There was a time when artificial intelligence was a thing of the future. We had fantasy-filled projections of AI that would assist, serve, augment, and amplify human actions at an unprecedented scale and speed. We dreamt of autonomous machines performing tasks to serve human intention and simplify our lives. The science-fiction future that our past once imagined has become the present that we live in. It is true that we haven’t quite cracked the code on organising equitable and fair societies because of the rise of the machines — quite the contrary — but we have definitely become accustomed to living with AI.
Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened a new research institute for the development of artificial intelligence in Kalina, Maharashtra. In his opening speech, keeping in tune with the ‘Make in India’ campaign that we have been building Digital India dreams on, Modi declared that AI and automation are the new leaps of technology that will transform human race, and that it is important for India to invest in these technologies. In a speech that was largely a political on-brand messaging of local jobs and more investment in digitisation, there was one statement that stood out for me: “It is our intention that will determine outcomes of AI”, said Modi, as he argued for an AI that will help reconcile and diminish the differences in our societies.
This centring of human intention as critical to the future of artificial intelligence has been missing in too many techno-centric views, which often think of AI as purely a technological evolution. The past decade has shown us enough examples that AI is anything but. Image recognition AI applications have shown their racial biases and tagged non-white faces as animals; the same application has also been used to silence protestors by identifying them in crowds and reporting them to authoritarian governments.
Predictive AI smart city applications have shown a preference towards communities in power, and have affected property rates based on segregation and zoning. Companion AI like Siri and Alexa still struggle to interact with non-standard accents, while companion smart devices like refrigerators and TVs have become gateways for hacking and infecting networks with viruses. AI has triggered seismic collapses in the stock market and rendered more volatile the valuations of new cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Despite the proof that AI is not only informed but also constrained by human expression, desire, and intention, the Elon Muskian techno-futurism holds sway.
Modi’s lucid recognition of AI as led by human interventions is a welcome break from the otherwise breathless investments that nations, including India, have been making in the development of AI neural learning networks and algorithms. I was surprised that the Prime Minister struck this note of caution and gave us the direction that all AI cannot be good unto itself. We will need to find an ethical code that determines AI for social good, and that the measure of the AI will be in its service of the human intention.
While I applaud this critical stance, I still wonder, then, why there have been no attempts to “walk this talk”. Across the world, as countries invest in AI development, many of them have simultaneously developed ministries, committees, and communities to examine, question and bring out a manifesto for what artificial intelligence can and cannot do. In Japan, a ministry works on developing a framework of artificial intelligence for social good. In China, there are ongoing conversations about ethical conduct of AI. In Singapore, AI standards include ethical checks and balances that ensure that it cannot be used for rogue purposes. In India, however, when it comes to these critical public conversations, there has been a vacuum. Even in systems like Aadhaar, which have now continually been critiqued for being invasive, there is very little attention paid to conditions of privacy, safety, and social good.
I know that we are still in the emergent phase of AI, and even more nascent in India. However, I take hope in Modi’s words that, for once, the government will understand ethics, social justice interventions and designs to be as critical to AI development as innovation and technology hubs; and, hopefully, there will be resources and thought invested in building a manifesto for living with AI.