After a tortuous reception at the immigration counter at Narita I was quite relieved to find myself before my coach of Narita Express waiting for me to take me to Shinagawa, from where I need to change for my final destination at Tsurumi near Yokohama. I was attending a conference at Yokohama. When I landed Narita, I never imagined that it would take about two hours to cross the immigration counter. So when I went for collecting my luggage I was dead tired and also a bit worried to change the international SIM in my I-phone for making a call back home. I also needed to book a ticket for a train to travel to Tsurumi. At the JR East Travel Service Center when I could easily got those tickets and directions, I was very relieved and took a deep breath by comfortably placing myself on a sofa near the counter to arrange my newly bought tickets and other travel documents. There was about 15 minutes gap for my train. I might have stretched my relaxation too long! Suddenly I felt a rush to look for the platform and train. Impulsively I went as quickly as possible. After going through a bit of beginner’s nervous lesson to get entry through the automatic ticket checking system, I could finally reach the platform and found my train waiting there. With an immense relief I boarded it and placed my hand bag overhead. The first thing I tried was to change the new SIM card and found that it worked nicely by calling home to inform about my arrival and also calling my student Jit who arrived there last Evening for attending the same conference. Eventually the train started towards its destination.
The coach was quite empty. Most passengers appeared to me traveling alone and belonged to younger generation, absorbed on their laptops or smartphones. A few were also reading books. There was a display hanging overhead, with scrolling messages of places of destination in alternate in two different Japanese scripts and also in English. In the mean time the next station came, which happened to be Terminal 1 of Narita Airport and a few passengers entered into the coach. I was quite relaxed and was excited to get an experience of a fast moving Japanese train. My excitement got a little dampened, when I understood that Narita Express was not of that category. It moved fast but not like the famous Shinkansen (bullet train) of Japan. I went for an inspection of my coach to look for the toilet, and was very pleased to find a neat and clean arrangement in the moving train. While returning I also observed how luggage were kept near the door and a few of them were locked by an iron chain with electronic locking mechanism. In fact in the display there was a message regarding the use of this lock and also a warning that if it could not be opened it had to be collected from the final destination. I came back to my seat and was eagerly looking forward to reach the transit station of my destination. When the train was approaching the next station, I heard an announcement of the approaching station with a request to the passengers to be ready for getting down and also to carry their luggage near the exit door. I hummed in my mind, “At least I need not worry and bother on my luggage.”, and looked at my small companion placed on the upper bunk over my seat. I was traveling with my hand bag only. Then a queer sensation gripped me. I felt something was missing with me and realized I should have a luggage with me in this travel, which I did collect from the airport, but left at the JR East Travel Service Desk. More than feeling myself disgusted I was amazed how such an amnesia could overtake me for about half an hour! In a foreign land, I lost my luggage with all my clothing and other necessary items inside. My only consolation then was that I had all my cash and travel documents safe with me!
I was wondering what should be my action at that point! Should I take the loss with a stoic’s heart and look for making some contingency arrangement for a few necessary clothes, which I knew would be quite expensive? But I recovered soon from my momentary laxity on facing the crisis with determination. I went for searching the conductor of the coach to inform him about my loss. While entering I did notice a few railways staff with their blue-white dresses. Fortunately at that time, a person with that kind of official dress was going through my coach. He happened to be a railway security person. I tried to inform him about my loss, but he could not make out anything from me. All other passengers were also looking at me. But I was not sure whether they could understand my English. I was feeling quite helpless. I took the person near the luggage cell, and waved my hand to signal that I had lost mine.
The security staff brought the coach conductor within a few minutes and he tried to talk to me with a few English monosyllables. Through a bit of sign language and a few broken English words he understood that I lost my luggage at the Airport Terminal Station. He asked me to accompany him and also to take my belongings with me. He took me to another coach and asked me to take an empty seat and wait for him (all by signs and hand movements). With an empty look and also empty stomach as well, through semi-transparent window glasses, I was staring at the fast moving outside world glittering and simmering with Japanese city lives! My student also called me to enquire about my whereabouts and they (Jit and his friend) were completely taken aback to know that I left my luggage at the terminal! They just completed their dinner and were having a nice stroll in a park near the ocean in Yokohama.
“Should I come Sir?”
“No way! It won’t help. Let me see how it goes, and let you know.”
The conductor came with a device, which appeared to me something like a walky-talky and was telling something in Japanese with the device. I guessed he might be talking with a railway staff at Narita Terminal 2 station informing about the lost luggage. But after finishing his talk he placed it before me and was waiting for some actions on my part. I was looking at him without understanding at all what he was expecting from me. He again took the device and spoke something in Japanese and placed it before me. Then I noticed there was something written in English.
“What is the color of your bag?”
It’s a machine which translates Japanese speech in English text.
“Blue”, I informed.
The machine converted my English speech in Japanese text.
“What were there?”
“Clothes, and a file.”
The conductor again spoke something. It printed something like “We go.” I looked at him with some confusion. He spoke again.
“Get down at the next station.”
Further with his next speech, he assured me by showing the text, “I get down with you.”
I said, “Okay. Thank you very much.”.
The kind conductor again informed me through that machine that the next station was Tokyo and it would take another 40 minutes more to reach.
When the train reached Tokyo, I got down in a confused and uncertain state, as I did not find my friend while leaving the coach. But as soon as I stepped on the platform, I found him behind me. There I found two of his colleagues waiting for us. One of them came forward to me and said in broken English, “Your bag fine.”
I told, “Fine? Okay. How to get it?”
The staff used his device of speech to text translator and showed me the text, where it was written, “Bag found.”
I heaved a sigh of relief and asked, “Where it is?”
Again through the device came to know, “It is still in Narita Airport Terminal 2 station. You need to go back and collect.”
They helped me to get into a train going to Narita Airport Terminal 2 and finally I could retrieve the bag from the ‘lost and found’ section located at the same station. I was lucky that the incident happened in Japan, a country I found the safest to travel having a social fabric vibrant with honesty and friendliness.
I cited the above incidence to showcase an example that how AI and Machine Learning (ML) could transform our social interaction and remove the barrier of language and distance. The speech to text cross-lingual translation has become matured and robust enough to get entry in our daily business, and I was a direct beneficiary of this technology.
There could be many such examples. In fact, it is quite natural to the young millennial generation to live with Internet driven business and social practices, many of which are getting enriched each day by new innovations primarily through applications of AI and ML. People are accustomed to use Google Maps to look for a new place, hotels, restaurants, museums, etc., make online booking of hotels, taxi, air and train tickets, ordering a pizza or a computer and performing many such various activities .
Like speech to text, text to speech synthesis has become also matured enough for some of the languages and used in various applications. Suppose the said cross-lingual gadget, which came to my rescue in Japan, is improvised by addition of another text to speech module, it would act as a human bilingual interpreter among two individuals talking in two different languages. It is exciting to think its applications in a country like India which has twenty two constitutionally recognized languages for communication. Recently my son forwarded me a video clip, which they created describing how they had developed a technology for synthesizing speech only from lip movements of speakers in English using deep learning technology. The demonstration was quite amazing and according to him was appreciated by none other than Andrew Zisserman of Oxford University, who is a pioneer in advancing research in Computer Vision. Andrew might have been by nature too generous to encourage young researchers, but I myself, was quite moved by the quality of their speech synthesis through lip reading by a machine. In addition, I was also impressed by its professional presentation of the story line. So I asked him who had lent the voice in describing the background, which sounded with a very professional accented articulation. I got surprised to know that the whole narration in the background was generated through text to speech synthesis. They only prepared the text of description and fed them to the application synthesising it into a well-articulated speech. I could not distinguish the voice as artificial and machine generated, though the speech segment synthesized by their algorithm from lip movement had artificial intonation.
This is where we stand today. What was unimaginable even a decade ago, is now at our door step with awesome clarity and reliability! It is not true that no-one thought about these scenarios. For a long time (at least from sixties of the last century) researchers were breaking their heads to overcome these barriers, and develop reliable and robust solutions of problems like speech to text or text to speech synthesis, face recognition, machine recognition of objects, generation of description of scenes and phenomena, diagnosis of diseases, converting images of printed documents to electronic forms, autonomous ground vehicle navigation, commanding robots for various services, and many other challenging problems. In particular, on the onset of digital revolution in the nineties of the last century these efforts got multiplied by many folds due to the progress in sensing technology, availability of data in digital form and processing them in general purpose computing platforms. Out of these efforts, a few applications were trickling down to solve these problems in restricted environments. One of their major bottlenecks was to apply them in a free unrestricted environment with a robust and reliable performance guarantee. But the advancement that we saw in the last decade, has brought us a qualitative change in their solutions to remove these limitations, for which they are progressively getting integrated from research laboratory to our daily businesses.
A new era of technological revolution?
Naturally the question raised at this point is that are we entering into a new era of technological revolution, a revolution due to AI and ML? If so, what would be its impact to our society. How would it reshape the social interaction and human relations with the productive system? Only a few decades ago we witnessed another chapter of industrial revolution, known to be the era of digital revolution, which transformed our society to such an extent that our days before mobile phones and internet services looked prehistoric. Many of us may turn out to be living fossils to our present generation and may find ourselves out of the society without a credit card, email ID and a cell phone connection. The digital revolution came with the phenomenal growth and technological advancement in semiconductor industry in fabrication of integrated chips, digital electronics including sensing and rendition of multimedia content, communication and computing technology. The gadgets, such as phones, cameras, computers, etc., what were limited to a few in the society for their high cost and high technical barrier, become available widely at a fractional cost, with higher quality of services and of smaller sizes. The technology also revolutionized the communication infrastructure culminating in wide penetration of cellular wireless services, data communication and internet services in our society. This has ushered us into an era of new innovations in information processing with increasing capability of handling a large amount of data due to exponential growth in storage and computing capacity. All these advancement and growth could have been perceived as a natural fall out of the digital revolution. So what qualitative changes have been brought further in the productive forces, so that we are considering another quantum leap in a new era of technological revolution?
If we observe previous industrial revolutions, each of them was a fall out of a new technological innovation which had introduced revolutionary changes in the ways production and commerce were organized. Subsequently these also brought significant changes in our social practices and social relations, creating clear distinctions between societies who had embraced new technology and who did not. The first industrial revolution (1760-1830) was driven by steam engines. And we could see that this was the era, when large capitalist production system started to grow up and brought new social relations so that old feudal systems did crumble against the onslaught of a new order of bourgeoisie. After a brief period of steady growth, the second stage of industrial revolution (1860-1914) began with the discovery of electro-magnetism and harnessing electricity in the production system. The period had seen revolutionary changes in our understanding of nature and natural phenomena. The discovery of fossil fuel and its use in automobile further accelerated its growth. The capitalism ruled supreme in this stage, so did the conflicts among industrially advanced nations for capturing the markets of their colonies, leading to two world wars subsequently. The concept of new social order also grew strong from major proponents such as Karl Marx and Frederik Engels, which led to revolutionary movements to bring new political and economic structure in Russia and later in China, and subsequently in many other countries.
After the second industrial revolution, there was a steady growth and expansion of industry and commerce, but there was no major change in the factory based production system. With the development of digital technologies, this process was further accelerated. But it took a major leap with the rapid advancement of computing and communication technology. It is difficult to identify a single invention or discovery leading to this state of affairs. It was the culmination of several simultaneous technological advancement, such as in fabrication of semiconductor devices, space technology and remote sensing, computer hardware and software, digital data and wireless communication, audio-visual and imaging, medical imaging, biomedical devices, and so on. We may mark the period of technological advancement during early eighties of the last century to early years of first decade of this century as that of the period of ‘digital revolution’ (roughly from 1984 to 2004). Then there has been post digital age advancement, which played the crucial role in bringing radical changes in our daily life, social interaction and engagement with the production system. During this period we saw tremendous expansion of internet services, computing resources, mobile networks, and penetration of smartphones even to the low income section of the society.
Hardly one and half a decade passed in between. Is it not too early to declare arrival of another new era of technological revolution, the era of AI and ML? Can we not consider present technological progress as the continuation of the same digital era? Is there any departure in our mode of interaction with the productive forces? Is there going to be any significant reshaping of society? To assess the impact of AI and ML in today’s and tomorrow’s society, we need to address these vital and crucial questions. As an individual we have limited roles to influence the progress in science and technology. But as a social being we should be aware, what is coming to us as a fall out of this progress and to decide how to harness this new technological advancement for the benefit of our society in general.
Present era: expectation and outcome
Let us review how we reacted at the advent of digital technology, internet, mobile communication, smart phones, social networking, e-commerce and so on. No doubt, there was high hope all around, and there were good reasons for that. Once I heard from a very distinguished speaker who was very enthusiastic about three great benefits of internet, namely, Google Search Engine, WikiPedia and YouTube. It was a lecture during the Diamond Jubilee celebration of our Institute (2011-2012). According to him they provide great opportunities of learning and thus could act as the instruments for liberating an individual from ignorance and making her more confident in exploring life and unknown territories. At that moment probably we all agreed. There was no reason to doubt his observations, as all could share the benefits of these services with the expansion of internet and digital infrastructure. But we did not see then the flip side of the same coin. After a decade now, we find how individual liberty and freedom has become a commodity in lieu of availing these services, putting ourselves under an increasingly intensive surveillance system!
The other expectation was on strengthening of democracy as the gap between administrators and common people would be bridged by this new technology. Peoples’ voice and opinions would be more effectively shared and heard in policy making to the benefit of the majority. Many of us shared this optimism, though I had a debate with one of my friends, presently a director in one of our premium Institutions, on how the media would be free of control from rich and powerful! That was around the beginning of this millennium. In fact, a decade later we witnessed the positive role of social media and electronic media in inspiring protests and movements against the autocratic regimes in Middle East in 2010-11. There were initial successes in bringing down a few autocratic regimes and dictators. But the history taught us now that very soon this euphoria turned into nightmares! In absence of any progressive ideology, very soon these regions became the hunting ground of religious fanatics and neo-liberal rulers of today’s world, backed by their multinational corporate houses.
If we consider present state of affairs, we would find that in the electronic media, and social networking platforms common people’s voices are hardly audible. We get all sorts of stories about victories and defeats of our political masters, wars and violence, natural calamities and occasional worries of climate change, and the glittering colourful worlds of celebrities. But rarely you find any concern for issues related to a common man! Hardly any article on their distressed conditions in economic crisis, their political and economic demands and grievances against governance, their fights and movements against the undemocratic laws and acts! It is not only done by flooding the media with the propaganda of ruling sections, but also by active suppression of free expression through coercive laws and blocking of internets. In today’s world probably Hitler and Goebbels would have been more successful in hypnotising their target audiences by parroting same stories and hate speeches millionth times without any accountability and hindrance, thus giving least regards to their truthfulness! That has become the unfortunate state of affairs in many such democracies! Even there are business houses who are paid for promoting such campaigns! What was there previously paid advertisements on a few prints of news media, and that too with some legal restrictions, has become an easy to access chattering mouthpiece of a hundred headed monster for the unscrupulous rulers of our society. Eventually we find that the digital revolution swept away all these regulations to allow hate speech, mass shaming, trolling, and naked campaigning of half truths and lies targeting every individual, an apparent beneficiary of its world wide connectivity!
The third positive impact of digital revolution was to make the world more integrated by removing the barriers of distance and national boundaries. In fact, neo-liberal policy makers during this era drew ideological support from this technological advancement welcoming free movement of people in a global market. We were elated to think about a world without any national boundaries thriving with fraternity and brotherhood, peace and prosperity! But if we consider the present situation, we find a world with rising animosity and hatred against the migrant population, giving way to rise of ultra-nationalism at various corners of globe. Instead of universal bonhomie and fraternity, wars, violence, and terror attacks have become the order of the days!
Finally if we consider the distribution of wealth and income of the society, we would again find another disappointing scenario. It was quite natural to expect that with the embrace of digital revolution the society would be rich and prosperous, and each of its members would be benefited due to many fold increase of productive forces. But what effectively we see is that in almost in every country there is a rising inequality in wealth and income among the population. To be precise we may take an example of my country India. The Gini index of India in 2011 was 35.2, which steeply rose to 47.5 in 2018, very close to some of sub-Saharan countries in Africa! It is a worrying factor as with such an inequality in a society, a democracy cannot function. Either the political order would move toward more equitable distribution by curtailing the monopolistic trends of big corporate houses, or be dictated more and more by them in framing economic policies and political laws to safeguard their interests!
I may be sounding over-pessimistic and would have been very glad if I could have sketched a happy and rosy picture of our glittering world! I left my dreamy days long before, yet I was hopeful of finding a world more rational and humane! Instead we find a world with bitterness and sorrows, and full of dissent but without any political voice guided by a strong humanist ideology! Moreover due to massive and accelerated exploitation of natural resources, global warming and climate change are waving red flags to very existence of our civilization. With such a heavy heart at this critical juncture let us look at the magical world of AI and ML and try to understand what would be the natural fall out if the current trend continues!
AI-ML: the genesis and growth
Artificial intelligence caught the imagination of researchers since the beginning of computing with electronic circuitry. That the machines would be able to think or act like a human, play games, diagnose diseases and treat patients, was dreamt by many visionaries such as Allan Turing, Allen Newell, Herbert Simon, John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky and many others in the early age of computing. The term AI was coined by John McCarthy in 1956 in a workshop at Dartmouth College, USA, where AI as a discipline of research got recognized. Machine learning is a specialized area of research in AI, which considers empowering a computer program meant to perform a task to improve the performance with increasing experiences of handling input data. Arthur Samuel of IBM coined the term in 1959. There were ups and down in the progress of these research areas, which started with a promising note but got dampened due to limitations of technology and material conditions in seventies and early eighties of the last century. Later, with the advancement of digital and computing technology, and expansion of data communication infrastructure, there have been significant advancement in these areas. The techniques of “support vector machines” (SVM), “decision tree”, “random forest”, “artificial neural network”, “Bayesian network”, “hidden Markov and conditional random field models”, etc., are being increasingly used in solving many challenging problems, which are otherwise hard to crack using deterministic algorithms of traditional computing. In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue, a chess playing computer, using AI based search techniques in a parallel computing environment could beat then reigning world champion Garry Kasparov in a six games series by winning three, losing two and keeping a match draw. Incidentally a year before the great champion grand master had beaten its previous version of chess playing program.
Post digital revolution period saw a steady development of theory and practice in these areas. The period also saw the emergence of new technology leaders, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, etc., who started acquiring a vast amount of data of users of their systems, their behaviours and business transactions either directly or indirectly from their business partners. They rolled out a different business models by offering some of their services free to their common users, but charging from their clients (usually corporate houses and Government agencies) on advertisements and providing relevant statistics related to marketing, etc. Various other types of specialized data repositories, satellite images, business data from online shopping and trading systems, banking, etc., augmented this process further and different types of services are increasingly being provided on analysing these data. AI and ML techniques have become de facto choices in advancing these technologies. Then with the emergence of general purpose graphics processing unit (GPGPU) based computing, deep learning based techniques have taken their roots in researches in these areas. They have been found to be providing solutions at remarkable improved performances, and thus enabling deployment of these systems in practice in real life. From 2015 onward, AI-ML techniques using deep learning based neural architecture began to perform wonders in natural language processing, audio-visual and speech processing, computer vision, robotics and almost in every areas of science and technology for modelling a process with the precondition that a large amount of labelled data are available, which should also be generated from the same process. The core of this computation involves optimization of an objective function of inputs and outputs of a very large model, which may have millions of parameters. That is why the necessity of a very large amount of labelled data, and also a very powerful parallel computing environment to finish computation within a reasonable time interval (if not days, should not be more than a few weeks!). The theory and proponent of this computation dates back to eighties of the last century, when David Rumelhart, Geoffrey Hinton and Ronald Williams developed back propagation algorithm for optimizing artificial neural networks. Later in 1990s Yann LeCun and his coresearchers brought the concept of convolutional neural network (CNN), a biologically inspired network for classification of objects. However, the technology and material condition of getting a large labelled dataset were not yet ready then! Then in 2012, AlexNet, a deep neural architecture designed by Alex Krizhevsky, then a student of Geoffrey Hinton, showed how this could solve a hard problem such as classifying images of objects of 1000 categories (ImageNet dataset) with significantly higher accuracy than the traditional techniques of ML. This has opened the magic box of deep learning and many such neural architectures are subsequently being proposed with increasing performance on the same and many other datasets solving various tasks such as object localization and classification, face recognition, action recognition, image captioning, generating description of a scene, language translation, speech to text synthesis, etc. In fact this technology has become the wonder tool to create those magic boxes of cross-lingual translators as I mentioned in the beginning of this story. Many such wonders are either already on the shelf or waiting to roll out in near future. We have become used to take help of navigation guidance using maps and satellite images while traveling by car or walking the streets. Often we interact with chat bots which take our queries and try to resolve them. Even all such text based interfaces are increasingly replaced by free speech conversation with tools such as Siri, Alexa, etc. Autonomous driverless cars have passed many miles of testing on roads. Though there were a few accidents and hiccups, it is expected that they would be running on our streets within a few years. So does drone based deliveries and surveillance systems. Air taxis on metropolitan sky line may also be flying in this decade. In every sector there would be automation which would perform like an intelligent professional person of that trade. For example, in a hospital we may be screened initially by a robot-physician before meeting the specialist doctor. In judiciary, an optical character recognition (OCR) and natural language processing (NLP) based system may summarize the case history from the documents for presenting to a lawyer.
The future looks quite exciting! You turn over pages of science fiction books of yesterdays, you would find we are almost there! Except the fact, that we are also suffering an existential threat due to impending secular doomsday prediction from climate scientists and also due to the intensified arms race and war mongering of the present rulers of the world order! It is no doubt that AI-ML techniques, in spite of their great potential to become a great benefit to humanity, are serving their interests and sharpening their arsenals for keeping their house of cards intact!
Ruling an individual
One of the mottos of modern digital world is nourishment of absolute individualism. This may happen even by bringing total alienation of a person from the society in which he or she lives. That the technology which played a positive role in liberating a person from ignorance by bringing the world at her door step, could effectively also imprison her in a glittering virtual world. In manufacturing and production also due to automation and invention of small, portable but powerful tools and machinery, the necessity of organized labour has been greatly reduced. Working from home, replacing regular employment by contractual jobs, running major businesses in a multi-tiered subcontracting system, etc., have become common practices in industry. This was also the period when social welfare states get withered by the onslaught of neo-liberal policy makers paving the way of unhindered privatization of essential services and resources, and thus accelerating accumulation of wealth only to a tiny fraction of population, members of big business and corporate houses. Naturally the tension and dissent in the society has been simmering all around the world. AI-ML technology has become a great weapon to these masters of the society to rule an individual. If we would like to name a few widely used applications of AI-ML techniques in today’s world, the first and foremost would be in surveillance. Profiling a user has become common business practice of these big corporations in absence of any law or regulations regarding such acquisition of data and their uses for commercial purposes. Later some countries in the west, brought a few regulations. But on several occasions those were found to be flouted at the risk of facing meagre penalties from the regulating authority. Sometimes users are encouraged or forced to allow intrusion to their privacy and sharing of data to these service providers to avail their services, effectively turning themselves into commodities of data products. Many governments are also increasingly forcing their citizens to acquire digital identities and to avail essential services through online transactions. Through their digital foot-prints, people could be easily brought into their surveillance systems, and monitored by automated systems to raise a red flag for any kind of opposition to establishment. That is the task set to AI-ML techniques for serving watchdog agencies and big-brothers of today’s political order. The technology can greatly help them locate a single voice of dissension and suppress it at their mercy. With the spread of terrorism and anarchism in the conflict torn today’s world, it has become easier for the rulers to convince their citizens to be subjected to these surveillance systems. Apart from user profiling by internet based various service providers, and sharing the data with the Government agencies by law, throughout the world there are arrangements of putting video surveillance systems in place. There is a steady growth of this industry. In 2014, the number of CCTV installations was such that for every 30 persons in this world, there was one such system. I do not have the present statistics, but won’t be surprised if the number of systems has been doubled by this time.
Reshaping our society
At present it may be difficult to conclusively say that AI-ML has led us to a new technological era, but what we could say without hesitation that the social practices and modes of interaction for availing essential services will have marked departure in coming years from what presently being followed. There would be self serving kiosks for various operations and transactions. Some of these are already in place in airports, railway counters, etc. This would be expanded to tasks involving both manual and intellectual labour. For example, in Japan various kinds of robots are being increasingly used at different places of work such as schools, hospitals, etc. They are used in place of human security guards for periodic inspection of a site. They are also designed to provide various domestic services aiding the aging population. Industries are being increasingly automated with different kinds of robots. Different economic reports had already identified a large categories of jobs of human employment that would be extinct in near future.
Even highly professional jobs may be replaced by robots and cyborgs. In a hospital, you may have to report to a cyber-doctor. Human teachers in class rooms would be replaced by cyber-instructors through video lectures or online composition from a knowledge base created by domain experts. Even in cultural landscape, various performing artists may be replaced by robo-artists saving the exchequer of producers and directors. There may be a robot-singer popularizing new composition at the same level of proficiency of any expert singer or musician. In sports, various robotic teams would participate to compete with each other. It is true that all these fundamentally would be product of human intellects, but in a market oriented economy, they would also make certain human trades extinct.
The infrastructure for communication and commerce will have many more changes in coming years. There would be new rules and regulations making mandatory adoption of new technological advancement. The road, signalling and traffic rules would be overhauled to get the autonomous driverless cars on streets. Drones and aerial vehicles would be used for transportation and delivery of commodities. The policing in the streets and mob controlling may be done using various automated surveillance tools and mobile robots. In Airport, possibly you may have to get your face scanned for verification with the photograph printed in your identity card before boarding the aircraft. Even one may have to enrol with periodic updates of biometric signatures of face, fingerprint, DNA finger prints, etc., for accessing various essential services, such as banking, traveling, shopping, health care, etc. Without such a digital identity a person would be an outcast in a society. In the business world, your digital identity may also become a commodity to sell and to keep protected. Various technologies and counter-technologies would be developed to steal and safeguard someone’s identity.
In the present world, we are already observing how the advancement in digital technology changed the nature of warfare and made a huge gap between a technologically advanced and a backward country. What was a field demonstration in the first gulf war (1990-1991), had become regular in modern warfare causing immense misery of people in affected lands. People of defeated nations have no other option than leaving their destroyed homes and devastated lands, and migrating to a relatively safe corner of foreign countries. World wide migration for war and economic break down have become the order of these days. Recent progress in AI and ML did not make any change in the present situation. Neither it is expected, as the technology itself never provides a political solution, rather becomes another tool of dominance of the rulers. In future, there will be more arsenals to their armies as derivatives of this technology. The military of a country may have an army of robots. The days are not far behind when man and machine will fight each other in the battle field. With increasing precision striking capability, advanced satellite imaging and navigation systems, we have already seen, how a general of a country can be killed out of the blue ignoring ethics and norms of the civil world! In the great epic Mahabharata, it is considered the death of Abhimanyu broke all the civilities and norms of that mythical era in wars between the two warring factions. In this twenty first century, this unfortunate incident might have ushered us into an era with new codes of ethics in warfare, which would be devastating for our race!
Concerns and hope
Any technological advancement brings new hope and demands for improving our life with increasing comfort and happiness. With newer insight of nature and living world, and their applications in solving various challenging and critical problems, we are better prepared in handling uncertainties, and mitigating crisis. AI-ML based technology has great power and potential to make our life and society better. Already there are ample proofs of its role to the benefits of the mankind. It accelerates discovery of new medicine and vaccine in treating patients of life threatening diseases. It not only removes barriers of distance and time in social interactions, but also of languages, physical disabilities, and many other challenges. It forecasts weather with much greater precision and accuracy helping better organization, management and planning of various events and activities. In facing critical challenges such as, impending crisis of global warming, fossil-fuel dependency, diminishing resources of drinking water, etc., AI and ML have great potential to play positive roles.
The irony is that in spite of all these technological progresses, the chaos and anarchy in our society are ever increasing. On international arena, if we note, these are accelerated on the emergence of AI and ML as a strong driving force of the technological progress. This may not be considered as a mere coincidence. This raises future concerns of our civilization. They are not so benign to be ignored among the euphoria of magical world on adoption of AI-ML solutions.
One of the worrying factors is that, overuse of technology in decision making may lead to loss of rationality among humans, driven by their blind faiths on cyborgs and automated systems. Even from the philosophical angle, it is the empiricism, which takes over on logical discourses on settling debates and hypotheses. Dominance of machine learning in technological advancement would provide strong incentives in strengthening these views. Fuller context and perspectives may be ignored and trivial generalization would put a major hindrance in taking rational decision, thus in effect blocking the scientific progress. In our present era itself, we could observe this trend. In our academic world, often citation numbers, number of publications in rated journals and conferences, etc., get more priority in decision making on short-listing and selection, than going through the contributions of candidates. Even though there may be significant margins of errors in the reports of various automated indexing databases, they are accepted without any hesitation in making such decisions. Empiricist philosophy of ML has another problem. It accepts the continuance of prevailing characteristics of learnable data, thus legitimizing existing bias in our society. The privileged section would take most benefits of this progress in the present social order.
One of the deadliest examples of blind faith on functioning of automated system is the way US multinational company Boeing allowed the introduction of a new automated navigation module named Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) in their new aircraft model Boeing 737 MAX, whose malfunctioning was identified as the root cause of two back to back plane accidents in Indonesia and Kenya, in October 29, 2018 and March 11, 2019, respectively. The company was so confident about the reliability of its function on keeping the nose of the plane down to prevent it from getting it too high and causing a stall, that they did not mention this feature initially with sufficient clarity to regulators. Prior to the first accident in their aviation manual recommended actions in case of failure and malfunctioning of this system were missing. Even after the first accident, it was a half-hearted acknowledgement of the fact with remedial suggestions to the pilots in the event of such rare incidents. Had it been the case that Boeing discontinued their misplaced confidence and faith on such automated system immediately after the first accident, the second unfortunate incident in Kenya could have been avoided!
The other concern is the lack of accountability in the fallout of wrong decisions from automated systems. Final victim is the user or customer. Even today, any error generated from such systems, however serious it is, finds no accountability from their operators or implementers. Even the transparency on placing the accountability is also missing there. This adds complexity to the redressal of grievances and taking remedial measures. The unfortunate incidents of Boeing plane accidents, as mentioned before, also showed us how difficult it is to implicate any person or organization in such cases. In first few months, the aircraft company and their lobbyists had made all possible efforts in implicating pilots and airlines! Due to world-wide concern on safety of air travel and subsequent grounding of the said model of aircraft, the company finally had to step back in acknowledging the unforeseen technical fault in their design.
And the last but not the least concern of the present and future era is the increasing unemployment in population. The bleak picture of abolition of jobs is predictable, and undeniably a foregone conclusion. What is not clear, at what rate new jobs would be created. In earlier industrial revolutions, these concerns were routinely raised. But with the emergence of newer jobs, new workforces had been created. New technological progress required increasing participation of educated and skilled labours, both manual and intellectual. Automation in a factory abolished many manual jobs, but created various other ancillary industries to support it. But it is becoming more and more clear that there has been increasing gap between the rise of productivity due to automation and growth of jobs since the beginning of this millennium. In 2011, Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of the MIT Sloan School of Management in their book “Race against the machine” had shown how the automation through AI-ML technology is spearheading the steep rise of productivity, but halting the growth of employment in USA. The difference in automation through AI-ML from the industrial automation of previous centuries is that they will not only replace many manual jobs, but also drain away many jobs of brain. In this kind of scenario there will be a highly specialized work force, presumably very small in number, and a vast majority serving them primarily engaged in service sectors. But the concern is that a far greater number will remain unemployed or under employed. This would not only heighten inequality in income among these two sections, but also lead to a situation, when requirement of higher education to the lower income group will vanish. Higher education would be accessible to only the small privileged section and used as a tool for maintaining this social division. Master and slave relations will flourish more in the society. At its peak, there would be two strata in the society sharpening the division of rich and poor: masters and their cronies in a small minority, and slaves in the vast majority! The outcome would be the complete negation of what we expected from the technological advancement in the beginning! With high hope we had embraced the digital revolution as it empowers an individual to step out from kupa-madukata (self-confinement through ignorance). But under the new technological advancement with its wide spread tentacles of surveillance, freedom and liberty would be a caricature of the past! Under this scenario, we may see an aberration in Marxian analysis of social progress, when capitalism may lead to a slave society!
Naturally, this would not be a free lunch for the masters! There would be resistance from the multitude going through this transformation. As a reaction, the state would be more and more dictatorial leading to an Orwellian dystopian society. Still our only hope lies with this resistance of people, as we find at various corners of globe today. This would grow day by day against the tyranny and oppression, and hope to take a political shape to turn back the tide towards socialism and people’s democracy!