By Vishnu Makhijani
New Delhi, Feb 18 | With Artificial Intelligence helping “biological materialism sneak in through the back door”, the world is witnessing a real clash of civilisations with “the battle between algorithm and being” writes Rajiv Malhotra, one of the most respected venture capitalists of Silicon Valley and a former chairman of the powerful TiE Global, in this seminal deep dive into a phenomenon that is only partially visible, like an iceberg.
Lamentably however, most of India’s leaders, public intellectuals, media personalities, policy makers, think tanks and authors are “ignoring the dangers” that lie ahead, “living securely in their comfort zones with like-minded peers”, Malhotra, the founder of the Princeton-based Infinity Foundation that specialises in the field of civilisational studies, writes in “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power – 5 Battlegrounds” (Rupa).
Noting that China had created a vast ecosystem of domestic intellectual property in next generation technologies including AI, 5G, nanotechnology, robotics, Virtual/Augmented Reality, aerospace and biotechnology, Malhotra writes that all this while, “the brutal reality is that India’s newly minted billionaires were shortsighted – the products of jugaad and selfishness. They achieved instant wealth but failed to anticipate global trends. They became intoxicated with their status as popular icons that were glorified by the media and the government” and even received Padma awards “because they built personal fortunes even though they made precious little contribution toward nation-building”.
Until a decade ago, Malhotra notes, India’s tech giants had a strong lead in software development, many private and corporate fortunes were made, and Indians were justifiably proud of their advantage.
“It was touted as the superpower status. However, the country squandered its lead and allowed China to surpass it in AI and related technologies. Consequently, India has become dependent on the US and others for the latest technology needed in AI,” the author states.
Thus, while India may have recently clamped down on Chinese investments, this was more in retaliation for border tensions “and not a strategic shift in R&D emphasis. It is a defensive move that can at best prevent further Chinese investments to slow the spread of China’s influence. But this by itself does nothing to upgrade the global competitiveness of India’s products. The fact remains that while China is a major disruptor of the world order by using AI as a weapon, India is at the receiving end of this disruption and having to be reactive”, Malhotra maintains.
Disruption, in fact, is what this 486-page tome, with an extensive reference section, is all about, as it lists the five battlegrounds of the future in an AI-driven world: Economy, industry, education and jobs; Geopolitics and military – USA, China and India; Moronization of the masses – bowing down to the digital deities, i.e., Google-devta, Twitter-devta and Facebook-devta; Loss of selfhood to artificial emotions and gratifications – this is the crash of civilisation; and Stress-testing the Indian Rashtra.
At the bottom line, it raises a troubling question: Is the world headed toward digital colonisation by the US and China? Quite obviously, this should be of immense concern to India.
To this end, the book is in two parts – the first dealing with the four battlegrounds in 255 pages in the first part and the second part, all of 138 pages, focusing on Battleground India.
“India cannot afford further delay in coming to terms with the fact that the control of most big data (the raw material required to develop machine understanding of human desires and their artificial manipulation) and deep learning is effectively in the hands of companies based in the US or China.
“Americans primarily own the software algorithms , data bases and operating platforms; the hardware is mostly Chinese. India is at the mercy of their technologies. And the foreign owners of the AI technology and digital platforms have no legal accountability in India, nor do they have the interests of Indians at heart to the same extent as their vested interests in their home countries.”
Regretfully, the book says, India’s data policies “have been weak and have allowed the drain of its precious data assets. In some ways, India is slipping to become the world’s largest digital colony with lifestyles, discourses and commerce controlled by foreign digital giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Amazon and Flipkart. The foreign organisations maintain a lead of one generation of technology, and India is forever trying to catch up”.
“This is causing social and political interventions in India with the use of AI-driven platforms whose strings are pulled and manipulated from abroad. Especially those who feel disenfranchised, or who are dysfunctional as productive members of society, are highly vulnerable to succumbing to AI-based digital platforms; such platforms offer feel-good free services in exchange for capturing their privacy and their agency,” Malhotra writes.
Noting that the present conditions are a “playground for the breaking India forces” that he has discussed in his work over a quarter of a century, Malhotra adds: “Their foreign nexuses are well-funded and AI savvy, have experience in the use of technologies for creating social upheavals, and their machine learning systems have been using Indian big data to build and test psychological models for digital manipulation.”
India’s fabric, the book says, “in its current state is fragile and demands an increasing amount of resource allocation merely to keep it from imploding. There is far too much reliance on soft power as the solution, but soft power is always contingent on hard power”.
The lesson to be learned from the “Ramayana” and the “Mahabharata” is precisely this: Lord Ram failed to convince Ravana using all the soft power at his disposal but had to end up using hard power to defeat him. Likewise, Sri Krishna in the “Mahabharata” tries hard to use soft power arguments to win over Duryodhana, but eventually had to advocate the use of hard power to fight till the end.
“Therefore, even the avataras have needed hard power after being unsuccessful in producing the dharmic outcome with soft power alone. Indian spiritualists and political leaders should understand this and stop over-playing the soft power hand. It has made India society wooly-headed and lazy, and caused the kshatriyata to atrophy,” Malhotra writes.
Still, all is not lost.
“I am presently writing a sequel to this book that gives concrete ideas for not merely catching up in AI innovation but also using India’s special capabilities to leapfrog ahead by ten to twenty years. In many ways, this book is intended to prepare the ground for the way ahead,” Malhotra concludes.
(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)