Fear of Intelligence
It has always been there, everywhere. The fear of loss of job and face and love. Man had just landed on the moon in the sixties when we had a soul shattering subject for debate in an inter-university youth festival in New Delhi: “Man’s landing on the moon has knocked the bottom out of romance.” It has not. In the ensuing half century, romance has remained ever vibrant, though perhaps with a reformed grammar and revised style.
No longer may Sakuntala be writing her love lyrics to an elusive Dushianta on a bhoorjapatra, nor may her diction be an involved Sanskrit. Digital epistles of love still mark human behavior and aspiration. The fear of loss of job articulated by the adopted sons of the working class in the early sixties has turned out to be hypochondriac. What their shrill cry achieved was an undue delay in computerization in banks and railways where automation was first attempted. And, our familiar question for which we did not crave an instant answer was what would happen to man when machines took over his work.
Two thinkers whose view of the last third question were a historian, Yuval Harari, and an engineer hailed as ‘godfather of artificial intelligence, Goeffrey Hinton. The historian is blunt. He is not a little concerned that AI has already hacked the operating system of human civilization. Storytelling computers will, he says, change the course of human history.” Hinton is worried about many things including AI’s potential to eliminate jobs and create a world where people “may not be able to know what is true any more.” In a huff the other day, the septuagenarian computer engineer who did pioneering research in his field opted out of his top berth in Google.
Harari’s and Hinton’s apprehensions had been voiced by many who watched man’s ascent and adventure, employing literary constructs. About a century ago, when robots had not entered our kitchens or reading rooms, Nalappat Narayana Menon wondered whether man’s steady movement, stepping on his own body, was really heading upward. Edassery Govindan Nair, none too weighed down by tradition, asked if his beloved river would turn into a dirty drain when man who lived in fun and frolic became a machine. The age of change and machine did not daunt Vailoppilli but he too wanted to retain the “scent of the village” and its love even in the thick of industrialization.
No one is unaware of whatever may happen when robots created by man take over man’s monopoly functions. In considering the para-humanizing impact of AI, I am more guided by the perspicacious and at once sober formulations by scholars like Californian computer scientist, Professor Stuart Russell. Prof Russell was at great pains to explain and assure us that man would not suddenly be a rudderless entity when Artificial Intelligence evolved by man throws him out of his cozy throne. In his illuminating Reith lecture, he set out three principles that would govern the progress of robots. One, the machine's only objective is to maximize the realization of human preferences. Two, the machine is initially uncertain about what those preferences are. Three, the ultimate source of information about human preferences is human behavior. Applying those principles, Prof Russell concluded: “I’ll say now, no, machines will not learn to copy evil human behavior, and no, I’m definitely not ignoring the wellbeing of other animals.”
That must be reassuring as far as it goes. But it will be foolhardy to expect change to take place only where man wants it, how he wants it. Robots may yet not write poetry or paint a Mona Lisa or execute an uncalibrated dance of love. They already show signs of learning language, though ridiculously imperfectly. Such robotic imperfection is what comforts people who would not want their existing applecart to be upset. At every threshold of change, they have put up blocking stones, raising the bogey of dehumanization or mechanization of man. The idea of entrusting all human work to a machine man is yet to find universal acceptance.
It is hard to accept, certainly not welcome, the fact that man, like a mighty river, never remains the same, not for a moment. In its inexorable flow, the river leaves intact or behind not a single drop at the same spot, giving it a halo of eternity. Likewise, man passes through evolution not stage by stage but as a constant process. Evolution is current, not past or prospective.
The fear of loss of job or face or love, social historians say, dates back to the industrial revolution. A closer look will take us further back in time when changes were resisted in what could be mistaken for a movement in defense of human civilization. Consider the resistance to replacing a heavy grinding stone in the kitchen with a mechanical device, employing a tractor in place of an antiquated plough in the field, and introducing a ticket vending machine in the railway station. There can be no field where change, complete with the entry of robots, is preventable. As for the limited subject of human jobs, for instance, a quarter of content generated by human intervention can be handled by Artificial Intelligence. The western world will have 300 million of its jobs will be appropriated by robots.
Martin Ford has provocatively titled his book as, Rule of the Robots: How Artificial Intelligence will Transform Everything. Ford says it is not a change limited to individuals or jobs. The change will be pervasive, permanent. “It could happen to a lot of people, potentially quite suddenly, potentially all at the same time. And that has implications not just for those individuals, but for the whole economy.”
It is tempting to hark back to Bhasmasura, our version of Frankenstein, who could turn to ash anything he touched. The first thing he set out to do was to burn down whoever gave him that extraordinary boon. A picturesque, metaphorical presentation but an idle and ineffective presentation at it. Artificial Intelligence may not be man’s undoing like the ungrateful “ash demon” was to his creator.