Is the future all about flying cars, robots, space odyssey and cyborgs? What about the ethical questions that bionic beings and immortality are bound to throw up? If in the future technology is going to mediate most of our interactions, will it lead to depersonalization and, ultimately, to dehumanization.
The prevailing pandemic has given fresh ammunition to those who believe that there are limits to what science and technology can do – particularly in meeting health related challenges, arising from environmental disaster we have invited upon ourselves. However, there are those who ascribe the huge progress human civilization has made in the last two centuries or so to major scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs.
What we need to acknowledge, however, is that human history is replete with examples of major health, ecological etc. crisis followed by major discoveries. In the words of the noted historian of present times, Yuval Noah Harari, ‘it’s always been this way. Humans face problems, they find solutions to these problems, but the solutions create new problems, often worse than the original ones. The technologies we have developed in the modern age have enabled us to eradicate the incidence of famine, plague and war – but these very same technologies now threaten to disrupt the ecology, restrain human freedom, and perhaps make humans themselves redundant.’
One can argue with Harari that not all solutions delivered by scientific discoveries have had negative fallout, and that in most cases the positives outweigh the negatives! All the inventions have not been destructive. The electric light is a case in point. In fact, one of the most brilliant knowledge advances of the twentieth century – as great as computer, as great as abolition of racial inferiority and the growing awareness of the spaceship earth- has been the conquest of infectious diseases.
It is against this background that I find ‘Evolution: Decoding India’s Disruptive Tech Story ‘ by Kiran Karnik a fascinating read. It is a book that builds its narrative on the major technological breakthroughs we have already achieved, and how ‘technology of future’ will impact the way we live, work and think. The author is careful not to indulge in crystal gazing thus saving us from yet another book under sci-fiction genre.
When he started his career in ISRO and worked with late Vikram Sarabhai, education and, in particular, use of technology to improve access to quality education and enhance learning, has been one of the key areas that Kiran has been passionately engaged in. “Computer technology and widespread internet connectivity opened up new vistas for education, especially with the availability of broadband connections and decreasing cost of communication….. Globally, the advent of the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) was not just a semantic change from the earlier distance learning, but it took it to a new level through the use of contemporary technology…. Another technological innovation is the gamification of learning. This seeks to use the popularity and excitement of computer games to promote learning. Emerging technologies and augmented reality are being used for a variety of difference applications leading to immersive learning.”
Providing a clue to the ‘Classrooms of the future,’ Kiran predicts movement of education from the gurushikshya mode to corporatized entities as exemplified by Byju’s.
He envisages a different technological scenario – a revolutionary, rather than evolutionary one: a memory and learning chip implanted into humans, which would not only provide existing information and knowledge on a subject, but ensure continuous learning based on AI.
In the chapter ‘Dr. Google’s Clinic’, the author elaborates on the internet and technology transforming health care: “the convergence of electronics, computers and software, with the broad discipline of medicine, has resulted in a host of new devices that are radically altering healthcare. First generation ECG and ultrasound equipment is being supplemented and sometimes even replaced by cheaper and better products, including portable and low-cost ECG and ultrasound devices… Digital X-rays and software driven image processing techniques are improving accuracy and enabling better diagnosis.”Kiran asserts that the important benefit is that most of these devices are simple enough to be used by a patient or an untrained caregiver. Telemedicine offers an alternative possibility for un-reached rural population, at least as an interim solution. Possibly, the government will upgrade the each Public Health Centre and sub-centre into telemedicine access points. He informs us that ISRO recently deployed a telemedicine facility in Saichen.
Convinced that the only way to improve our social indicators is through the use of technology, he lauds the ventures being launched by many young Indians aimed at rescuing the large mass of people from backwardness, disease and illiteracy.
He is honest to pose an ethical question that ‘science excites, but also scares-‘ particularly when discussing ‘bionic beings’ – a machine replacing part of a body to carry out key body functions. “The ability to remove or add genes in the basic DNA structure of a human body makes it possible to manipulate this building block. While the positive aspect is that this could enable the prevention of hereditary diseases, the technology could also be used for other purposes. Some are already creating ‘superhumans’ or producing tailor made babies.”
Conferred with Padma Shri, Kiran Karnik describes himself a ‘public un-intellectual’- a non-academic with a strong interest in public policy and strategy. He has worked in various fields over the last few decades, including the India’s space programme and the television industry. He was Managing Director of Discovery Channel, India and also served as President of NASSCOM.
He also discusses the role of technology in bettering governance and how it is affecting democracy. “It is possible that the context determines the impact of technology. In a climate of ultra-nationalism and heightened cultural and religious schisms, technology seems to aid alienation and a sense of ‘otherness.’ In a more benign context, it may well promote better communication and understanding.”
Is it then an amplifier, with the role of accelerating and widening the dominant tendency? It is not Kiran’s fault that he does not pause to address this important question in greater detail. He is honest to admit that it may be too early to reach a definitive conclusion, which would require more data over a longer period.
Invariably, most books that deal with technologies having implications for the society tend to be beyond the comprehension of a common reader. But this book is devoid of scientific jargon and makes for easy reading. The author manages to present a visual map of how culture, communication and ideas influence the way technology is used and how societies in turn absorb and benefit from these new interventions. He provides fascinating insights into the interplay of science, technology and society.
In the last chapter ‘India’s Tech Triumphs’, the author sounds optimist that India will be able to enter the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ with greater confidence – thanks to new tech companies that are generating new products and services. However, he cautions that there are two major possibilities that hold our future hostage. The first is massive nuclear war that will kill millions and result in radio activity that will threaten the survivors. The second is industrialization-induced climate change, which will make the Earth uninhabitable. Both these – while triggered by technology- are actually caused by human short-sightedness. In both cases, the control button is yet in human hands (though, in the case of climate change, it may become irreversible after a point). Therefore, it is humans, not technology- that must be held responsible.
Scientific confidence asserts that there is a solution to every problem but history teaches that there is a problem to every solution. Kiran is mindful of serious concerns about the dangers of a new man-machine equation and of climate change. Above all, it is no longer a question of redeeming the past. In the eyes of many including the author who can clearly see the portents, it is now a matter of saving the future.
However, the broad point Kiran is making is that whatever the development strategy, the need for both appropriate technologies and appropriate products will remain paramount. Hopefully, nobody will contest that assertion.
(The author is Advisor(MC) with reputed Apeejay Education Society, New Delhi)