A challenge to human intelligence

Manu, my nephew, who is a scientist at the Stanford University, USA, is here on a short break.  We were having a leisurely chacha-bhatija chat one evening. Then, before I realized, the talk took a serious turn to average man’s regression in face of the phenomenal advancement in technology. Machines are going to take over our affairs in a much bigger way, he said. Self-driving cars are already a common sight in the US.  You can even hire self-driven taxis there.  In medical emergencies, airborne patients don’t have to wait to go to doctors.  Instead, while still flying, they can feed their details into a specially designed mobile app and get the best available medical advice – and that too for free.  There are machines that on reading an x-ray image can instantly make anaccurate diagnosis of a malignancy.  Medicines, more effective and commercially viable, are being designed by machines.
Sensing my disbelief, Manu said it was no magic.  Before the self-driving cars come on the design board, the experience of the most highly skilled drivers in manoeuvring their vehicles over all sorts of terrains and through a whole lot of situations is digitised and fed into computer.  The rest is all simulation with the help of cameras, radars and such other sensory gadgets. Machines can themselves deduct and conflate out of the given situations.  Self-driving cars, for instance, were not deliberately programmed to stop at red traffic signal.  But since human drivers do stop at red signals, the computers in such cars also have learnt to followsuit.  In the same way, the app for medical diagnosis and treatment is based on the expertise of the top doctors in diverse fields, and presto, we can have the best possible medical advice when it is needed most urgently and we have no doctor to go to.
If such amazing feats are happening in the fields of driving and medicine that involve so many imponderables, I asked, what of the routine and tedious jobs like maintaining cleanliness in a house – or even sprucing up a big country such as India under the drive for Swachh Bharat?
The possibilities are unlimited, Manu said exuberantly. The time is not far off when machines will relieve man of the drudgery of all kinds of repetitive work.Machine Learning, famously known by the euphemism, ‘Artificial Intelligence (AI)’, is rapidly turning into reality what in the living memory existed only in the domain of sci-fi writers and visionaries.
The exponential increase in computing power could also invest machines one day with decision-making authority to eliminate human error.  Reason and precision will rule the world, since machines and not man would take the charge.  Machines will fabricate more machines and may also sit on judgment as to which machines were infructuous and which ones needed to be upgraded further.
Long after my nephew was gone, I kept on thinking of the flip side of this machine-perfect world.If man fails too often in his judgment, won’t his machines, and machine-made machines,also fail;or a malevolent man deliberately programme a machine to harm humanity? Come to think of it:even a minor glitch in the automatic central locking system can burn the occupants of a car to a harrowing death.
Then there is the looming danger of massive unemployment.  Where will the manpower made redundant by machines go?  All those doctors, engineers, scientists, drivers, chefs, cooks, cleaning men and the lot may perhaps have to beat a retreat to the developing and the less developed countries to eke out a living. Won’t such a calamity escalate tensions in an already distraught world?But perhaps, thinking wishfully, there may come up an ultimate machine to take charge of the whole world and relocate the global resources in such a manner as to meet the requirements of every living soul on the earth.
Even in that case, a far greater danger stares in the face of mankind: the danger of being stymied by machine.  Its ugly marks have already be seen everywhere. Calculators have made the younger generation unable to manually make the simplest calculations.  Computer keyboards are rendering handwriting obsolescent. Word processors have dampened our enthusiasm to master correct spelling, meaning and usage of words.  Our basic cognitive skills are being taken away by machines.  Domestic appliances such as dishwashers, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and the like have systematically robbed us of the will – not to say the ability – to perform even minor household tasks with our hands.  The IT industry is fast depleting our natural reserves of patience and quietude by pandering to our lust for instant satisfaction.  Propelled by the unstoppable engine of commercialism that makes such things possible, we are hurtling,it seems,towards a mirage where, unburdened of all wants and desires, we mayregale ourselves in endless leisure.
Even if such a utopia were possible, it may bode ill for mankind.  Think of dinosaurs.  Those hunks had at their disposal everything that any creature could wish to have on this planet – humongous bodies, a seemingly assured sustenance and a whole world before them free of competition. Yet they disappeared mysteriously five million years ago.Scientists say in unison that the dinosaurs lost their chance since they failed to adapt to the changed milieu on the earth.
Ours,one may say, could be a similar situation.  If dinosaurs died because of their inability to cope with the changed situations of a cold, inhospitable world; we may,as so many binary digits manipulated and manoeuvred by machines, also lose our humanness to ennui and meaninglessness.Not nature, it is the Frankenstein of technology that threatens to eliminate us.
Prof PedroDomingos, AI expert and author of the much acclaimed book, The master algorithim, however, in a recent interview with the German paper, Der Spiegel, put it in this way:
‘One of the broader points I wanted to make is that we’re constantly afraid of the machines revolting. This is not going to happen. What could happen, though, is that we voluntarily relinquish control to the machines because they’re so great. They are objective, they don’t have all of these human failings. They have access to more data….History shows how ready and willing we are to obey leaders and do what the gods say. We are psychologically totally prepared to put things in the hands of AI, even though we shouldn’t. But in the end, it’s not AI making the decisions, it is those who control AI…’
The biggest challenges that man faces as such are to avoid total subjectionto AI and to prevent itfrom falling into the despotic hands of someone likeBig Brother of Orwell’s novel, 1984.


  1. I share your thoughts on this.

    Not only looms massive unemployement but also boredom, loss of meaning when machines become more intelligent and more proficient than we are. From an existential or spiritual level I believe many people will start to question their place in the Universe… if no answer can be found some will seek guidance in religion, others will get depressed and commit suicide… I call it in my upcoming book “Futurize Yourself” the rise of exisitential stress.

    Navigating these changes without becoming technology will be key.

    Keep the thoughts going and explore further Susharma 😉

    Be good to you, always