Algorithm, Being and India: A Review of AI and Power

Sachin Modi

This was submitted for a Book Review contest held for College students , in January 2021.

The book ‘Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power’ by Rajiv Malhotra is an eye-opening book on a topic that is very popular but not understood well. 

The word ‘Artificial Intelligence (AI)’ takes our imagination to a science-fiction world with driverless cars and conversing robots but few know that AI is already the engine behind present-day billion-dollar tech giants. This new technology has so subtly and silently interspersed itself with each individual’s life that most of us are ignorant of its presence, and even if we are tech-savvy and are well aware of the data being collected on social media and the internet, we fail to comprehend the scale of its operation and the implications of it. The massive ignorance about this new technology is slowly causing a paradigm shift in the power structures of the world resulting in new forms of colonization and control. The author does a meticulous job of addressing these issues in great detail.

The book talks about five battlegrounds where its impact will be evident. These battlegrounds of the future do not comprise of physical warfare with guns, tanks, or missiles. Instead, at the heart of these battlegrounds are two characteristics unique to the AI phenomenon. 

Firstly the disruptions caused by AI will be so sudden, abrupt, and swift that ones unprepared for it will be caught off-guard and will be hit with unprecedented challenges whether they be individuals or countries. Secondly, with rapidly advancing AI technologies, machines or algorithms are becoming increasingly capable of intervening and influencing the human mind and psyche, and the increasing sophistication of human-machine interactions allows the owners and controllers of the AI technology to exert unimaginable power which is almost akin to changing the social, political and economic trajectory of the world by pressing a button on a remote control.

As machines and algorithms become more capable of doing complex tasks, many human jobs will become obsolete and will be replaced by AI applications. Most of us are enamored by the new applications emerging out of AI but the author rather starts with addressing the tough questions concerning large-scale unemployment and social unrest that might get triggered. As the low and mid-level jobs get automated, most of the high-paying jobs will be concentrated and accessible to the ones acquainted with new tech resulting in increased economic disparity. This is the first battleground of Economic Development and Jobs where the disruption will be sudden with AI replacing humans in the middle of their careers and the task of re-educating or upskilling people does not look practical. Though AI holds the promise of making our lives more efficient and comfortable but with a nation like India with a huge population, millions of unemployed youth can become a nightmare for any nation.

The second battleground in the book throws light on the nations which are aspiring for world domination using AI namely China and the US. China has leapfrogged ahead of the world in developing AI technologies which is a fruit of its planned and strategic effort of the past decades. No other nation has bet its future on AI as much as China has. These nations exploit poor countries for gathering raw data to train their AI algorithms in exchange for providing free technologies for surveillance. This chapter rings alarm bells for India in terms of developing its own AI technologies in order to prevent such technological colonization.

Over the past two decades, it looks like the human species has got augmented with an extra organ which is the smart-phone, this digital gadget has become an inseparable part of the human system and has become our doorway to the external world and information. With rapidly advancing AI, these silicon gadgets are becoming more addictive by the day. The smartest brains in the world are hired by big-techs to create applications that keep you hooked to the platform. Most of us live in an illusion that we are in control of our behavior and actions but AI systems with psychological profiles for each individual can penetrate deep into our psyche and know us better than we know ourselves. The world has yet to see technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality which will have the potential to provide instant sensory experiences and gratifications at another level altogether and thereby making such platforms even more addictive. All this leads to as the author puts it ‘machines becoming smarter and humans becoming dumber’, the author goes even further and calls it ‘moronization of the masses’. The author takes a deep dive into this issue in the third battleground.

The most insightful and fascinating battleground for me was the fourth one which elaborates on the philosophical aspects of similarities and differences between AI systems and human consciousness and this battleground I feel is at the crux of all the human-machine conflicts mentioned before. As the machines become increasingly capable of imitating the activities of a human mind not just at logical tasks but also activities that are considered intuitive like creating art or music, the question which will face humanity is whether human beings are just biological algorithms bereft of any selfhood. Rajiv Malhotra with his background in physics and extensive study in Vedanta gives the readers a delightful rendering of this conflict between ‘the algorithm and the being’. This ‘battle for the self’ as he calls it is bound to become more prominent in the future as AI systems gradually become more capable of emulating humans at all levels.

The fifth and last battleground is on India’s future and the book presents a stark reality of India’s position in the AI landscape. The author presents a claim that AI’s impact on India will be huge due to a variety of problems India already battles with like overpopulation, education levels, and unemployment. Though India had been a global leader in developing software but at present it heavily relies upon US and China for imported technology. Though Indian brains are working across the globe for tech-giants spearheading AI technologies but India as a nation lacks far behind in claiming intellectual property or building technologies and institutions which it can call its own. This battleground is like a wake-up call for our Nation to get its act together and awaken the entrepreneurial spirit and the creative drive for innovation and discovery. 

The changing paradigms due to the advent of AI do present difficult battlegrounds but they are also opportunities for the Indian youth to think beyond their individual success and take the nation forward in the AI race and become a major stakeholder in this technology. India’s knowledge of Vedanta and the self can act as a torchbearer to tackle inevitable repercussions from the battle between ‘the algorithm and the being’.

Sachin Modi
Sachin Modi

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