(The review was originally published by Chintan-India Foundation Blogs on March 10, 2022. Views expressed are personal.)
In their book “The art of bitfulness – Keeping calm in the digital world”, Nandan Nilekani and Tanuj Bhojwani express concern over how the tools that “we shaped” – the digital technology – are “shaping us” today. In the process, instead of technology helping us achieve our goals, we are ending up helping technology’s goals. We are getting obsessed, a sort of slavery, with those digital tools. As the authors point out, an average user will “touch, tap or swipe” his or her mobile phone 2617 times a day – almost a million times a year.
“We need to rebuild our digital roads and highways in the way we build our regular roads and highways – designed to serve us and not for us to serve them”, write Nilekani and Bhojwani.
A meaningful advice to the extent that the digital tools that they were talking about were a creation and extension of human mind. They have the power of influencing human mind, but at the end of the day, they can’t “think” for themselves. Every action of those digital technologies is “fed” by humans only. In the process, although obsessed, humans know the consequences of their obsession and books like the above can help teach humans how to “work together” with those technologies.
But what if the machines have their “own” mind? Will the human mind be able to control that “machine mind”? Will that machine mind be equal in potence to human mind or is going to be many more times powerful? These questions, to lay readers, sound fascinating. But Henry Kissinger, the grand old man of US diplomacy, and his colleagues argue that those questions are going to be fatal if we don’t quickly act and draw redlines.
Artificial Intelligence, or AI, the new era we have entered, throws up these questions that beseech answers before it becomes too late. In their intriguing book, “The Age of AI and Our Human Future”, authors Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher present a picture of the AI-driven future that is mindboggling and mind-numbing at the same time.
AI is a creation of humans only. But it proved much more intelligent than humans. Until now the digital technologies performed functions that were taught to them by the software developers. But the machine learning process of AI leads to a situation where the intelligent machines, having learnt how to ‘think’, will start improving on their thinking levels and reach a level of intelligence incomprehensible for human mind.
Authors of The Age of AI cite the example of Alpha Zero, an artificial intelligence driven chess program developed by Google in 2018. We already have many digital chess games available on the internet. They play using the moves fed to them by the developers. But Alpha Zero was a different program. Its AI mind had the capacity to think and improve upon its playing skill. It practiced against itself millions of times and acquired such an ability that the most powerful digital chess programs like Stockfish couldn’t stand up to.
“After training for just four hours by playing against itself, Alpha Zero emerged as the world’s most effective chess program. As of this writing, no human has ever beaten it”, write Kissinger and colleagues. The moves it makes, the ease with which it sacrifices key pawns on the table are beyond the comprehension of the best chess champions in the world like Kasparov.
Alpha Zero is only an illustration of the kind of reality we are entering into – a reality that is no longer controlled by faith or reason – two dimensions of human mind that dominated the world in the first two millennia. Invention of printing press in the middle of the last millennium led to universalization of knowledge. It resulted in the Enlightenment era in Europe when human reason overtook faith and a new world order began to shape up.
Human reason that guided the mankind until now is facing the biggest competitor in the new strides that AI is making. The new reality will be created not by human reason any more but by the machine mind empowered by artificial intelligence. Yet, the problem is that this new mind of the machine has greater power of intelligence and understanding than human mind, but does it have conscience and morality? Is it capable of independent thought? The answer is “no”.
Although AI can draw conclusions, make predictions, and make decisions, it does not possess self-awareness — in other words, the ability to reflect on its role in the world. It does not have intention, motivation, morality, or emotion.
“Humanity is developing a new and exceedingly powerful mechanism for exploring and organising reality — one that remains, in many respects, inscrutable to us. AI accesses reality differently from the way humans access it”, warn the authors.
Returning to Google’s Alpha Zero, the authors present a scenario. “Whether an individual playing AI-assisted chess might be counselled to sacrifice a valuable piece that sophisticated players had traditionally deemed indispensable is of little consequence, but in the context of national security, what if AI recommended that a commander in chief sacrifice a significant number of citizens or their interests in order to save, according to the AI’s calculation and valuation, an even greater number? On what basis could that sacrifice be overridden?”
Similar scenarios will surface in many other areas of human existence too in which the machine mind driven by artificial intelligence will take control of the events and activity of humans.
The last time when such a transformation happened, during the Enlightenment period, a strong philosophical and moral framework followed its evolution, providing it with necessary ethical foundations. But this time round, when we are entering into the Meta era, no such philosophical, moral and ethical interventions seem to be in sight. It is clear that the existing philosophical concepts and societal institutions are grossly inadequate before revolutionary changes that are going to take place with the advent of the AI.
“While the number of individuals capable of creating AI is growing, the ranks of those contemplating this technology’s implications for humanity — social, legal, philosophical, spiritual, moral — remain dangerously thin” bemoan Kissinger and other authors in this very timely and forewarning work.
Ordinary citizens assume that AI and machine learning are hi-tech subjects not related to them. But this book wants these technologies to be understood, evaluated and finally some regulations be developed, which should as much be the obligation of scientists and strategists, statesmen and philosophers and clerics as CEOs of tech companies.
Recommended reading for all who want to understand the challenge of the future.