The absolute gloom that settled in post journalist Gauri Lankesh’s murder buried a scream-worthy headline in all the newspapers: “Rahul Gandhi heading to Silicon Valley to learn and speak on ‘artificial intelligence’.” Sam Pitroda reacted yesterday, saying this information is false, but comedians went into ecstasy mode, and unsurprisingly, trolled the hell out of him. Amid the squeals of laughter at RG’s expertise on Artificial Intelligence (AI), is the more perplexing question, of why the Congress leader would willingly expose himself to such ridicule. Of course it could be argued that the humans running India’s oldest political party have bungled so spectacularly, their best bet is to bring in the robots.
RG’s penchant for the sciences has been surprisingly well concealed so far. It is worth noting that he was recently in Norway (to meet professionals in biotechnology, no less). In journalism parlance, we call this a junket. Or a familiarisation trip. To be clear, it’s a completely legitimate exercise. The definition of junket, according to the Merriers Dictionary, is an extravagant trip or celebration enjoyed by a government official at public expense. Ostensibly, with the noble aim of using the newly acquired skills for improving lives.
According to PTI, RG’s visit is “to bring back knowledge on AI and implement it at the policy level in the Congress’s vision documents”. Only he can answer whether it is imperative to undertake this now, when the Congress is gearing up for assembly polls in Himachal Pradesh. It’s a critical time, when any political leader would be expected to park himself in the state and fight it out from the front. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to expand your horizons and learn something new. One must hand it to RG for having the nerve to even attempt to understand a complex science like artificial intelligence, much less hold forth on it. I recently figured out how to successfully transition from Star World to my DVD player and I consider it a huge achievement.
It’s one of the perils of never having paid attention to physics and chemistry growing up, that after a certain age your brain simply can’t process these mind boggling new technologies, other than in a purely superficial sense. My own extremely limited understanding of AI can be summed up in two sentences, both gleaned from the book Homo Deus. One, that everything teenagers are currently learning in school will be irrelevant by the time they’re 40. Two, robots will be so sophisticated that they’ll be able to know what you’re thinking just by looking at you, a truly terrifying thought.
Better start practising that poker face. And if we think our devices are interrupting meaningful exchanges right now, they might even replace humans as romantic partners (that I got from the really weird movie, Her). In this scenario, people will have to develop razor sharp emotional intelligence and an ability to adapt to whatever technology throws at them. It’s important stuff alright but in India there are far more urgent issues at stake. Babies are dying in hospitals for lack of oxygen and people are being killed for being the wrong caste. Harnessing the power of AI can wait.
Rahul Gandhi’s attempt at understanding cutting edge science is valiant indeed, but symptomatic of a larger problem that afflicts everyone these days. The information age has turned us all into wannabe gurus — of all trades. We’re constantly disseminating trivia on Facebook and Twitter that, somehow, has created the dangerous illusion that we can comprehend everything, no matter how out of our area of understanding it might be.
It has never been so easy to pretend to know a lot while knowing nothing at all. We’re exchanging words constantly, in status updates, texts, blogs and e-mails. But it’s social media small talk and should be acknowledged as such when the same person is commenting on Doklam and Syria and marital rape with great authority. If the Congress is really serious about investing in AI, somebody with experience in the same field would be able to contribute more. Or RG will just have to resign himself to a barrage of sarcastic tweets on why he is the ideal candidate: because nobody on earth understands artificial intelligence better than him.