‘For the times, they are a-changin….’, goes the refrain of one of Bob Dylan’s fascinating ballads. Dylan never fails to enchant, with his genius as a lyricist and counterculture musician; he also remained unfailing in his capacity to shake the audience up with his songs. The climatic shake-up came just last year from the Nobel Committee who decided to award him with the Nobel Prize for Literature, rattling the global literati, who would have wished for one of the celebrated litterateurs to be so honoured, instead of heaping another encomium on an already acclaimed musician burdened by the weight of Grammy, Academy Award, Golden Globe, numerous Halls of Fame citations, and the Pulitzer Prize among several others in a glorious, over five decades old, musical journey. Be that as it may, the momentous task confronting us all even after well over half a century, from the year the song was first released, is the challenge of coping with change itself.
On the one side, there is the ever growing Artificial Intelligence (AI), piling up at the rate of one smart machine upon another, and steadily progressing to, more ominously, spawn in bewildering numbers, sizes and varieties of smart machines. While the bad news is that these machines are programmed to dominate human lives consigning it to steadily rising levels of subjugation, the ugly news is that AI’s thrust into man-made structures to engulf areas of human endeavour is already on, with unnerving speed. A sampling of such an experience is when one tries to type in a simple message on the smart-phone; with only two alphabets keyed in, the smart-phone has identified the complete word which may not always be the one thought of by the individual; then it becomes a tussle to finally make the machine register the exact word that is planned to be conveyed. For the time being, the exercise may appear to be an amusing banter between us and the machine, with the machine doing our thinking, and accepting our input when it is failing at times. But as tasks attain complexity, process rigidities are bound to set in whereby machines may not be accommodative of any interference.
Driver-less vehicles are another example. It is known that these automated vehicles work according to algorithms. You get into a driver-less car to take a spin. Before entering, you want to switch on the engine to work the air-conditioner so the car interior is cool by the time you step in with your friend. But the moment the engine is switched on, a computer voice begins requesting you to wear the seat belt, and keeps repeating it with the tone becoming increasingly louder till you step in and comply with the orderly request. Fastening the seat belt is a safety imperative, which is required if you are driving the car or are a passenger in a moving car. But not when the car is stationery in a showroom and you are only inside it to initially see the sleek console and interior, and engage in a conversation with your friend who chaperoned to see the new car. Nonetheless, you need to act as programmed if it is a driver-less car.
The driver-less concept is not limited only to overland vehicles. It is extending to unmanned air-crafts and ocean vessels. American Bureau of Shipping, more popularly known in its abbreviation ABS, a leading provider of classification and technical services to the offshore and marine industries, joined the Unmanned Cargo Ship Development Alliance, to work with industry partners, classification societies, shipyards, equipment manufacturers and designers, to advance autonomous shipping. The design will incorporate features of independent decision making, autonomous navigation, environmental perception and remote control. In decades ahead, unmanned deep-sea cargo ships navigating the world’s ocean routes and ports may well become a reality.
Robots conspiring with the each other to exterminate, or, at least control, the human race are the stuff of celluloid blockbusters. Arnold Schwarzenegger made a fortune, after all, personifying the amorphous fear in many minds about the potential danger of AI. The notion of benign home appliances chatting with one another to ‘help’ their owners certainly does neither fill all humans with boundless gratitude, as the prospect of a machine-managed life eventually spiralling out of control (btw, my laptop insists on only one ‘L’ for ‘spiraling’ instead of two ‘Ls’ as in the British ‘spiralling’ which I am used to and exhibits its protest by persisting with underlining the double L’d word in red) would not seem unrealistic at all to the average technophobe, nor does scientists airily pooh-poohing the idea of inventions developing a mind of their own, quite literally, allay fears as long as Frankenstein’s monster remains a favourite trope.
Otherwise, what does one make out of the current spectre of teens and youngsters blindly falling prey to the Blue Whale travestying game rounds in many countries? Quiz most of the youngsters about the whale, and all that they may readily come up with is it is a marine mammal and the largest animal on earth. But further details like the many types of whales, specifics of size, weight, habitat etcetera may not find any recall. The actual blue whale is indeed the largest animal, larger than any of the dinosaurs, with the biggest recorded being a female in the Atlantic ocean which was 30.5 metres long, as long as a Boeing 737, with an estimated weight of 144 tonnes. The tongue of a blue whale can by itself weigh as much as an elephant, and capable of holding an entire football team thereon.
The other type, known as the Sperm whales, are champion divers capable of going up to 3 Kilometer depths and staying there for about couple of hours to feed mainly on squids found in deep waters. Its huge head, up to a third of its body, houses the heaviest brain in animal kingdom, weighing up to 9 kgs. Among the popular types are the sharks and dolphins, the Pacific Grey whale, Bowhead whale, having the longest lifespan going up to 200 years, and Beluga whale. Beluga whales are known as ‘canaries of the sea’ for their chirping sounds like little yellow birds. Sperm whales are the loudest, making sounds of over 230 decibels, with the blue whale following closely behind grunting at about 188 decibels (sounds over 120 decibels are harmful to human ears). The whales sing in warm waters while breeding and giving birth.
In sharp contrast, the Blue Whale lurking in cyber space started to show up in the media with a series of click-baiting stories on Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, describing the bizarre Blue Whale challenge as an on-line game preying on teenagers, with a moderator giving every participant a series of escalating challenges, culminating in the participant’s compelling urge to commit suicide. The British tabloids ran with it next, and soon, solicitous police departments were warning parents. From Brazil to India and most other countries around the world, the Blue Whale story has been heard all over. Amidst all the brouhaha, no one seems to have direct knowledge of the delinquent subculture floating such weird and nefarious games targeting a click-happy generation of teenagers everywhere, and spreading like a contagion, prompting saner elements to wonder as to the direction the world is hurtling towards.
The emerging situation is not amusing anymore. AI, it is reported, can now figure out when its interlocutor is being sarcastic. That AI can be smart was evident when two chat-bots created their own coded language that left humans fuming while guessing. Smarter machines end up making humans dumber. The multiplication table became a chore, if not entirely redundant, with the advent of the calculator. Phones that can store contact details by thousands have drained human memory of its earlier ability to recall numbers by the dozen. Doomsayers may be condoned for conjecturing that bots and robots would be ‘talking’ and plotting, even as their creators loftily decry the idea of ever being outwitted by mere machines. They would be chuckling at the supreme arrogance of flesh-and-blood mortals deeming their intelligence to be artificial, as there is nothing artificial about intelligence. Be it human or machine, intelligence is always real.
What then is the way forward? Is it desirable to dump machines and resume all over again based purely on human capabilities and capacities? Should planet earth, from its presently advanced state of machines and Apps self-destruct, regressing into humanoids, Neanderthals and apes, receding all the way to the primordial unicellular organism? The answer is an emphatic no to all these queries and, instead, embark on a continually progressive mission of embracing technology and progressively enhancing in intelligence, while keeping machines subservient and employing it exclusively to expedite the pace of development and social weal. Several years ago, a management school discussed a thesis submitted by one of the research students. It spoke of a value-based approach to measure economic development. Just as economic growth is necessary for human development, human development is critical to economic growth. Lack of wealth was not the barrier to overcoming world’s hunger, poverty and social ills.
Citing data from UN World and Human Development Reports 1998, it was indicated that in 1997, Europeans and Americans together spent more on cosmetics, perfumes and pet foods than it would have taken to provide reproductive health, basic health and nutrition for all people on the planet. And military spends on the same period was twenty times that. It was also pointed out that Kautilya’s Arthashastra inspired the revival of many kingdoms after his reign. The healthiest state of affairs was one in which values higher than worldly possessions received honour and approval; maximum production was not the supreme objective of the economic organization; commerce or wealth creation was not an end in itself; and merchants and manufacturers carried out their activities in a trust for the society they lived in.
The word ‘economics’ comes from Greek, ‘oikonomos’, or ‘household management’. When we begin to manage our companies and our economies with the same character and interest as we would our households, it becomes easy to build the Gross National Character (GNC). Hence what is required is not mindlessly chase growth in Gross Domestic Product, familiarly known by its abbreviation GDP. The foremost requirement is for GNC. Character, wherefrom mental strength and superior emotional quotient are derived; edifying character, capable of resilience and fortitude, adding up to a country’s GNC that will surely deliver consistently higher GNH (Gross National Happiness) and, consequently, GDP.