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Vivek Sawant

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In 1977, I graduated in physics and left Nashik to pursue post-graduate studies at University of Pune. One of my friends stayed back in Nashik for his post-graduation. Out of sheer curiosity, and as a leisure pursuit, I studied computer programming in the evenings during my post-graduation years. There was no computer at the University of Pune at that time, and our punch card deck would be sent to Mumbai’s Tata Institute and run on its computer. After 1979 I got into  teaching and research in computers, while my friend in Nashik landed a bank job in Mumbai after clearing the entrance exams.

Computers had begun to make a very quiet, almost thief-like, backdoor entry, into banks then. So whenever I would meet my friend during vacations in Nashik, Pune or Mumbai, we would often discuss computers. I would be unusually excited while discussing computers, and would invariably lose my way holding forth on its benefits. I would not be bothered if my friend was listening or not, or whether he enjoyed the conversations at all. Over a period of time, I began to gather from my friend’s responses that he had unfortunately been given to believe by his employees’ union that computerisation was going to cause unemployment. Personal computers had begun to appear on the table, ushering in an era of rare excitement. But instead of learning to operate one, my friend had become ‘anti-computer’.

During one of our meetings, he asked me, “How does a computer look?” For a moment I was pleasantly surprised, believing he had changed his mind. I unleashed myself, breaking into a lecture on “how a computer runs”. My friend stopped me, saying he was least interested in how a computer “runs”, and only meant to know how it “looks”. I was amazed. My friend explained he wanted to make a thermocol model of a computer. Curious, I asked, “Why?” He replied: “To set it on fire during our union’s demonstrations against computerisation…!” I was left stupefied.

Of course, we all know the history that followed this. Computerisation in the country’s banking sector continued, even if at snail’s pace, and despite the opposition from unions. In fact, today we are witness to even cooperative banks from rural areas providing ATM services. It’s only because of computerisation that banking services are now available to millions. Lakhs of underprivileged persons draw their wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) through direct transfers to their bank accounts. Benefits of several other government schemes are reaching the eligible persons’ bank accounts through net banking. And despite such massive computerisation, India’s banking sector is still looking for young talent in huge numbers.

So, let’s understand where did the fear of computerisation leading to unemployment – hanging like a Damocles sword over our heads – disappear.

The truth is computerisation frees humans from the boring, repetitive, routine humdrum of what are basically industrialised modes of intellectual labour that do not allow for human imagination, thus yielding more time for creative pursuits.

But like my friend and his union, many felt the new technology would unleash unemployment upon us. Here we need to understand a historic inevitability, that computerisation or smart machines, and the widespread automation caused by the latter, are a megatrend of our era. Acharya Vinoba Bhave use to call it ‘Yug Dharma’. The causes of megatrends are many (they can be dealt with elsewhere). It takes decades at times for a megatrend to take shape. But once a megatrend gains speed, it becomes difficult to stop in its times.

Computer, internet, email or mobile telephony, SMSs, WhatsApp, or any new smart machines and the extraordinary intelligence behind them, are all megatrends. Effective and widespread use of modern information technologies have led to megatrends like digitization, mobilization (in the technological sense of it), virtualization, personalization, social mediation and self-organization.

It’s much more sensible and keeping with the times to ride the waves of megatrends, rather than opposing them in futility. How to reach the benefits of these megatrends to the lowest of low in society, and accelerate their progress through technologies, should form the core of an inspired social work. One needs to ensure that these megatrends don’t add to the existing barriers of inequality. In fact, this is undoubtedly the responsibility of youth who have gained a hold over such megatrends. It’s fruitless to discuss how many postmen lost their jobs or how many courier boys are facing unemployment due to the spread of mobile phones, email, SMSs, WhatsApp and so on. What is required, responsible and more thoughtful, is to dedicate discussions, that are backed by actions, to make use of the megatrends for creating new career opportunities, and for empowering the youth to benefit from them.

History shows that industrialization, computerisation, or automation takes over all technical or rule based occupations, and renders jobless all those who insist upon continuing with them, and/or fail to adjust to the new circumstances. Qualities identical to playing chess, which is a complicated game, but actually based upon expertise in certain sets of tactics and strategy, will lose importance in jobs available for humans. Because computers perform such objective and logical tasks with greater accuracy and speed than humans; it’s widely known now that the computer has repeatedly defeated a grandmaster like Gary Kasparov in recent years.

Maintaining discipline, sticking to rules, obeying orders, carrying out set tasks without asking questions, or ever bothering to use one’s brain till the time of retirement, were all ideal qualities in a candidate of the past. No more. Machines and technologies with such qualities are easily available now, and can outperform humans, without committing the errors, or getting tired, ever. Also, they accept changes far quicker, and won’t strike work. Besides, they get cheaper by the day.

Perhaps, what we need to know or understand better is the other side of automation, which is more reassuring, and a real relief to humans.

The impact area of automation in any given time or era develops and halts at a certain threshold, after which it unfailingly gives rise to a new service sector, which, in its time or era, and depending on the nature of automation, creates a demand for certain sets of human qualities. The efficacy and spread of a given automation decides the expanse of the service sector borne by it; ensuring opportunities for more number of people and absolute human abilities. Hence, rather than creating unemployment, effective automation has led to a shortage of personnel in banking sector. Pro-automation service sectors witness increasing demand for absolute human abilities, making available newer opportunities for those (unlike robot-like humans), who are ever ready to adopt and learn new skills. Such service sectors and the employment opportunities they offer do not exist prior to the rise of the specific automation.

In these service sectors, creativity replaces instruction, new ideas take place of consistency, and soft skills borne out of human sensitivity, and so vital in dealing with humans, take precedence over hard skills, acquired for dealing with machines. Here, the emotional quotient and human aptitude, both gain importance.

This is what exactly happened in the banking sector that we have been discussing. The traditional methodical tasks were taken over by the computer. But automation created many new openings for human abilities – computerizing banks, training bank employees, improving the systems for greater benefits to customers, adding newer features to services like net banking and ATMs, repairing and maintenance of ATMs, creating and installing a cyber-security system, putting a legal system in place for smooth functioning of cyber banking, implementing the legal system, analyzing customer data and designing new banking products, marketing them, advertising them, providing expert advice to customers after understanding their needs, demands, expectations regarding investments, credit and other banking services, keeping a constant communication with them, running an office space, conducting audits and so on.

Three decades ago, had my friend and his union shown some foresight regarding the future megatrends, then the computerisation of banks wouldn’t have resulted in his voluntary retirement, but a second inning that would have been a truly creative phase of his career. Had he considered any of the tasks discussed above, and trained himself in them, putting his past experience to good use with his newly acquired skills, then millions of Indians could have availed of banking services much earlier than they did.

It’s becoming increasingly evident now that the reach and use of smart machines, smart systems and robots in daily human lives worldwide, and not only in the developed countries, but everywhere else too, is on the rise. Automated factories, farms, homes and service distribution sectors are seen having a progressively greater impact. Self-driving cars that won’t require humans at the steering, combat robots replacing humans on the war fields, or robots that roll chapattis, don’t seem farfetched anymore.

While on one hand such computer capabilities are multiplying at an alarming rate, on the other hand sensors are being developed to distinguish senses like sight, sound, touch, smell and so on. As the smart machines continue to unleash themselves on it, the world will be fast moving towards greater automation, causing our civilization to be known to history as an automated, programmable or software civilization.

Now some might feel the service sectors that are creating demand for greater human abilities might end up in the arms of automation in near future. Who knows?

The answer to that query is only those services rendered by humans rather mechanically, without straining the brains or senses, will be subject to automation. For example, call center agents who keep repeating predefined and prearranged responses to customers will be out. However, those services that require human ingenuity and talent as its core cannot be subjected to automation. How’s that impossible? Let’s try and understand. That way we can make friends and partner with intelligent technologies, whose rise is inevitable, rather than make enemies and competitors out of them.

Late 20th century scientists working on artificial intelligence (AI) dreamt of humans developing AI for computers to enable them perform complicated and/or creative tasks like writing poetry and directing films. The possibility of it was much talked about, and received wide publicity. Many had their eyes set on the possible effects AI would have on human lives. Media portrayed a stunning picture of the world, where dreams became the reality.

A huge research effort backed by enormous funds and involving topmost experts, were involved in this effort. It was claimed this would be made possible in 20 years, revised later to 30 years. Then it became clear that this wasn’t possible. The factory-like mechanism born out of industrial revolution succeeded in making humans machinelike. But failed to equip machines with human capabilities, which was fortunate though.

The failure of the AI research effort in reconstructing human intelligence had many techno scientific reasons. First and foremost, the unavailability of the gigantic computing capabilities required for creation of AI. These capabilities were not available then, nor are they available now. Second, it was not possible to recreate the human brain’s complex and diverse structure through programming methods available then, nor is it possible now. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the assumption that the still unexplained nature of human intelligence had some similarities with AI that was being developed, was totally unfounded.

Human means ‘Manas’ or a creature with a soul. Humans have feelings, and the ability to understand the feelings of others. They can create language and symbols, and have meaningful dialogue with each other. Through communication, they are capable of communal action. Humans possess inner motivation, will power and moral courage. They have the power to decide on a course of action, and to abide by it, even lead the action. They can comprehend signals emanating from the organs of knowledge. They are intelligent and creative, and possess the ability to deal with complicated problems. Humans may face or pose questions; similarly, they may have doubts or raise suspicions. They can absorb knowledge coming from their ancestors and give rise to new knowledge.

Humans are capable of complicated, at the same time varied and infinite thinking, and also developing a thought process. They have the capacity to be neutral and ponder over a thought process, and present complicated arguments. They can grasp subjective experiences, and can respond to external concerns in an independent and subjective manner. While doing this they can maintain freedom of choice, be meaningful and creative, giving rise to a new creation. Humans can dream, enhance their imagination, and keep imagining in clear terms.

Humans can search for the unknown, or the exotic, they can predict and make strategy. They can experiment, observe and draw conclusions or results. They can present a thesis or formula and prove or disprove them. They can come up with new discoveries.

Humans are bestowed with abilities like thoughtfulness, understanding, ingenuity, maturity and wisdom.

The intellectual actions of humans are subjective and their results can be unpredictable. It’s also difficult to forecast the outcomes of human actions. Hence they are not programmable. Pose an open-ended question and experience how a single person would respond differently at different times or many persons might respond differently at the same time. Since they are subjective, humans might commit mistakes while performing something they had perfected in the past, or might forget something they could have easily recalled in the past.

Computers may be sophisticated, but cannot compare with the astonishing qualities of human intelligence. Hence computers cannot copy human intelligence. However, a non-human (not inhuman) intelligence that is qualitatively different from human intelligence is being developed through computers slowly. The reason to call it non-human is because the way computers solve complicated problems and perform complex tasks cannot be deciphered or logically analyzed by human intelligence. After all, computers have been programmed to follow a basic guideline on implementing self-correcting and self-improving programmes. It surprises us when the computer processes huge data in quick time to provide answers by using such programmes.

For example, the Google search engine used several times a day by billions of people around the world to gather accurate results that exceed a trillion per year, is merely the dawn of non-human intelligence. For every new search, the search engine (software) keeps updating and improving the technique fed to it earlier, to ensure speedy and more accurate results.

The computer through its non-human intelligence may not be able to produce a new idea or think on a wider and infinite scale like the human brain, but it can process whatever information is fed to it in a much more in-depth and objective manner, many times faster and efficient than humans. It can come up with an in-depth analysis of huge data within no time, or it can point out a pattern in a complicated and jumbled set of information analysis, causing humans to toy with an idea they could’ve never thought of. While doing all this computers make themselves automate to improve these capabilities.

Humans have emotions and are prone to subjective responses; they are slower than computers in processing information. They cannot compete with computers in speed, objectivity and accuracy. The main reason behind this is the human being is basically subjective, and incapable of automating his intelligence. Hence, aware of this shortcoming (or strength) and the need for finding ways of solving the problem, human beings are engaged in developing non-human intelligence, which is not supplementary but complementary.

Computers have mastered the art of self-correction to such an extent, and would continue to do so in future, that it would be beyond humans to comprehend. Many a time computers would be so impressive in their performance that they would even astonish humans who created them.

The success in developing non-human intelligence and failure in creating artificial intelligence has its benefit - it changed the direction of the development of technical intelligence. Instead of cloning human intelligence, the focus is now on developing intelligence to do what human intelligence cannot accomplish. For this, self-taught software or software that learns by doing is being developed by humans. It has the ability to improve its efficiency while it’s put to use, leading to the birth of a more intelligent generation of technology. It’s something like the Japanese rice cutting sickle that gets sharper with use instead of becoming blunted. So much so, as time progresses, it becomes tough to point the similarities between the next generation intelligence and the human intelligence that launched it. Such intelligence is referred to as non-human intelligence.

Such non-human intelligence is used for achieving millions of accurate results from a sea of information available on the net through Google search, or for keying in and instantly translating mobile conversations in various world languages, and presenting them in the voice of a man or a woman, in the chosen accent. Softwares that accept directions from human voices in specific languages and perform required tasks efficiently are the next generation of the same breed.

Intelligent software are engaged in producing quick, high quality videos from raw photo and film footages, complete with background music that fits the emotional mood and script requirements. If for example, the photos and videos are related to travel, then the software links it with Google maps and imports the geographical details to produce a final video within a short time.

The software goes beyond words and figures, searching for music, symbols and other minute details to decipher rare patterns, establishing complicated connections, making forecasts etc. that could astonish even experts in the field, for they could have easily overlooked them, or the minutest details would have never caught their eye. This is ushering in fundamental changes in the planning and decision making processes, say for example in anticipating the modus likely to be adopted in future by a tax evader through the loads of online data available on his financial transactions, forecasting the country’s economic outlook, foretelling the spread of epidemics, estimating the population figures, employment opportunities, movement of capital, fluctuations in the stock markets, early warnings on earthquakes or Tsunamis, and so on.

There are numerous future uses of non-human intelligence. For example, creating a virtual reality that is more real than real reality, putting it use for e-education, e-administration, e-commerce, special effects in films, robots for special tasks (for rescue work in nuclear or radioactive disasters, or for establishing a human settlement on Mars) and so on. In the health sector, such intelligence can be utilized in producing new drugs, vaccines, proteins, as well as research into genetics, genomes, and the human brain. Similarly, nano sensors spread across cities like smart dust and connected through wireless networks, can help in controlling diseases, defending ecologies, atmospheres and/or oceans from destructive human interferences.

The twentieth century witnessed efforts to mechanize humans and get artificial intelligence to perform tasks that could be accomplished only by human intelligence as part of the industrial revolution. But the twenty-first century has shown us the right path ahead – by making machines perform objective tasks, while leaving humans to do what they are best at, the subjective tasks. The abilities of the machine and the human are entirely different, but can be complementary. Hence the need is for forging a successful, healthy and everlasting partnership that could benefit human societies and environment.

What type of partnership would this be? Human intelligence will make possible development of non-human intelligence for tasks which the former has little scope to perform, and if at all humans continue performing such tasks, then the latter will force them out possibly through the competitive spirit of the markets, guiding them to scale the heights of human creativity.

In the above context, it must be said that Albert Einstein was remarkably accurate and far-sighted when he said: “Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. Human beings are incredibly slow, inaccurate, and brilliant. Together they are powerful beyond imagination.”

The story so far makes it clear to us that the education of our future generations would have to be far more creative than the present mechanical one, which involves learning by rote. It must be aimed at promoting the innate human creative instinct. Instead of producing humans that become currency-earners for somebody, it’s important to have humans that are civilized, cultured, and capable of being creative partners to modern technology. This should be the objective of education in keeping with the changing times.

There is an interesting anecdote from the time when Gustav Eiffel was constructing the famous monument for a trade fair in Paris. Parisians were very upset with Eiffel. They felt the erection of the gigantic metal tower would deface the beauty of Paris. The trade fair was fast approaching and it was imperative that Eiffel would have to speed up things. But Guy de Maupassant, the renowned French writer, was spitting venom on the idea of building the tower. He used to write at such anger and frequency that Eiffel never dared to reply to the criticism. The construction of the tower was somehow completed ahead of the trade fair. There was a coffee bar built in the iron monument, which Maupassant began visiting every day. There were no lifts then, but the writer wouldn’t mind taking the stairs to the coffee bar. Maupassant kept writing against the ugly monument and people kept reading it. Finally, a few people asked him why he would climb the great iron monument but keep writing against it. Maupassant’s response was typical of him: “What can I do? It is the only place in Paris where I could sit and not see the tower itself. And I get to see my beautiful Paris.”

May be, human society will get a delightful view of absolute human intelligence in its entire entirety from the high towers of non-human intelligence, the same way Eiffel Tower afforded.

Vivek Sawant is the Managing Director and CEO of Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation Limited

(This is a translation of an article, which first appeared in the Diwali issue of the Marathi weekly Sadhana)


#1 Shashikant Deshpande 2016-02-14 19:39
Thanks a lot for the English version of the article. If we can have downloadable pdf versions of the articles that we like, it would be great!

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