"Your idea is good. But we do not need this technology."
This is how most companies respond when Sigmind – one of the leading Artificial Intelligence (AI) start-ups in Bangladesh – pitches its products, said its Chief Marketing Officer Arif Hussain.
Sigmind recently developed some high AI adoption technologies, for instance, WATCHCAM Mass Surveillance System, face recognition-based attendance solution, intelligent traffic management, and automated parking solution.
The surveillance system they developed can identify and warn if anyone is wearing a mask or not, recognises covered faces and quickly finds the person's identity from the database. It can also trace contacts from video footages and monitors.
But Sigmind's Arif said they are struggling to create a market for their products.
"We have the talent. But in the absence of a dependable market, AI-based start-ups in Bangladesh are struggling to grow," Arif said.
While such promising AI start-ups struggle to spread their wings in Bangladesh, they have been rising enviously around the world over the last decade. The recent years have witnessed many AI-based start-ups like Tempus and DataRobot claiming a place in the list of global unicorns. A unicorn is a privately-held successful start-up valued at over $1 billion.
According to PWC findings, 45 percent of total economic gains by 2030 will come from stirring customer demand and product modification. AI, in this regard, plays a key role in product variation with "increased customisation, attractiveness and affordability over time."
By 2030, AI is predicted to boost the GDP of China by 26 percent and that of North America by 14.5 percent, which accounts for almost 70 percent of the global economic impact.
Against the backdrop of the fast-growing AI-based businesses around the world, Bangladesh's overall ICT export earnings did increase to about $1 billion in 2019, up from $25 million in 2008.
But when it comes to AI, the country neither has exact data on how many start-ups are out there, nor is there any record of the revenues they generate, said Md Arfe Elahi, chief technology officer of the a2i programme under the ICT Division.
"The government is not considering AI as a revenue generation entity. Rather, it is taking AI as a medium of service delivery. As of now, it is a supplementary power," he explained.
However, in her last election campaign, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pledged to operate 5G network within 2023. She said future technologies like AI, robotics, big data, blockchain, and IoT will be widespread in the county by then.
To fulfil that target, the Bangladesh government has developed a five-year strategy plan, commonly known as "AI for all", which targets sectors like health, education, transportations, manufacturing etc.
Around 18 ministries concerned with the strategy will set a target by 2020 as to how much international investments they expect in the next four years. Based on the ministerial findings, the government will then evaluate how much return on investment it will have by 2025.
"Only then the government will estimate how much income could be generated from AI," Elahi added.
But does that show we are keeping pace with the fast-growing AI-based business models which are likely to rule the world in the future?
Dr Shamim Ahmed Deowan, chairman of the Department of Robotics and Mechatronics Engineering at the University of Dhaka and a member of the Leveraging ICT (LICT) initiative under the ICT Division admits that our progress has been slow.
"If we compare how the developed countries have been advancing in this sector, we have been slow. We need to target the upcoming years and increase the speed of our activities in this regard," he added.
Against this backdrop, what are the challenges the AI start-ups face in Bangladesh?
As we tried to find out what is holding back our AI start-ups, we talked to Thajid Ibna Rouf Uday, director of ANNT Robotics Ltd, a promising AI and robotics start-up.
Uday finds three challenges – funding, government policy regarding public-private partnership in the AI sector, and skilled manpower – which he believes are holding Bangladeshi AI start-ups back.
Indicating at the five-year National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence of the government, Uday admitted that the plans are okay. But he emphasised that more dedicated channels from the government are necessary for funding.
"Some government institutions like the a2i and the ICT Division are giving funds. But these are not enough," Uday added.
Sigmind's Arif shares a similar grievance over funding.
"We won Tk10 lakh in the idea competition organised by Idea Project under the ICT Division. But we received the money in small portions over a long period, which eventually did not help us," he said.
As far as funding is concerned, Uday emphasised investment on security and infrastructure as well.
"Suppose you want to pilot a technology in a random area in Dhaka which will automatically track car number plates. First of all, the infrastructure this would take; we do not have it locally. And furthermore, the devices you would set up could be stolen.
"So, for such security and infrastructure, the funding needed is not available in Bangladesh yet," he explained.
Besides, in a country where unemployment is otherwise high, AI start-ups do not find enough people to hire as there lies a severe crisis of skilled manpower.
According to Uday, the start-ups often have to train people for months to prepare them for work.
"Many of us who come in this area are from engineering or computer science background. But the skill that we need to develop AI and robotics should come from people who studied in the actual field."
Dr Shamim of the University of Dhaka also echoed Uday as he said "many among our young population are using mobile internet. But when it comes to core technologies like AI and robotics, few are interested."
But the academic is hopeful that the gaps we have will be filled over time. His advice for aspirants in AI start-ups is that it takes both time and investment for success.
Sigmind's Arif said it took them two years only "to approach the market," and a2i's Elahi admitted to the "pains" of the AI start-ups. But he clearly mentioned that such start-ups are not the primary focus of the government, because "our primary focus right now should be digital transformation instead of AI or blockchain technologies."
"The government is now planning on how to spread our services digitally. When our services still remain manual and we struggle to provide them digitally, we don't really have the privilege to think about AI now," Elahi added.