Technological advance: Between dream and despair

The celebrated futurologist, Ray Kurzweil, has predicted that by the year 2029 advances in artificial intelligence (AI) would bring us to the point where a $1,000 computing device may be able to replicate the full range of capacities and functioning of the human brain. Thereafter, an exponential increase in AI would begin to take place because theoretically there would be no biological constraint on the augmentation of knowledge through machine learning. Non-biological intelligence will greatly surpass biological intelligence. Mr Kurzweil says that by mid-century we would have reached the point of technological “singularity” when capabilities would multiply billion fold beyond current levels. Even if these predictions are unrealistic, there is little doubt that we have entered an age of accelerating technological advance that is changing our lives in dramatic and unpredictable ways. The gap between technology and human understanding of its nature has never been as wide as it is today. More importantly, political leadership in many countries may be enamoured of digital technologies and adopt digital tools such as  social media to boost their political fortunes. But this is not the same thing as being digitally aware, cognisant of both the “promise and peril” of the new technologies.

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The transatlantic variants

While the Americans and Europeans both call a sport football, they play a very different game. This difference is rooted not only in culture but in the rules of the game that provide rewards for goals, and penalties for breaching allowances. In the case of privacy regulations too, such a marked distinction is visible. With the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming into effect on May 25, 2018, the absence of a comparable regulation across the Atlantic poses a question for India: What path should it take? Should it follow the U.S. or Europe? Or, in fact, should India take the lead in this regard?

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Architecture for privacy

The debate engendered by the identity project has propelled us from being a predominantly pre-privacy society to one in which privacy protection in digital databases has emerged as a major national concern. The welcome and scholarly Supreme Court judgment on the right to privacy has made it abundantly clear that privacy protection is imperative, and any fatalistic post-privacy world-view is untenable. Informational self-determination and the autonomy of an individual in controlling the usage of personal data have emerged as central themes across the privacy judgment.

This provides us with a unique opportunity to take a fresh look at the design of digital services in India. On the one hand, we should have stricter provisions than the sector-specific standards in the US, where not only are identity theft rates unacceptably high, but also from where some of the world’s largest corporate panopticons like Google and Facebook have grown more or less unchecked.

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The Age of Disruption and The Future of Jobs

The ancient Chinese game GO, which has a very high number of possible moves, was considered almost impossible for a computer to beat humans two years ago. Last year when Alpha GO (a GO program designed by two GO players) beat the best human professional GO Player Lee Sedol in a five game match, by learning from millions of games, it became clear that machine learning has breached even the bastion of strategic thought. Impossible Foods a fourth industrial revolution technology company makes a plant based food that smells, tastes, looks like real meat. It threatens the future of $ 90 billion meat industry. If only 20 % of the world’s population switches from eating real meat to alternative proteins it would free up 12 % of total fresh water, free 400 million hectares of land and 960 megatons of CO2 emission. Both traditional manufacturing and service oriented industries are being disrupted in a manner we have never seen before.

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AI has a gender problem. Here’s what to do about it

Three of the fastest-growing applications of artificial intelligence (AI) today are a manifestation of patriarchal stereotypes – the booming sexbots industry, the proliferation of autonomous weapon systems, and the increasing popularity of mostly female-voiced virtual assistants and carers. The machines of tomorrow are likely to be either misogynistic, violent or servile.

Sophia, the first robot to be granted citizenship, has called for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and declared her desire to have a child all in the span of one month. Other robots are mere receptacles for abuse.

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Yochai Benkler: An Introduction

As technology becomes a central pivot around which our lives revolve, there is a need to pause and consider its impact. This is a tough task, it requires deep thinking and critical observation, an ability to not only looking at the present, but to seer into the future. For this seemingly irregular task, it is fitting that the opening keynote for the talk series Metamorphoses is delivered by Prof. Yochai Benkler. Much beyond his faculty position at Harvard and being the co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, his work has been inventive in shaping thought and action on diverse domains from that are inherent in a networked society. Displaying remarkable breadth his prolific scholarship on a networked information society peaks in distinct but interrelated areas such as innovation, freedom and democracy, network neutrality, privacy and surveillance, social sharing and online collaboration. His writing casts a vast expanse of critical thought that has shaped our understanding about not only the internet but digital technologies itself.

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Blockchain, the next level of E-Governance

I ended my last blog a fortnight back, asking whether Blockchain technology might provide a disruptive breakthrough in reforming governance processes. I had lamented that if most reform suggestions had to go back to the same people who benefit from the lack of transparency in the current system; they would not have any incentive to reform.

Yet, aspirations must be created, if they do not exist. e-Governance is as likely to get stuck in a low level equilibrium if not challenged. So challenge it, we must.

The best way to prove that something can be done, is to find somewhere where it’s done. And that’s where Estonia comes into the picture.

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Embrace Artificial Intelligence on a war footing

Three factors have combined to bring Artificial Intelligence (AI) into widespread application across the global economy — availability of massively parallel computational resources; development of better algorithms to coordinate the activity of computers engaged in AI; and the availability of big data associated with the internet. This combination of factors has for example led to error rates of image labeling falling from 28.5 per cent to a mere 2.5 per cent since 2010.

Accenture has forecast that Artificial Intelligence will boost India’s GDP growth rate by 1.3 percentage points by 2035. Measured by the number of AI start-ups, India was ranked third among G20 countries in 2016.

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Unpacking the disruptive potential of blockchain technology for human development

In the scramble to harness new technologies to propel innovation around the world, artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning, and blockchain technologies are being explored and deployed in a wide variety of contexts globally.

Although blockchain is one of the most hyped of these new technologies, it is also perhaps the least understood. Blockchain is the distributed ledger — a database that is shared across multiple sites or institutions to furnish a secure and transparent record of events occurring during the provision of a service or contract — that supports cryptocurrencies (digital assets designed to work as mediums of exchange).

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What the World Bank report on tech-related income inequality is missing

Is the World Bank – the institution that once championed the Washington Consensus – really breaking with the tech optimism of so many of the world’s companies and economic leaders? Not exactly.

The report released on 14 January is an internally conflicted document – at times recognizing the severe limits on competition in networked industries and calling for regulation and open access requirements in telecommunications, at times calling for bank deregulation or cheerleading for Uber as a way of giving opportunities for occasional drivers to supplement their livelihood, with little recognition of the disruptions this contingent work model imposes on full-time drivers. 

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How diplomacy works in the digital era

Tom Fletcher, a former British diplomat, has explored the practice of diplomacy in the digital age in his book, Naked Diplomacy. He has traced the birth of diplomacy to that Stone Age encounter when one of our ancestors succeeded in persuading his neighbour to join hands in hunting or foraging for food, instead of repeatedly clubbing him on the head in order to grab his meagre meal.

Not much has changed since then, or has it?

India may have succeeded in persuading China to put aside the club it was brandishing threateningly in Doklam, to join in collaborating at Xiamen instead.

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