Artificial Intelligence – ai, ai, ai

The Digital Alarmist

Roger Marshall

If human or natural intelligence is not enough to address whatever problems that ail modern societies, why not turn to Artificial Intelligence? So goes the thinking. The inexorable push for all things AI is now on.

Several months ago, the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog put out a proposal costing upwards of a billion dollars to create a national infrastructure for the promotion and adoption of AI techniques to resolve a variety of issues in the fields of agriculture, health, education, urbanisation and mobility. The presumed benefits of this proposal, if adopted, would be the addition of almost a trillion dollars to India’s GDP and a 1.3% net increase in the annual growth rate by the year 2035.

What would an India so transformed look like? If the current uses of AI technology across the globe are any indication, India would become yet another surveillance state. Joining the august company of countries such as China, the United States, UK and Singapore.

AI technology, as currently practiced, is largely focused on three applications – object recognition systems (faces, in particular); spoken and written language systems; and robotics. The first two address issues relating to the who, what, when, where and why of human activity while the third addresses the how aspect. All three applications require the collection, analysis and synthesis of huge amounts of data – data that would not be normally available unless one were constantly monitored.

Purveyors of AI technology would have us believe that citizenry will benefit from a plethora of benevolent and altruistic applications stemming from recent advances in AI. Reality, however, speaks in a different voice. The prime beneficiaries of AI technology are not the citizens at large but the military, various security and law enforcement agencies, and a handful of extremely powerful companies in the IT sector whose tentacles reach into every field of human endeavour.

I would expect that any technological ideas emanating from the five research centres and the 20 adoption centres envisaged under the NITI AI infrastructure proposal would largely be imitative of western practices and thought processes rather than innovative and befitting an India context.

To give a specific example, the almost instantaneous adoption of facial recognition technology by the international airport in Bengaluru to process passengers without citizen input should be cause for worry.

Is India ready for a western-suffused culture in which privacy is no longer possible, any distinctions between public space and private space have been obliterated, geopolitical boundaries are not respected, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is ever widening? Not to mention the constant threat to freedom of expression and association -- legitimate protests and unionisation activities in particular, and democratic institutions in general. And the spectre of unemployment always looms large.

The indiscriminate use of AI in the sectors identified by the NITI proposal could have the following consequences – adoption of large scale agribusiness models and the use of drones and robots for planting and cultivation, mass migration of unemployed farm works to urban areas, massive online course offerings requiring fewer faculty, automated health monitoring with fewer doctors and nurses, and the privatisation of public transportation systems.

Amazon, the world’s largest e-commerce site, is a prime user of AI technology in its operations. The highly touted job opportunities at Amazon notwithstanding, the company’s parallel efforts in replacing its poorly paid but video- and audio-monitored human workers with robots in its massive warehouses is rarely publicised. The recent purchase by Amazon of the large natural-foods grocery chain Whole Foods and the introduction of Amazon Go, a sensor-based cashier-less grocery store across the US, is a harbinger of things to come. Will the outcome of Walmart’s takeover of Flipkart follow the same pattern, I wonder?

The deforestation of the Amazon by mining and timber companies coupled with the dehumanisation and de-peopling of the workforce by the Amazons of the IT world would surely provoke citizen unrest. Climate change can assume many disguises.

To squelch any activism, an elaborate surveillance system would be necessary. Agreed?

(Roger Marshall is a computer scientist, a newly minted Luddite and a cynic)

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