Technology’s Emerging Power
WHERE WILL MAN TAKE US? : THE BOLD STORY OF THE MAN TECHNOLOGY IS CREATING
By Atul Jalan
Amazon Asia-Pacific, 2019, pp. 300, R.320.00
Atul Jalan’s book, with the intriguing title Where Will Man Take Us? is a thought-provoking exploration of where technology could take us. It raises the perennial question of, ‘Who’ are ‘We’? And, what makes humans ‘human’, and distinct from machines. It shows how man can degenerate into technology if advances in AI are not regulated.
I found Jalan’s account of the state-of-the-art of ‘technology’ very useful. He expands the scope of technology beyond digital communication technologies and AI to include nano-technology and genetics. Combinations of these new technologies, not AI alone, are creating possibilities of transforming industries and human life. Jalan also explains the present stage of development of AI, which is at the stage of ANI (Artificial Narrow Intelligence), with machines exceeding human intelligence in narrow tasks, and with the ability to beat humans in complex games of chess and Go. He says AI may now be entering the realm of AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) where computers will become generally as smart as humans. And he foresees possibilities of AI developing further into ASI (Artificial Super Intelligence), when computers will be smarter than humans.
The tantalizing question is, in what sort of intelligence will AI exceed human capabilities? And is this the only form of intelligence human beings have? AI may exceed human capabilities in rational intelligence. But what about emotional intelligence, and spiritual intelligence? Rational intelligence is founded on the ability to examine data and to compute rationally logical decisions. Ability to compute digital data far exceeds human capabilities, and with quantum computing in the offing, they may increase exponentially. Thus, state-of-the-art AI is getting better at making ‘predictions’ in advance, which enables it to make smarter decisions than humans can in a variety of fields and games. However, AI is not good at making ‘judgments’ as Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb explain in their book Prediction Machines.
‘Judgement’ is a composite of two abilities: making decisions when all the information required to make a ‘rational’ decision is not known; also, the ability to choose what is the ‘good’ thing to do rather than only what would be the ‘smart’ thing to do. Thus, judgement has an ethical component to it too. AGI and ASI may make computers smarter than humans. But can computers learn how to take ethical decisions? Agrawal and his co-authors explain how state of the art AI computers learn to learn by observing how humans take decisions in complex situations. Thus computers merely emulate the value judgements and ethical biases of the humans they learn from, and they can never be ethically better than the humans whose actions they observe.
Jalan’s account of technology’s emerging power raises big questions about what we want to make of ourselves as humans and what sort of society we want to live in. The first one he poses is, who will be in charge in the future—man or machine? However, the more urgent question is, which humans will be in charge of the technologies being developed? New technologies can transform human existence. The discovery of the means of creating fire, thousands of years ago, was transformational. It enabled humans to eat greater varieties of food, and to keep themselves warm in cold climates. However, fire also had the ability to destroy. Therefore, humans had to develop the wisdom about how to use fire, and to design regulations to prevent fire hazards. The development of technology to release the energy within tiny atoms promised clean and unlimited energy. It also provided humans enormous energy to obliterate cities. We are still struggling to prevent the misuse of nuclear energy. Technologies merely provide new means. The ethical question is to what use should they be put? When technologies are very new, we cannot foresee their consequences, and we must learn how to regulate their use.
Those who discover a powerful new technology want to own the new technology’s power, to use it for their own purposes, and to prevent others from using it. Nuclear nonproliferation treaties are a means for countries that have nuclear technology preventing others from having it too. IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) is a way for businesses to monopolize the use of new technologies to make more profits. It is inevitable that as Industry 4.0 (AI, robotics, social media, etc.) advances, humanity will have to struggle with civilizational questions of who will be allowed to own these new technologies and for what purposes they will be used. The technology of governance must advance much faster now than the technology of AI.
I was attracted to Jalan’s book by its title and by its contents. It goes beyond the impacts of technology on businesses, economies, and jobs which many other books that want to alarm and excite readers about AI’s potential are restricted to. Jalan’s book is more interesting because it also has chapters on the impact of AI on democracy, religion, happiness, love, and sex!
While Jalan raises good questions, I think he finally falls short of the promise of his intriguing title. To answer the question of where man will take us, rather than where machines are taking us if man does not intercede, we must inquire into what the essence of man is. Technology is reaching the point where it can provide individuals a composite picture of themselves from all the data about their actions that ubiquitous devices can now gather.
Jalan is enamoured by the possibility of big data analysis providing me a model of ‘Me’ to explain who I am. He says, ‘Our digital future begins with this realization—that more than me, my data defines me.’ In other words, I am an object, which can be observed from the outside to tell me who I am. On the other hand, Rene Descartes said, ‘I think, therefore I am’. In other words, it is the ability to observe, and to ask questions about what we observe, that makes us human. Therefore, I must discover myself inside out by listening to myself, not outside only from what others can observe.
Jalan has a narrow, albeit popular, view of religion. Religions have dogmatic, ritualistic traditions, in which god is some superior being to whom man is beholden. But, as Aldous Huxley explained beautifully in The Perennial Philosophy, all religions have mystical and spiritual traditions too, which enjoin humans to reflect on their place in the universe, and to look inside themselves for virtue, love, and happiness. This is the wisdom that Buddhism, Sufism, the Vedas, and Taoism point towards. They say that you cannot outsource your discovery of yourself to others. You must experience it yourself to know who you are.
Humans have a long tradition of worshipping great power. They have worshipped fire and the sun for centuries. Many have now begun to worship technology. Technology worshippers dismiss others who want to harness technology as backward. Whereas, these deeply thinking others don’t want to become dogmatic and ritualistic about any god, not even technology. They will not let go of the perennial quest to discover what it means to be human.
In conclusion, I would recommend Jalan’s book. While his answers may not satisfy everyone, his book does raise profound questions and it made me think.
Arun Maira is a management consultant and a former member of the Planning Commission of India.