and there is an archival value that digital doesn’t always have,” he says.

A Reuters report found that worldwide, across 38 markets, increasing concern about misinformation is undermining trust in media. Yet in Nepal, Sharecast found trust of traditional media is still high with less concern about disinformation online, especially in comparison to India. Nepalis believe they know what is and isn’t ‘fake news’, but often without verifying links and checking sources.

This could hold implications for Nepali politics in the coming decade, especially in federal elections scheduled for 2022 and 2027.

“The ideas that float around on social media and digital platforms are extreme,” Acharya tells us. “If politicians decide to listen to these extreme opinions and stop meeting people face-to-face, learning about them and what problems they have, then I think they will be tempted to address fake needs.”

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