India is lagging behind China in Artificial Intelligence (AI) by at least a decade and also, unique data assets are routinely given away to foreign countries because of the ignorance of her leaders. Given the lack of effective strategic planning on AI and big data, plus its dependence on American digital platforms and Chinese hardware, India might slip further toward digital colonisation. Why does India lag at least a decade behind China in AI and related technologies, despite India having been recently proclaimed as the world leader in software? How vulnerable is India to becoming a digital colony of the West and China? How do Indian industries, military and other sectors stack up in addressing the AI-based technological revolution? India’s security involves combating internal insurgencies as well as protecting long borders with hostile neighbours. This requires considerable manpower that consumes bulk of the military budget. Insufficient funds remain for indigenous R&D and technology related modernisation. India is dependent on imported weapons to defend herself. India might find herself facing Pakistani boots on the ground, weaponised by China’s AI-based technology. How seriously vulnerable is India’s national security considering it is lagging in AI?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) amplifies the human mind and ingenuity in amazing ways across virtually every domain. It is the engine driving the latest technological disruption that is shaking the foundations of society. The use of the term is not limited to a technical definition, but also includes the entire ecosystem of technologies that AI propels forward such as quantum computing, semi-conductors, nanotechnology, medical technology, brain-machine interface, robotics, aerospace, 5G and much more. AI can be used as the umbrella term because it leverages their development and synergises them.
On the one hand, AI is the holy grail of technology; the advance that people hope will solve problems across virtually every domain of our lives. On the other, it is disrupting a number of delicate equilibriums and creating conflicts on a variety of fronts. Given the vast canvas on which AI’s impact is being felt, one needs a simple lens to discuss its complex ramifications in an accessible way. In my recent book, “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power: 5 Battlegrounds”, the disruptions of AI are organised into five broad areas each having multiple players with competing interests and high stakes. These battlegrounds are:–
- Battle for economic development and jobs
- Battle for power in the new world order
- Battle for psychological control of agency and choices
- Battle for the metaphysics of the self and its ethics
- Battle for India’s future
In each situation, the prevailing equilibriums are being challenged, creating tensions among the parties held in balance. We are entering an epoch of disequilibrium in which a period of chaos is inevitable. Eventually, however, a new equilibrium will be established, and a new kind of world will emerge.
Battleground 1: Economic Development and Jobs
A recurrent debate surrounding AI concerns the extent of human work that could be replaced by machines over the next twenty years when compared to the new jobs created by AI. Numerous reports have addressed this issue, reaching a wide range of conclusions. Experts consider it a reasonable consensus that eventually a significant portion of blue-and white-collar jobs in most industries will become obsolete, or at least transformed to such an extent that workers will need re-education to remain viable. The percentage of vulnerable jobs will continue to increase over time. The obsolescence will be far worse in developing countries with poor standards of education.
The routine assurance given to these reasonable concerns is that when AI eliminates certain jobs, those employees forced out will move up the value chain to higher-value tasks. This simplistic and misleading answer overlooks the fact that the training and education required to advance people is not happening nearly at the same feverish rate as the adoption of AI. Those that promise the solution of re-education have not thus far put their money where their mouth is. The gap of employee qualifications will inevitably widen.
Business owners and labour have competing interests, with the former looking to optimise profits and the latter concerned about wages and employment. AI disrupts this precarious balance because it suddenly kills old jobs; it also creates new jobs, but the most lucrative new ones will be concentrated in communities with high levels of education and availability of capital. More broadly, AI will worsen the divide between the rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots and this could precipitate social instability, especially for countries such as India, where a large percentage of the population lacks the education that is vital to survive a technological tsunami.
My approach to AI’s social impact is neither haloed by utopian fantasy nor dipped in gloom. I raise some practical concerns:–
- What will happen when AI makes large numbers of workers obsolete?
- Who will pay for the re-education of the literally millions of displaced workers?
- Will the new jobs be in places far removed from where the unemployment will hit hard?
- Will society’s wealth become even more concentrated because a minuscule percentage of humans will control the powerful AI technologies?
- How will the new haves and have-nots fight for resources and how might such social disequilibrium ultimately play out?
This battleground is important for industrialists and labour activists, as well as for economists and policymakers. Civic leaders, politicians, public intellectuals, and the media cannot continue to ignore the evolution of AI.
Battleground 2: Geopolitics
This is the battleground where China is using AI as its strategic weapon to leapfrog ahead of the United States (US) and achieve global domination. Both these superpowers recognise AI as the prized summit to be conquered in their race for leadership in economic, political and military affairs. While aerospace, semi-conductors, biotech and other technologies are crucial in this race, AI brings them together and catapults them to new levels. Both these countries are heavily invested in AI and between them, they control the vast majority of AI-related intellectual property, investments, market share and key resources.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Chinese military are among those developing AI systems that multiply a single fighter plane into a squadron or mini air force of drones at the push of a button. Pilots will be able to launch drones and control their navigation remotely, forcing the enemy to deal with a multitude of aircraft instead of just one. Similarly, artificial foot soldiers will be adept at negotiating potholes, rocks, landmines, shrubs – any natural or artificial land features that create significant obstacles for the average soldier. Robotic warriors will eventually perform more effectively than human soldiers in tough terrain and climatic conditions.
Both China and the US are upgrading their weapons systems to fight wars with smart autonomous weapons, and the strategic and tactical decision-making will be supported by AI-based systems capable of analysing complex situations and taking independent action. Besides competing directly against each other, the US and China will also compete for control over satellite nations and new colonies. This results from the fact that the disruptive technology will weaken many sovereign states and destabilise fragile political equilibriums. There is a realistic scenario for the re-colonisation of the world as digital colonies.
China’s rise to power in this century must be compared with Britain’s emergence as the world power in the 1700s. Britain achieved dominance through the Industrial Revolution and China aspires to achieve it through the AI revolution. China has successfully catapulted itself from a poor country to an imperial power, asserting its influence over Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia. China has gambled its entire nation-building strategy and is taking huge risks and making bold long-term investments. No other country has bet so much of its future on AI. Given its form of government, China can gather data about its population better than other countries. In fact, its citizens are accustomed to the loss of privacy and have become convinced of the benefits to the collective good.
There is no serious resistance to surveillance in China. China is projecting its technology and financial capital to colonise other countries, most notably Pakistan and developing countries in Africa. Colonisation secures the strategic trade routes, the sources of raw materials and the captive markets for its industrial goods. In some places, China has already started using AI facial recognition to monitor populations on behalf of totalitarian regimes. Such applications are a new kind of colonisation facilitated by AI. Just as Rome used roads as a major instrument for expanding and controlling its far-flung empire, so also China is using the infrastructure of roads, railways and seaports in addition to digital highways to build its empire, as shown in the following figure from my book.
A key contributor to the consolidation of AI-based global power is the harvesting of big data from poor countries where it is easy to take advantage of ignorant and corrupt leaders. Private companies controlling this technology could become more powerful than many countries, just as the British East India Company – a private joint-stock company – became more powerful than any country of its time.
Battleground 3: Psychological Control and Agency
A troubling trend is that as machines get smarter, a growing number of humans are becoming dumber. In a sense, the public has outsourced its critical thinking, memory and agency to increasingly sophisticated digital networks. As in any outsourcing arrangement, the provider of services becomes more knowledgeable about the client’s internal affairs and the client becomes more dependent on the supplier. The quest for deep knowledge and critical thinking is fading because people are operating on autopilot rather than thinking on their own.
Google is becoming the “devta” or deity that will instantly supply all knowledge. Mastering the rituals and tricks of interacting with this digital deity is considered a mark of achievement to be proudly flaunted among peers. Cognitive skills like memory and attention span are atrophying, even as knowledge, authority and agency are being transferred from humans to machines. In effect, AI has managed to hack human psychology. Social media has confused people between knowledge, opinion and popularity; whatever is popular is assumed to be true. Individuals who lack followers, likes, shares and comments on social media often retreat into low self-esteem, depression, substance abuse or even suicide.
Machines surreptitiously model individual psychological behaviour by identifying the patterns of users’ choices and then use these models to manipulate and control their actions. The paradox is that manipulation is done under the guise of free services that are difficult to resist because they have now become an all-too normal part of our lives. Those who control the psychological models can use AI to influence human emotions and behaviour.
Some readers who cannot accept the viability of such psychological interventions need reminding that the Russians hacked the 2016 US presidential election with the use of Facebook and the British firm, Cambridge Analytica. Cognitive scientists and machine learning experts claim that no aspect of human functionality is ultimately beyond the scope of AI-based emotional analysis and manipulation. AI’s emotional engagement with people advances through a few definable stages:–
- Learning about users’ emotions to build a psychological model or map of likely responses.
- Establishing an emotional relationship that users learn to trust.
- Offering personal, intimate advice, starting with gentle, harmless suggestions.
- Substituting a mechanised form of companionship that seems human.
- Manipulating human psychology by influencing users to behave according to mandates determined by the machine’s developers.
Machines can uncover our private selves to the extent of knowing us better than a spouse or close friend. Machines can penetrate us far more deeply and analyse our personal behavior microscopically and intimately. They record how we unconsciously respond to online choices and use this to develop insights into aspects of ourselves that we might not want to publicly disclose or even privately come to terms with. Besides individuals, AI researchers also model communities, cultures and subcultures. This data helps develop psychological profiles that anticipate reactions and can be used to manipulate or influence groups that have distinctive habits or tendencies.
Using emotional hooks as a bribe, machines tease out users’ motivations, both conscious and unconscious. An entire industry of AI-based artificial pleasures is emerging. The raw material required to develop machine understanding of human desires and the artificial manipulation of them is called ‘big data’. Most people happily and voluntarily give up this private data, often without realising it. Once the digital systems capture this data, they amass unprecedented power and wealth by analysing and manipulating our subconscious thoughts. People are being duped to part with their data in exchange for freebies and goodies that are disguised as services ranging from practical help for our physical health to emotional delights. The digital capitalists constantly reassure the public that data collection is for their own good using several pretexts. For instance, we are told that surveillance is a public safety service. The cameras capturing data everywhere are keeping us safe. Cookies are installed on users’ devices under the pretext that this provides more personalised experiences. Many companies use AI to spy on us and collect our private information, justifying their behaviour in the name of serving the public.
The private flow of data from consumer to machine also promotes the transfer of humans to machines. By figuring out the cognitive comfort zones for individuals, AI-driven systems can deliver emotional and psychological needs, thus gradually making people dependent on them. As machine intelligence increases, people move toward living in a world of artificially induced emotions and gratification. Eventually this trend leads to a syndrome I call ‘moronisation of the masses’. This mode of existence feeds into the business models of digital capitalism, as shown in figure below from my book.
AI technologies must be publicly debated as disruptors of the social structures that shape the world order – testing and redefining the limits of liberty, the future of democracy and the meaning of social justice. There has been insufficient open debate in which the utopian view of AI could be counterbalanced by realistic concern. While I am enthusiastic about AI’s potential, what gravely concerns me is the lack of open, thoughtful public debate on what an AI-dominated future could look like.
The asymmetric relationship between gigantic digital platform businesses – companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, to name a few – and their users, is of paramount importance. These companies deliver the most popular and widely-used services in the world today, designed specifically to meet the demands of a public that is hungry for social media. However, beneath the surface, the suppliers and consumers have opposing interests – in privacy, data rights, agency, intellectual property rights and free speech.
This battle is distinct from the other battles in one important respect, i.e., the suppliers of digital services understand the game and play it skillfully, while most consumers are not even aware that the interests of producers and consumers of digital media are at odds. In fact, when people are informed that they are voluntarily surrendering psychological control of their lives, they usually dismiss it as a conspiracy theory.
Battleground 4: Metaphysics
The success of AI is based on training machines to achieve intelligent behaviour; this has empowered a world view according to which life, mind and consciousness are merely biological processes running on human beings as machines. In effect, AI has helped biological materialism sneak in through the back door while the leaders of the consciousness movement have been blissfully taken off guard. What troubles me is that the digital industry empowering self-learning systems is proceeding in a direction opposite to the movements wanting to raise consciousness. In fact, this is the real clash of civilisations under way: the battle between algorithm and being.
The technical and commercial success of AI is built on the assumption that biology and mind are algorithmic machines that can be modeled, mimicked and manipulated using artificial interventions. It describes the implications of the success of materialism that detaches us from our very sense of self and being. The digital dehumanisation seems pleasant because the stimulation of pleasures and pains is being artificially managed to create a delusional life. This undermines the human concepts of free will, personal agency and the self in favour of artificially induced experiences. When the experiences become algorithmically controlled, what happens to the spiritual being that is the experiencer?
Battleground 5: India’s Future
Overpopulation, unemployment and poor education make India especially vulnerable. Many of its industries are technologically obsolete and dependent on imported technologies. India presently has a disappointing level of AI development and she needs to embark on a rapid programme to catch up. India is home to one of the largest talent pools of young brains, yet the shortsighted policies of its leaders continue to sell them out as cheap labour to make quick profits from wage arbitrage. In this way, India has squandered its software lead. While aspiring to become a world-class manufacturing base, most of India’s workforce is likely to remain immured in low-wage and low-skill tasks relative to better educated countries. India’s education system is not competitive enough to produce workers for the industries of the future. The ‘moronisation of the masses’ is making people mesmerised by theatrics, pageantry, grandstanding and personality cults for movie stars, cricketers, politicians and billionaires alike. Public forums are highly polarised and prone to sensationalism, dirty politics, and petty rivalries. A scan of daily headlines and social media shows insufficient interest in the serious issues discussed in this book. How psychologically vulnerable are the Indian masses because of the shift of their agency to the digital platforms?
India is lagging behind China in AI by at least a decade, and also, unique data assets are routinely given away to foreign countries because of the ignorance of her leaders. Given the lack of effective strategic planning on AI and big data, plus its dependence on American digital platforms and Chinese hardware, India might slip further toward digital colonisation. Why does India lag at least a decade behind China in AI and related technologies, despite India having been recently proclaimed as the world leader in software? How vulnerable is India to becoming a digital colony of the West and China? How do Indian industries, military, and other sectors stack up in addressing the AI-based technological revolution? India’s security involves combating internal insurgencies as well as protecting long borders with hostile neighbours. This requires considerable manpower that consumes bulk of the military budget. Insufficient funds remain for indigenous R&D and technology related modernisation. India is dependent on imported weapons to defend herself. India might find herself facing Pakistani boots on the ground, weaponised by China’s AI-based technology. How seriously vulnerable is India’s national security considering it is lagging in AI?
We live in an epoch defined by major disruptions – both predictable and unpredictable, desirable and undesirable. Clearly, AI is a major disruptive influence, one that to date has not been properly understood or even discussed, outside the circles of its experts. Artificial Intelligence has spread throughout much of society, especially since the beginning of the twenty-first century – across health, military, entertainment, education, marketing, manufacturing and just about every other sector. Even the least technologically savvy among us interacts with AI on a daily basis when we use social media via a smartphone or rely on a car’s navigation device. Whether you are a social media fanatic and diehard AI aficionado, a paranoid skeptic that barely has a social media footprint or something in between, it is impossible to escape the ubiquitous impact of AI technology.
But what if AI is like an iceberg with most of it hidden beneath the surface? And modern civilisation, like the luxury passenger ship Titanic, is on a collision course with it? Social and cultural thought leaders continue to embrace AI as a gateway to a technologically-advanced utopia. They are equivalent to the band that continued playing on the deck of the ship even as it was sinking. This complicity must be challenged to give the general population a glimpse into AI as a potential threat to our society’s rickety foundation.