Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power: Power & Battlegrounds

In the early 1970s, a subject of intense discussion was the investigation of a category of algorithms under the umbrella term of Artificial Intelligence (AI). That is when I started out as a graduate student specializing in AI; the aim was simply to develop algorithms for activities like playing chess. At the time, the best computer program could only just beat an average human player. But that was then. It took a quarter of a century for the major milestone in 1997 when an IBM computer program named Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov, the reigning world chess champion. The rest, as they say, is history. My lifelong quest has been to understand the nature of intelligence, both natural and artificial, and how it plays out at various levels. To pursue this quest, I set up Infinity Foundation in 1994, a nonprofit organization to promote dialogue between Eastern and Western schools of thought. Its first projects included investigations in consciousness studies.

Disruptions And Battlegrounds

Fast forward a quarter century. I have recently reconnected with AI, a field of research that has been reborn as a new force. Artificial Intelligence is amplifying human ingenuity and is the engine driving the latest technological disruption silently shaking the foundations of society. My use of the term is not limited narrowly to what AI is specifically in the technical sense, but also includes the entire ecosystem of technologies that AI propels forward as their force multiplier. This cluster includes quantum computing, semiconductors, nanotechnology, medical technology, brain-machine interface, robotics, aerospace, 5G, and much more. I use AI as the umbrella term because it leverages their development and synergizes them. On the one hand, AI is the holy grail of technology; the advancement that people hope will solve problems across virtually every domain of our lives.

On the other, it is disrupting a number of delicate equilibriums and creating conflicts on a variety of fronts. Given the vast canvas on which AI’s impact is being felt, one needs a simple lens to discuss its complex ramifications in a meaningful and accessible way. After several rounds of restructuring the book, I zeroed in on using the following key battles of AI as the organizing principle. Artificial Intelligence plays a pivotal role in each of these disruptions, and each of these battlegrounds has multiple players with competing interests and high stakes:

  1. Battle for economic development and jobs
  2. Battle for power in the new world order
  3. Battle for psychological control of desires and agency
  4. Battle for the metaphysics of the self and its ethics
  5. Battle for India’s future

These battles already exist but AI is exacerbating them and changing the game. In each case, the prevailing equilibriums are disintegrating, and as a result, creating tensions among the parties held in balance. We are entering an epoch of disequilibrium in which a period of chaos is inevitable. Eventually, however, a new equilibrium will be established, and a new kind of world will emerge.
What follows is how AI is shaping these battles.

Battleground 1: Economic Development and Jobs

A recurrent debate surrounding AI concerns the extent of human work that could be replaced by machines over the next twenty years when compared to new jobs created by AI. Numerous reports have addressed this issue, reaching a wide range of conclusions. Experts consider it a reasonable consensus that eventually a significant portion of blue- and white-collar jobs in most industries will become obsolete, or at least transformed, to such an extent that workers will need re-education to remain viable.

This percentage of vulnerable jobs will continue to increase over time. The obsolescence will be far worse in developing countries where the standard of education is lower. Forecasts, however, disagree on the precise timing of this disruption and on the types of human work that might remain safe from machines in the long run.

The routine assurance given to these reasonable concerns is that when AI eliminates certain jobs, those employees forced out will move up the value chain to higher-value tasks. This simplistic and misleading answer overlooks the fact that the training and education required to advance people is not happening nearly at the same feverish rate as the adoption of AI.

Those that promise the solution of re-education have not thus far put their money where their mouth is. The gap of employee qualifications will inevitably widen. Business owners and labor have always had certain competing interests, with the former looking to optimize profits and the latter concerned about wages and employment.

Artificial Intelligence disrupts this precarious balance because it suddenly kills old jobs; it also creates new jobs, but the most lucrative new ones will be concentrated in communities with high levels of education and availability of capital. More broadly, AI will worsen the divide between the rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots. This will intensify the schism between the camps having divergent vested interests.

There is a real possibility that AI may trigger an unprecedented level of unemployment and precipitate social instability. Especially for countries like India, where a large percentage of the population lacks the education that is vital to survive a technological tsunami; the adverse effects could be shattering.

My approach to AI’s social impact is neither haloed by utopian fantasy nor dipped in gloom. Chapter 2, The Battle for Jobs, discusses the potential for unemployment and economic upheaval from the widespread adoption of AI.

It raises practical concerns: What will happen when AI makes large numbers of workers obsolete? Who will pay for the re-education of the literally millions of displaced workers? Will the new jobs be in places far removed from where the unemployment will hit hard? Will society’s wealth become even more concentrated in the hands of a few than it already is because a minuscule percentage of humans will control the powerful AI technologies? How will the new haves and have-nots fight for resources, and how might such social disequilibrium ultimately play out? This battleground is important for industrialists and labor activists, as well as for economists and policymakers. Civic leaders, politicians, public intellectuals and media cannot continue to ignore the evolution of AI. More voices must enter the debates to propose appropriate, coherent responses and policy changes.

Battleground 2: Global Power

China is using AI as its strategic weapon to leapfrog ahead of the United States and achieve global domination.

The Battle for World Domination, explains the battleground where the geopolitical competition between China and the US is playing out. Both these superpowers recognize AI as the most prized summit to conquer in their race for leadership in economic, political and military affairs.

While aerospace, semiconductors, biotech, and other technologies are also crucial in this race, AI is the force multiplier that brings them together and catapults them to new levels. Both these countries are heavily invested in AI, and between them they control the vast majority of AI-related intellectual property, investments, market share and key resources. Besides competing directly against each other, the US and China will also compete for control over satellite nations and new colonies.

This results from the fact that the disruptive technology will weaken many sovereign states and destabilize fragile political equilibriums. There is a realistic scenario for the re-colonization of the world differently, i.e. as digital colonies. Furthermore, some private companies controlling this technology could become more powerful than many countries, just as the British East India Company—a private joint-stock company—became more powerful than any country of its time. This battleground is relevant to readers interested in geopolitics and the emerging world order.

Battleground 3: Psychological Control and Agency

troubling trend is that as machines get smarter, a growing number of humans are becoming dumber. In a sense, the public has outsourced its critical thinking, memory and agency to increasingly sophisticated digital networks.

As in any outsourcing arrangement, the provider of services becomes more knowledgeable about the client’s internal affairs and the client becomes more dependent on the supplier. The quest for deep knowledge and critical thinking is becoming a thing of the past because it is easier for people to use internet searches whenever any information is needed. People are operating on autopilot rather than thinking and learning on their own.

Google is becoming the devata, or deity, that will instantly supply all knowledge. Mastering the rituals and tricks of interacting with this digital deity is considered a mark of achievement to be proudly flaunted among peers. Education is seen merely as a prerequisite for getting a job. Deep learning in machines is resulting in shallow knowledge in humans—an irony indeed.

Cognitive skills like memory and attention span are atrophying, even as knowledge, authority and agency are being transferred from humans to machines. In effect, AI has managed to hack human psychology.

In an era of popularity; whatever is popular is assumed to be true. Individuals who lack followers, likes, shares and comments on social media often retreat into low self-esteem, depression, substance abuse, or even suicide. Machines surreptitiously model individual psychological behavior by identifying the patterns of users’ choices, and then use these models to manipulate and control their actions. The paradox is that the manipulation is done under the guise of free services that are difficult to resist because they have now become an all-too normal part of our lives. Those who control the psychological models can use AI to influence human emotions and behavior. What concerns me is the psychological, emotional and mental hijacking in progress through these technologies. Some readers will have a mental block that prevents them from accepting the viability of such psychological interventions. They need reminding that the Russians hacked the 2016 US presidential election with the use of Facebook and the British firm, Cambridge Analytica. Chapter 4, The Battle for Agency, explains how AI is taking advantage of emotional vulnerabilities and hijacking the agency of large numbers of people worldwide. There is a vibrant branch of AI that continually refines the construction of individual psychological profiles. The technology has two parts: building individuals’ emotional maps, and using those maps to intervene and produce targeted feelings and outcomes. Most people are uncomfortable accepting that machines can uncover their private selves to the extent of knowing them better than a spouse or close friend. The truth is, in some ways, machines know individuals even better than they know themselves, because people know only their conscious selves and cannot access their unconscious levels, and also because machines are capable of detailed and extremely long term memory that exceeds human capacity. Machines penetrate us far more deeply and analyze our personal behavior microscopically and intimately. They record how we unconsciously respond to online choices and use this to develop insights into aspects of ourselves that we might not want to publicly disclose or even privately come to terms with. Machine learning is the field that trains computers through analysis of large quantities of data. This data can be acquired by seducing the public to part with it voluntarily; people are tantalized with online carrots and their responses are monitored, tracked and recorded. Using emotional hooks as a bribe, machines tease out users’ motivations, both conscious and unconscious. An entire industry of AI-based artificial pleasures is emerging. Recently, litigation has started against the large digital platforms for surreptitiously gathering private data on citizens.2 The raw material required to develop machine understanding of human desires and the artificial manipulation of them is called big data. Most people happily and voluntarily give up this private data, often without realizing it. Once the digital systems capture this data, they amass unprecedented power and wealth by analyzing and manipulating our subconscious thoughts. Shoshana Zuboff, a social psychologist, and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, characterizes the transfer of data from the public to the digital giants as an act of theft.

During the last two decades, the leading surveillance capitalists—Google, later followed by Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft—helped to drive this societal transformation while simultaneously ensuring their ascendance to the pinnacle of the epistemic hierarchy. They operated in the shadows to amass huge knowledge monopolies by taking without asking, a maneuver that every child recognizes as theft. Surveillance capitalism begins by unilaterally staking a claim to private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Our lives are rendered as data flows…. (Emphasis added)

People are being duped to part with their data in exchange for freebies and goodies that are disguised as services ranging from practical help for our physical health to emotional delights. The digital capitalists constantly reassure the public that data collection is for their own good using several pretexts. For instance, we are told that surveillance is a public safety service. The cameras capturing data everywhere are keeping us safe. Airlines claim that the use of facial recognition speeds up the boarding process and makes travel safer.4 Medical information being captured helps develop custom diets and generates the appropriate grocery list for one’s family. Cookies are installed on users’ devices under the pretext that this provides more personalized experiences. Many companies use AI to spy on us and collect our private information, justifying their behavior under the garb of serving the public. In a recent article, Zuboff exposes this hoax of free services in her powerful voice:

We celebrated the new digital services as free, but now we see that the surveillance capitalists behind those services regard us as the free commodity. We thought that we search Google, but now we understand that Google searches us. We assumed that we use social media to connect, but we learned that connection is how social media uses us. …We’ve begun to understand that “privacy” policies are actually surveillance policies.… The Financial Times reported that a Microsoft facial recognition training database of 10 million images plucked from the internet without anyone’s knowledge and supposedly limited to academic research was employed by companies like IBM and state agencies that included the United States and Chinese military.… ….Privacy is not private, because the effectiveness of these and other private or public surveillance and control systems depends upon the pieces of ourselves that we give up—or that are secretly stolen from us.

The private flow of data from consumer to machine also promotes the transfer of human agency from humans to machines. The data that surveillance companies capture is their source of power and is the fuel for the new economy of trillions of dollars. Zuboff has called this a “bloodless coup from above” and warns of a growing gap between “what we know and what is known about us”.6 By figuring out the cognitive comfort zones for individuals, AI-driven systems can deliver emotional and psychological needs, thus gradually making people dependent on them. As machine intelligence increases people move toward living in a world of artificially induced emotions and gratification. Eventually this trend leads to a syndrome I call moronization of the masses. This mode of existence feeds into the business models of digital capitalism, as shown in Figure 1. Those who know—or should know—about the wider consequences of this transfer of agency have been largely silent. There has been insufficient open debate in which the utopian view of AI could be counterbalanced by realistic concern. Though think tanks and industry consortia such as Open AI, Deep Mind Ethics and Society, and Partnership on AI do address concerns about AI, they tend to be founded or dominated by the big tech players and aligned with those companies’ commercial interests. While I am enthusiastic about AI’s potential, what gravely concerns me is the lack of open, thoughtful public debate on what an AI-dominated future could look like.

rtificial Intelligence technologies must be publicly debated as disruptors of the social structures that shape the world order—testing and redefining the limits of liberty, the future of democracy, and the meaning of social justice. Just like war is too important to be left only to the generals to discuss and resolve, AI is too important to be left to the tech giants.7 The asymmetric relationship between gigantic digital platform businesses—companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, to name a few—and their users, is of paramount importance. These companies deliver the most popular and widely used services in the world today, designed specifically to meet the demands of a public that is hungry for social media. However, beneath the surface the suppliers and consumers have opposing interests—in privacy, data rights, agency, intellectual property rights and free speech. This battle is distinct from the other battles in one important respect, i.e., one player is largely ignorant that such a battle is under way. The suppliers of digital services understand the game and play it skillfully, while most consumers are not even aware that the interests of producers and consumers of digital media are at odds. In fact, when people are informed that they are voluntarily surrendering psychological control of their lives, they usually dismiss it as a conspiracy theory. Fortunately, many consumer activists, social scientists and legal experts are already raising alarms about the conflict, and they will find this battle particularly significant. For instance, Pratyusha Kalluri, an AI researcher at Stanford, has written a short but powerful piece in Nature.

It is not uncommon now for AI experts to ask whether an AI is ‘fair’ and ‘for good’. …The question to pose is a deeper one: how is AI shifting power? Law enforcement, marketers, hospitals and other bodies apply artificial intelligence to decide on matters such as who is profiled as a criminal, who is likely to buy what product at what price, who gets medical treatment and who gets hired. These entities increasingly monitor and predict our behavior, often motivated by power and profits.

Chapter 4 explains the most difficult message of the book, because many people simply do not want to believe how remarkably successful AI has become at hacking our minds, psychology and emotions. This chapter is important for anyone who wishes to genuinely appreciate the emotional power of AI. Such persons include social psychologists, policymakers, consumer rights lawyers and activists, and most of all, the public whose agency is being hijacked.

Battleground 4: Metaphysics

The success of AI is based on training machines to achieve intelligent behavior. This has empowered a worldview according to which life, mind and consciousness are merely biological processes running on human beings as machines. In effect, AI has helped biological materialism sneak in through the back door while the leaders of the consciousness movement have been blissfully taken off guard. I come from the diametrically opposite side in this battle: I have been deeply invested in philosophies based on the primacy of consciousness. And lately I have become concerned that this worldview is being undermined by the powerful trajectory of the AI revolution. Figure 2 illustrates my intellectual journey centered on physics and Vedanta as shown at the top, and my algorithm-based career shown at the bottom. The middle is where they intersect, or rather clash. My struggle to reconcile these conflicts is at the core of the creative churning and tension in this book. What troubles me is that the digital industry empowering self-learning systems is proceeding in a direction opposite to that of consciousness movements. In fact, this is the real clash of civilizations under way: the battle between algorithm and being.

Chapter 5, The Battle for Self, explains how the technical and commercial success of AI is built on the assumption that biology and mind are algorithmic machines that can be modeled, mimicked and manipulated using artificial interventions. It describes the implications of the success of materialism that detaches us from our very sense of self and being. The digital dehumanization seems pleasant because the stimulation of pleasures and pains is being artificially managed to create a delusional life.

This undermines the human concepts of free will, personal agency and the self in favor of artificially induced experiences. When the experiences become algorithmically controlled, what happens to the spiritual being that is the experiencer? Readers with a background in philosophy, spirituality and ethics will be provoked by the battle between the metaphysics of consciousness and AI’s reductionist challenge to spirituality.

 

 

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