Can India avoid the looming catastrophe?

The Modi government is ignorant of the impact of the fourth industrial revolution.

 |  7-minute read |   12-12-2017
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Ignorance certainly can be bliss sometimes. As adults don't we often miss the blissful moments of our childhood under our parents' protection on a need-to-know basis from the muck and mire of the adult life? But as we grow old, continued ignorance can easily morph us into adults with infantile disorder.

If the political leadership of a country operates remaining ignorant about the reality for a prolonged period, then the resulting disorder can lead to disastrous impact for many people. Unfortunately, currently India is facing such a danger. Under the ongoing fourth industrial revolution (4IR), discussed by this author earlier, the continuing ignorance at the policymaking level is fast pushing us towards a catastrophe.

The Narendra Modi government, which is solely focused on 24x7 electioneering, is still living in blissful ignorance of the looming earth-shattering impact of the 4IR. It is extremely alarming that the government has already wasted more than three years of extremely precious and long time without making any effort whatsoever to deal with the exponentially growing disruptive innovations.

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In terms of new data generation, three-and-half years of Modi rule can be compared to the previous period of the entire human civilisation. According to an IBM Marketing Cloud study, 90 per cent of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. The avalanche of scientific discoveries, breakthrough technologies and innovative business models that we have been observing in this decade is a result of such data explosion. In view of the pace of change in every sphere, a recently published Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research paper suggests that preparing a strategic plan for a longer time frame, say for more than three to five years, do not make much sense today; such a plan can sound too futuristic.

Ray Kurzweil, one of the world's foremost technology experts, who has an astonishing rate of 86 per cent correct predictions, gives an idea about the future that we are now stepping in:

1) By 2029, artificial intelligence will claim to be conscious and openly petition for recognition of this fact (many of our current organisations and businesses, if they manage to survive, will experience this)

2) By 2040, non-biological intelligence will be billions of times more capable than biological intelligence (our next generation leaders and business owners will have to deal with this situation)

3) In 2099, organic human beings will be a small minority of the intelligent life forms on earth (today's toddlers and many teenagers will have to live and manage their businesses in this world, which for most of us is even difficult to imagine)

These predictions cannot be considered very unrealistic. Take for example, the developments that are now taking place in the healthcare sector. We've come a long way from the days of making medical decisions based on examinations of the four humours (humours are fluids that ancient physicians believed control a person's temperament, personality and health). But as far as we've come, AI could take us even further, helping prevent disease, personalise treatments and eventually even extend our lives using techniques that no human doctor could hope to match. A British artificial intelligence company called Babylon has an AI-based app that can analyse combinations of hundreds of millions of symptoms while taking into account a patient's history to come up with a very personalised diagnosis. The pioneer of artificial intelligence, Geoffrey Hinton, told The New Yorker that because of the advances in AI, medical schools "should stop training radiologists now". 

The question obviously, we must ask: Is our medical education preparing next generation of doctors for this environment? The same question is applicable to all other disciplines. From automobile to agriculture, space to entertainment, in every discipline - both existing as well as constantly emerging new disciplines - our education system must be geared up to prepare manpower that is compatible with the world driven by AI, big data and Internet of Things (IoT).

Instead of focusing on what was not done in past the 60-70 years - right or wrong - the prime minister and his colleagues must focus on the future that is being increasingly defined by the tsunami of disruptive innovations. Driving the nation forward looking at the rear-view mirror is a sure-shot recipe for disaster.

In this prevailing situation of hopelessness, it is indeed heartening to see the Arvind Kejriwal government's consistent focus on education. However, it needs to be realised that their approach is still quite limited in its ability to address the scale and complexity of the problem. By focusing on issues like infrastructure of public schools, teachers' training and job security, the Delhi government has certainly demonstrated its commitment to pick up the low-hanging fruits for improving the quality of our school education. Many countries, known for their very high quality of public education, have already done that many years ago. We need to go much beyond and go very fast. This calls for breakthrough thinking and innovative strategy.

The strategy must be based on constant experimentation with new models, quick learning from each experiment and then scaling with very high speed. There is no alternative if we have to quickly provide high quality education to our huge number of illiterate and semi-literate people and reskill many of our currently employed skilled people whose jobs are soon to be taken over by AI.

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Fortunately, today's innovation economy that is based on machine, platform and crowd (MPC) allows near-zero marginal cost of access, reproduction and distribution. Hence, scaling is possible with astonishing speed. What Uber, Airbnb, Facebook and other start-ups have done in a matter of three-four years can be also done to solve our massive problems in other sectors, including education.

We need to move away from the industrial-era mindset of mass education. It is true that considering the power of the vested interest groups that are keen to retain a top-heavy rigid education system, we need more than 56" chest for introducing game-changing reforms.

As Vivek Wadhwa in his recent book, Driver in the Driverless Car, mentions, "There are few institutions as inefficient and broken as the traditional education systems of the world, because we treat education as an industrial good, a unit of knowledge served up to the masses in a one-size-fits-all box." He points out that our future schools can be the backyard of our houses where our classrooms are digital tutors with virtual-reality headsets. "A bench in a park or grass in the shade of a tree in a rural meadow, say, somewhere in Shimla" can be also our classrooms. Thus, it is not necessary that a huge infrastructure with swimming pools and playgrounds (which certainly must be provided to all kids irrespective of any affiliation to a school) is a precondition for quality education.

As a nation, if we really want to survive and prosper in an innovation-driven global economy, then we cannot let our future Einsteins keep begging on the traffic intersections, working as domestic helps and loitering in our cities and towns (many of them eventually falling prey to drug dealers and paedophiles). The research work of professor Raj Chetty of Stanford University shows the severity of the problem of lost Einsteins in the US.

With India's dubious distinction as a country with the largest number of impoverished population, it doesn't require much intelligence to understand the scale of our "lost-Einsteins-problem".

With our millions of potential future scientists languishing on our roadsides and slums, it sounds silly when we talk of competing with China. Beijing is moving ahead with amazing speed to establish its leadership in the knowledge economy. It is truly disturbing to see that our big neighbour has so far failed to build the competitive pressure on us and motivate us to focus on the real thing. What could be more depressing than to see the chief minister of a state with a continent-size population still preoccupied with nonsensical issues like love jihad, gau raksha and anti-Romeo squad. Let us hope that a new government in Gujarat will be able to take bold initiatives and show the nation the way forward in this volatile era of jaw-dropping innovations.

Also read: Rahul Gandhi may be physically fit, but politics requires different stamina

Writer

Abhijit Bhattacharya Abhijit Bhattacharya @b_abhijit

Trying to create entrepreneurs capable of solving unknown problems of tomorrow using technologies that are yet to be invented.

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