Why India needs to take AI more seriously than Rahul Gandhi

Join the war of words.

 |  It Could Happen to You  |  5-minute read |   05-09-2017
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Rahul Gandhi will "expand his thoughts about artificial intelligence" at Silicon Valley in the US soon, Congress sources have said. And trolls are having a gala day. Understandable.

In a country where children die because government hospitals can't be bothered with stocking up on life-saving oxygen, artificial intelligence (AI) usually elicits a "Huh?".

But AI is an idea whose time has come. And in parts of the world where children do not usually die of starvation or neglect, it has divided people into two camps: the AI faithfuls and the AI infidels. It's the nerdiest of fights and - surprise - also a battle of billionaires.

The conversation

Elon Musk says: "AI is the biggest risk we face as a civilisation."

Mark Zuckerberg says: "AI is going to make our lives better…naysayers are irresponsible."

Jack Ma says: "AI is not only a massive threat to jobs but could also spark World War III."

690_090517010210.jpgWhat will Rahul Gandhi talk about? Photo: Pathikrit Sanyal/DailyO

Stephen Hawking says: "I'm not afraid of black holes. AI is another story."

Xi Jinping says: "Artificial intelligence will wipe out more than five million jobs in the world by 2020, requiring adherence to the principle 'AI for the people, by the people'."

Putin says: "Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world."

To that Musk has just tweeted a cryptic: "It begins…"

What? WW III?

Knowledgeable men

Tesla and SpaceX CEO, Musk, whose non-profit research company OpenAI is working to build safe AI, has been issuing warnings for years: "I keep sounding the alarm bell, but until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don't know how to react, because it seems so ethereal." Not just "killer robots," he fears a future where humans will become second-class citizens, or a "robot uprising" like you saw in Terminator. He is clearly an AI-infidel.

ai-reuters_090517125002.jpgElon Musk says: "AI is the biggest risk we face as a civilisation." Photo: Reuters

To this Zuckerberg has reacted, calling such comments "pretty irresponsible". The Facebook superboss should know what he is talking about. After all, he has an AI personal butler, Jarvis, at home. He is clearly an AI-faithful. But, wait a minute. Why has Facebook shut down one of its under-progress AI programmes? The rumour is, the robots started talking to one another in their own language. So what? Zuckerberg has pointed out that one of the top causes of death in the world is car accidents. And you can eliminate that with AI. Won't that be cool?

No, Musk has declared that he has spoken to Zuckerberg about AI and felt that MZ's understanding of AI was "limited".

Pain versus gain

Superstar Chinese business tycoon Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, reportedly loves disruptive technologies. And his plan to turn Alibaba into a massive global organisation most definitely includes cloud computing, AI and robots, as Alibaba forays beyond e-commerce into new territories driven by big data. At Alibaba Cloud's Institute of Data Science Technology (iDST), AI research is being applied to technologies of speech and language, image and video processing to large-scale machine learning.

But Ma has, of late, started talking about painful things. For instance, how the rise of robots and AI could replace human workers: "30 years later, the Time magazine cover for the best CEO of the year very likely will be a robot. It remembers better than you, it counts faster than you, and it won't be angry with competitors."

Or how AI could set off WW III, although he adds: "We know the machine is powerful and stronger than us, however, humans will rise above the impending wave of data and artificial intelligence." Thanks!

Happily, Ma also believes that people will "work for four hours a day and maybe four days a week" with AI making human labour easier. But there's no gain without pain. As AI will replace a whole lot of professions, there'll be social conflict he warns: "In the coming 30 years, the world's pain will be much more than happiness."

Race for supremacy

Chinese bulldozers may have moved out of Doklam this time around, but in future they may not. Simply because China is leading the AI research race.

In fact, with Donald Trump cutting back on science and technology research funding, the US is in real danger of falling behind. Although Russia is still not in the race, with strong computer science presence it is picking up speed.

Why would that spell danger? Because, while AI will make countries richer by boosting a range of economic activities, manufacturing to medical research, it has tremendous potential to make cyber war. Think of lethal autonomous weapons, say, drones with "shared brains" - to attack, monitor, track and spy on the enemy. Musk, along with a hundred tech leaders, has already petitioned the United Nations to bring about new regulations on developing AI weapons.

What will Rahul Gandhi talk about?

Is he an AI-faithful or AI-infidel? Will he talk about how the rise of AI and automation threaten 69 per cent of jobs in India, as a World Bank report says? Or those lakhs of low-skilled jobs the IT services industry alone may lose, as reported by the US-based HfS Research? Or will he prefer to focus on the 300-plus hottest AI-based startups that are providing solutions to industries, e-commerce, healthcare, education, financial services, retail, logistics or even agriculture, as reported by Tracxn the startup tracker?

He can surely talk about India's differences with China in AI, that we are not investing massive budgets or state-of-the-art infrastructure in universities, research labs and companies? Or that just 4 per cent of AI professionals in India have actually worked on cutting-edge technologies like deep learning?

A whole lot of people across the world are speculating about what sort of future they want, with or without AI. It's one of the most important conversations of our day. And it is time India joined the war of words.

At least, to engage the public and get a sense of what AI is all about, clearly and without jargon.

Also read - Blue Whale challenge: Delhi woman's viral Facebook post warning about the game is problematic

Writer

Damayanti Datta Damayanti Datta @dattadamayanti

The writer is Executive Editor, India Today.

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