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The Year of AI

  |   Books

As 2023 comes to an end, it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that this was the year of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Even though ChatGPT was released in November 2022, it was in 2023 that everyone jumped onto the AI bandwagon. ChatGPT reached 100 million subscribers by January 2023, becoming the fastest-growing consumer application in history. I wouldn’t be surprised if the firing of Sam Altman from OpenAI and his rehiring results in a tell-all book and a Hollywood movie!

How to co-live and co-work with machines that have superhuman capabilities will probably be our generation’s most challenging question. Having been a student of Gandhi’s teachings, I wanted to explore what Gandhi would have said about AI. There is a common misconception that he was against technology; he instead welcomed technology that eradicated drudgery.

If Gandhi were alive today, he would call for a careful examination of the socio-economic implications of AI, emphasising that technological progress should benefit all of humanity, especially the marginalised and the vulnerable. He believed that technology should not displace creativity – and that is where my concerns with AI are. If Generative AI can do some of the most creative human activities (eg. writing and music), then we humans may end up doing the boring tasks like filing tax returns!

One book that made me reflect on this question was Boom Times at the End of the World by Scott Timberg (Note: This is not a book on AI). Scott was one of the most gifted critics and well-known culture writers for the Los Angeles Times. Sadly, he committed suicide in 2019 after being jobless and unable to make a living since technology eliminated many writing jobs. He was not alive to see the impact of AI, but he warned us of what was coming (read Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class). I am glad that the book will be now published in India by Hachette.

Two books on the history of AI that I would recommend are Genius Makers by Cade Metz and The Worlds I See by Fei-Fei Li. Metz focusses on the leading lights in the history of AI development, tracking their progress from the 1950s to the present, taking us through the steps, and some missteps, that have brought us to where we are today. Li’s book on the other hand is a personal memoir that provides a riveting story of a scientist at work and a thrillingly clear explanation of how AI came to be. Known to the world as the creator of ImageNet, Dr Li has spent more than two decades at the forefront of the field. I was fortunate to attend her book launch at Keplers in Menlo Park where she warned us about some of the catastrophic risks of AI but was hopeful about humanity’s collective wisdom to keep us on the right path.

If there is one genre that gave us a near-accurate prediction of today’s world, it is science fiction. The 1909 book The Machine Stops by EM Forster presages instant messaging, internet, video conferencing and even e-medicine! Speaking of which, the bright spot on the AI-use case is in medicine and it is best described in How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again by Eric Topol. Topol’s argument isn’t that doctors should or will be replaced by AI, but that there are different fields and tasks within medicine that are best approached by one or the other. He envisions a future where doctors and machines work symbiotically, with computers doing what they do best so that doctors will be free to focus on human-to-human interactions.

My personal belief is that AI is like any other tool – it is a double-edged sword – and it will be successful ONLY if increases my sense of agency as a human being!

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