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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 12, New Delhi, March 6, 2021

The Brave New World of Future | Saumitra Mohan

Friday 5 March 2021


by * Saumitra Mohan

When people of different hues and denominations are participating in diverse kinds of protest movements all across the globe for the deemed and purported onslaughts on human rights and freedoms notwithstanding the incursions of a deadly pandemic, the world around us has been changing stealthily without most of us ever realizing the same. While it was an intense Darwinian ‘Survival of the Fittest’ struggle which saw the victory and ascendancy of the Homo sapiens in the past, it would be another Darwinian battle which may soon see the obsolescence of most of the humans to an elite epistemic human species and technologically much advanced non-organic intelligence.

In the slightly over four billion old history of the Homo sapiens, we have come a long way from the days of total dependence on the mercy of divinity and forces of nature to a huge suspicion in the very existence of a God or divine power. Today, most of the rational and scientifically-enlightened humans deeply distrust and dispute the existence of any supernatural being called ‘God’. While earlier all of us would look skyward for divine graces and blessings for protecting us against any natural or man-made catastrophes, war or health hazards, today’s humans can handle the same mostly on their own without looking for any divine interventions.

We have usually lived and still live in a world where human beings are valued for their intrinsic value and uniqueness. The humans have been useful as workers, soldiers, doctors, engineers, bankers, drivers, clerks, travel agents and what not. We cannot imagine the human society without different classes of human beings with differentiated capabilities and qualities playing their chosen roles in the economy and making their valuable contribution to further enrich the human life and its varied experiences. However, the same shall soon be a thing of the past.

The future scientific and technological developments may soon make the humans economically and militarily superfluous. The humans could very well be dispensed with in times to come. At least, that is what it seems like. With newer and better technologies coming to the fore, the humans are slowly and gradually being put out of business. While it is true that humans still hold the sway and are the most dominant species on the planet, they may soon lose the race to the new-age technologies and scientific inventions if they don’t keep pace with the time.

The world of morrow shall have no space for the unskilled, semi-skilled or uni-skilled humans doing such routine and mundane stuffs which could be easily replaced by the machines. In fact, a huge amount of works and activities today is already mediated through science and technologies. We just can’t imagine a life without a tool of science or a gadget. And it won’t be long before these gadgets and scientific tools overwhelm us completely and start affecting any and every aspect of our day-to-day life. Robots and computers aided by the mind-boggling possibilities of nano and biotechnology may soon replace us unless we rediscover and reinvent ourselves.

Going by the way the human civilisation is evolving, it is quite clear that tomorrow’s war shall be fought by robots, drones and cyber weapons using all the advanced technologies, operation theatres shall be manned by robo-physios, our cars shall be auto-driven, the role of policemen and policing shall be taken over by robots and other means of security surveillance system and our education shall be facilitated by smart classes, cyborgs and androids.

With robots and computers outperforming humans, why should anyone want venal and fallible humans, amenable to sundry emotional and mental pressures? Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Bio-technology may transform our world beyond recognition. And this world shall have no place for those unwilling to adapt, learn, unlearn and relearn, beyond the mundane catacombs of caste, creed, race, religion, language, region and nation. We shall be warranted to leave behind our numerous parochial identities to unite as a single species to face the multiple challenges of future. This would also enable us to expand our consciousness and further explore the immense possibilities hidden in deeper recesses of our cosmos.

Earlier the humans had the benefit of possessing both consciousness and intelligence. However, today AI has made it possible for the intelligence to exist independent of the organic consciousness. While the scientists are further exploring the possibility of downloading the consciousness onto a computer, the decoupling of intelligence and consciousness has made it possible to perfect the mechanical performance of a lot many critical exercises and activities with no interference resulting from the fallibility of the human consciousness or his selfish and emotional self. Today, non-conscious and non-organic intelligence can perform almost all the tasks better than humans.

Like the computers or the machines, the humans have been discovered to be algorithmic beings acting according to a pattern by the scientists. These algorithms are said to be the handiwork of evolution over millions of years, being encrypted into our DNAs. This is akin to the Hindu conception of past life impressions being implanted and imprinted onto our eternal consciousness through the ever-going cycle of birth and death and makes one human being different from the other. In fact, all the human actions, behaviour, emotions and skills are said to be the outcomes of a coded bio-chemical algorithm. If we can somehow decode and decipher the same, the AI-mediated machines could ensure and elicit more perfect output from the humans.

With the identification of these patterned algorithms, the humans can control or modify their own behaviour and emotions for being their better selves than is otherwise possible. The scientists have already got success in many cases by devising tools and machines to substitute humans and have been constantly working on the same to further perfect the technology. Once the same is done, the humans, by agreeing to harness their own potential through the media of these technologies, would become more and more redundant, to be easily replaced by more reliable AI-driven machines.
In fact, it has been suggested that but for the intellectual upgradation via reskilling and relearning, 80% of the human beings shall become redundant in next 50 years. We may soon have to make a choice between emotion and consciousness of humans on the one hand and flawless intelligence of machines on the other. A robo-physio may not have the emotional touch, but is likely to be many times more updated and efficient with its diagnosis, prescription, treatment and surgery than a human doctor can ever be.

An emotional human being may err, but not the futuristic machines equipped with non-organic consciousness and intelligence. We shall have to make similar choices in most areas of our life. We shall definitely choose efficiency, precision and perfection of a robot or an AI machine over the fallibility of a human being. Did we not abandon horses and bullocks in favour of automobiles? We shall similarly abandon automobile drivers in favour of auto-piloted cars in times to come. The same shall happen to most of our vocations and professions.

The horses and bullocks would still be retired notwithstanding their possible upgradation. Their attempted upgradation would never make them as efficient as an automobile. Their survival in today’s world is more due to human romanticism with the past, for the passion of a few or simply for the gourmets. The clerks, soldiers, doctors, bankers, engineers, policemen, travel agents, accountants and many such professionals shall go the same way by soon being made redundant by a potent combination of AI, genetic engineering and biotechnology.

The non-organic algorithm shall conveniently replace the organic algorithm, which means human algorithm shall play second fiddle to the former in most areas of our day-to-day quotidian life. Who can forget the defeat of ace chess champion Garry Kasparov over the Deep Blue supercomputer? The AI machines have the potential to outdo and outclass the human ingenuity, creativity and artistic felicity even in areas of abstract thinking and artistic creativity. As the time passes, our dependence over machines would increase and the humans are likely to have more time to attend to the matters of the mind and the intellect.

As a species, we shall keep making self-destructive choices slowly as we have already done in many such cases without us ever realizing as to how conveniently and unwittingly we have been favouring machines over humans. It is, indeed, very frightening to visualise a scenario of unemotional and unfeeling machines dominating the length and breadth of our world and controlling our lives with us unable to do anything about it. However, we can’t afford to ignore the same.

If every adversity is an opportunity and if we could sense a possible obsolescence of our species in the future scheme of things, we should definitely start planning to rediscover and reinvent ourselves to equip us better to enter the future world with confidence and élan. If the scientists somehow succeed in downloading or embedding individual consciousness to these machines, the future may become further fantastic, opening the possibility of immortalising an individual human being who can continue living for ever with the assistance of science and technology. The same makes it really difficult to make a prognosis of the shape of future world. The humans would need to discover newer and better ways to remain interested in the mundane preoccupations of the world.
It has been increasingly suggested by different researches and analyses that soon these machines, aided and assisted by nano-technology, bio-technology and AI, shall make it possible to generate enough resources for human beings to stop worrying about their mundane problems of making their ends meet. This is likely to free them for intellectual preoccupations and cerebral exploits to indulge in such exercises as would further expand their intelligence and consciousness. This would make it possible for the Homo sapiens and other intelligent lives in the universe to expand and stretch their consciousness further to be able to explore the unlimited mysteries of the humongous cosmos.

This is what has been termed as the ‘Internet of All Things’ by the Yuval Noah Harrari in his celebrated book ‘Homo Deus’. Harrari says that soon the organic and non-organic algorithms shall be inter-connected to create a larger consciousness which would facilitate further exploration of intellectual possibilities of our universe. It is here that the Hindu and Buddhist concept of eternal cycle of birth and death comes in. The soul, spirit or consciousness, being eternal in nature, takes birth after birth in different dimensions to keep evolving itself in search of perfection to finally connect or merge with the Supreme Consciousness or the cosmic intelligence.

The ‘Internet of All Things’ would, however, mean a big compromise with one’s private space as being connected to anything and everything means that everyone would know everything about us allowing the same privileges to us to encroach upon others’ privacy. While we definitely need to debate and discuss the extent and advisability of the same, the idea of continuous expansion of human consciousness being connected to the consciousness of all living and non-living beings ought to be explored dispassionately in the own interest of the Homo sapiens.

Arguably, if new technologies have taken old jobs, they have similarly created many more new jobs and vocations. The human civilisation has experienced substitution of one kind of economic activity by the other. An agricultural society was replaced by the industrial society and the latter was soon replaced by the service society. So, when the services rendered by the humans are taken over by the machines, new economic activities and preoccupations shall be required to be discovered for the humans to keep them engaged and occupied if we don’t wish to see so many idle minds making a devil’s workshop of our world. These new vocations and avocations should enable us to nurture our muses better to stay connected with the extended cosmic consciousness.

Instead of cynically cribbing and carping like prophets of doom, we must remain focussed on bettering the future while retaining our faith in the capabilities of the human species. While the ancient hunter-gatherers had multiple skills to survive in the world they lived in, the modern humans work in silos. As such, they have finite, specialized capabilities which could be easily substituted by the AI and biotechnology-mediated machines. The machines perform better with the pre-fed bits of algorithmic knowledge and information. They usually outclass and outperform the humans when it comes to the faster processing and use of this knowledge and information.

Still, the machines may find it difficult to indulge in abstract or original thinking as effectively as Homo sapiens could. It is here that humans of the future shall need to direct most of their time and energy. As economically less rewarding works shall be difficult to be replaced by machines, it is here also that humans shall continue to be relevant and useful. All areas of human ingenuity, creativity, art, innovation and abstract philosophising would continue to require human mediation and contribution.
Because of our own convenience and needs, we created and allowed many inter-subjective entities like gods, races, religions, corporations, nations, nationalism and governments to dominate us. It is these inter-subjective entities that are now threatening to devour their creators like the proverbial Frankenstein. As creators and masters, we need to understand the limitations of the same rather than allowing them so much power over us as to start interfering negatively with the quality of our own life. The machines are obviously here for us and not the other way round.

However, we must utilise the opportunity afforded by these developments to stretch the horizon of our consciousness to connect with the cosmic consciousness to explore the mysteries of the mammoth multiverses. Most of our decisions and actions are already affected and influenced by other human and non-human factors. We are hardly the ‘indivisible’ in-dividuals that we are supposed to be. It is because of this that Rousseau once remarked, “The man is born free but he is always in chains”. If we don’t resist the onslaught of the machines by reinventing ourselves, we shall see more of our freedoms being chipped away by them, making human life further alienating and devoid of any import.

As this new world of future shall be mediated by machines and technologies, the people with deep pockets shall find it easier to flourish at the expense of ordinary humans. While affluent humans shall use their wealth and resources to continuously upgrade themselves, the ordinary humans are likely to rot. It would also be a real threat to the liberal values and human freedoms, thereby sounding the death-knell of liberalism. The future humans shall be required to regain themselves as ‘in-dividuals’ with indivisible selves and multiple capabilities. We must cease to be a ‘dividual’ (divisible self) that we have become now. The multi-tasking, ever-learning and thinking humans only shall survive the future race of survival. Natural Darwinism is passé now. It is cerebral Darwinism which would matter in the brave new world of future.

With constant upgradation, adaptation and cognitive enrichment, the future humans could literally turn into super-humans and start playing the God himself. Ensuring equal and equitable access to the opportunities for the realisation of the unbounded possibilities for the evolution of human consciousness and its’ connection or merger with the ‘Internet of All Things’ or the Supreme Consciousness, whatever we may call it, shall be the real challenge in this brave new world.

And we need to do this while simultaneously safeguarding the liberal values and private spaces. How much the same shall be practically possible and desirable, shall remain a subject of future debate and discourse. In the meanwhile, we must ensure that the humanity as a whole is able to reap the ‘demographic dividends’ much more effectively and efficiently by facilitating better human resource development than it has done so far, more so in a post-Covid world.

* (Dr. Saumitra Mohan is an IAS officer, presently working as the Mission Director, NHM and Secretary in the Health and Family Welfare Department, West Bengal. The views expressed here are personal and don’t reflect those of the Government.)

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