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While we obsess over trivia, AI is coming for our jobs
Source: Aakar Patel




There is a cliff approaching fast that India is unprepared for. It’s in the near future and will be upon us in 25 or 30 years, according to the people who have understood it best.

In brief it is the creation of an artificial intelligence that is smarter than man. Once this is created, it will replicate itself and improve itself faster than we can imagine, leave alone compete with. Science writers call this moment the technological singularity.
At this point man will no longer be needed for much. This artificial intelligence (I expect it will be Gujarati speaking) will be so much better than us in every way that it will view us as we view bugs. Hopefully it will treat us better than we treat bugs but we don’t really know if it will, nor can we guarantee that.

The inevitability of this singularity (the word has more than a touch of doomsday about it) is driven by the law of exponential growth in information technology. This law says technological progress is predictable. It is happening faster each year, and by a faster pace than it was happening the year before. This future is expected to come upon us rapidly and the changes it carries will be so enormous that nobody really understands all major aspects of it.

Some say the progression described above is not really a ‘law’ in the sense of something infallible, and it is merely an observation, but that is splitting hairs. Others say the result will be so powerful that it will have the capacity to animate the universe. Meaning that ‘we’ (assuming artificial intelligence wants to identify with its maker) will be able to program rocks and planets and bring them to ‘life’.

This is the future that the human race, currently arming itself with more aircraft carriers and fighter planes (India just bought 36 new ones last year, congratulations to us), must face together. When the singularity, by whatever name one calls it, arrives, mankind will benefit and suffer equally and India will stand and/or fall with America and Africa, whatever fate awaits them. That is not the subject of what I am writing about here.
What I am worrying about is what happens in the period before that 25 or 30 years. Surely the change is not going to come in one moment. It is going to be preceded by years of enormous progress in which many of the things around us will have vanished and be replaced by other things.

Humans are not going to become obsolete overnight: we are going to become obsolete in stages. And those nations that have large populations equipped with few skills are going to become obsolete before others. We have a larger population of unemployed and underemployed women and men than any nation on earth. We have the largest group of people about to enter the working population. And we have fewer resources per capita to skill and equip them for this uncertain future than most nations.

The most important thing is that we have no will to change this. Our political discourse is centred around idiotic things. Do we really believe that Kashmiri separatism and Arunachal Pradesh’s status are at all going to be the issues that concern anyone in 2030 (which is 13 years away)?
Perhaps they will continue to agitate a few. What about the other pressing concerns of our time: beef, anti-national slogans and another temple in Ayodhya? The Indian 20 years in the future will be aghast that her nation was occupied by trivial matters at a point when it was clear that something very big was looming. And make no mistake: it is looming.

The Economic Times reported in December (“Automation will make 20 crore young Indians jobless in next nine years, warns Mohandas Pai”) the view of Pai, someone who studies these things and knows them well, that by 2025, the impact of accelerating technology would overwhelm our job market. “By 2025 there will be 200 million young people in the age group of 21-41 with no jobs or less jobs and nobody knows what to do with these people. Government policy does not know what to do as they don’t have proper data,” he said.

It is of course true that other nations are also agitated by trivial pursuits and the world continues as it always has. The difference is that many nations have populations that are in some ways financially and educationally equipped to deal with the future at least in the short term. We do not have that. And the other thing obviously is just the massive size of our population, in recent times thought to be an asset (‘demographic dividend’) but looking increasingly again like a liability.

It is too late to change whatever it is that the next couple of decades brings. But it would be comforting to know that at least we Indians made a good fist of it by reordering our national priorities. Bumbling along as we are, hoping that everything will turn out fine, or (in the Indian way) assuming that whatever will be will be, is to let down ourselves and those who come after us.



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