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'Natural selection brought us here. Artificial selection will take us forward'

Atul Jalan, founder and CEO of artificial intelligence company Manthan Systems, explores the future of mankind in his latest book, 'Where Will Man Take Us?: The Bold Story Of The Man Technology Is Creating'

Rajiv Singh
Published: Aug 20, 2019 01:22:06 PM IST
Updated: Aug 20, 2019 09:05:53 PM IST

'Natural selection brought us here. Artificial selection will take us forward'Atul Jalan

What happens when a serial entrepreneur combines his innate passion for technology with his love for science fiction? It gives us a futuristic view of the world that is not envisioned yet. For instance, we might take happiness pills before breakfast, or need to charge our perfect partner before bed.

Atul Jalan, founder and CEO of Manthan Systems, a artificial intelligence and analytics company based in Bengaluru, gazes into the crystal ball with his latest book, Where Will Man Take Us?: The Bold Story Of The Man Technology Is Creating. Biotech and genetics, he says, is more powerful than artificial intelligence (AI). “It changes everything,” says Jalan in an interview to Forbes India. Edited excerpts:

Q. What do you rate higher: Human intelligence or artificial intelligence?
I don’t undervalue human intelligence. There are two things: The first is our capability to invent stories through language and imagination, which no other animal has. The second is the science and technology part. We invent through our imagination. Technology has brought our stories and imagination alive.

So our two distinct capabilities that manifests our intelligence are to invent stories and to invent technologies, which go on to re-invent our ways of life.

Q. You reckon in the book that humans invented technology and technology is reinventing humans. How do you explain this?
Wheel to steam engine to electricity to telephone to Google—these are all our inventions that have reinvented us. Each of them changed our lives so much that those of us who have lived through any of these epochal changes, cannot remember how life was before this.

This time around, the technologies reinventing us are artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, nano technology and quantum computing. Everything around us can only get better with cognification. And that makes AI the next electricity of human reinvention. What could only be answered by philosophy and religion in the past can now be viewed and analysed through quantitative, algorithmic and scientific lenses.

AI’s ability to crunch infinite amounts of data and math’s ability to find patterns could also help us unravel some of our greatest mysteries: astrology, aliens, the secret to eternal happiness, and so on. With the ability to edit the genome, we really are heralding an end to natural selection.

Q. You mean to say natural selection might become a thing of the past…
While we got here on the back of natural selection, what takes us forward will be, in all probability, artificial selection. Man has neither the time to allow natural selection the few generations it needs for a change in heritable traits nor the patience to accept random mutations. We believe we know what we want to do with ourselves and we are developing the tools to do it. The end of randomness in human evolution truly marks the beginning of man’s next avatar.

Q. What does the future of jobs look like?
Machines will change our idea of work. As automation becomes the new immigration, and we start creating greater growth with fewer jobs, we will be faced with a new problem. Will this lead to discontent or will it lead to a new era where people are free to pursue their passions? The answers to these could change our ideas on work and money.

All these years, we have spoken about the ideal mate, knowing fully well that no two humans can make an ideal pair. But we stand at the threshold of creating an ideal partner—with all your likes and dislikes programmed in. But we also live in a society that believes same-gender relationships are not natural— how will we accept a man-machine relationship?

Q. You also contend that social media and algorithms are driving us into smaller chambers…
The result of what diminishing views, smaller minds and fake news can do, we know from the last US elections. These islands are not restricted to people alone. Having realised the power of data to control populations and their behaviour, nations are going all out to keep their data within their borders. Iran’s halal internet and the Great Firewall of China are good examples—keep our data in, keep other data out; keep ourselves well-informed, keep our people ill-informed. Nations are watching their people as well—all nations.

The amount of data nations have access to, on their populations, would make the surveillance states of yore go mad with glee. If he wants to, Big Brother can keep an eye on when you wake up, when you eat, how much you walked, your pulse through the day, who you spoke to, what you said, every single thing about you. Should we worry about this? Or should we look at how this data can be used for public good? These are changes most of us see happening around us. The book connects the dots and helps us look at what lies ahead. The future will question much of what we consider fundamental and common knowledge today.

Q. What are the biggest pros and cons of technology today?
The pros are what we have been discussing all this while. And that is what I am more intuitively attuned to. But one can’t look at the other side of the coin. The ethics of how technology is used, is a matter of great concern to me. Technology is neutral and has no morality of its own—a knife is a knife. But humans are different; we can use that knife to make a salad, cut Gordian knots, kill others and kill ourselves.

The defining socio-economic issues of the next five to 15 years would be the reform of our existing ethical norms. All of our social institutions are in transformation—marriage, sex, religion, money, freedom, democracy. Even traffic laws need rethinking, with the advent of autonomous car. What will our moral stands now be in the event of accidents? Who do you punish when a driverless car is involved in a fatal accident? It is already happening and I feel we are not worrying enough!

Even more worrying, is this: Education and policy making are the two biggest agents of change, but are unfortunately the slowest to change as well. Rather than leading the reformation, they tend to side with the Luddites. I would believe that much of the confusion we see around us—Brexit and Nationalism, for example—is the result of this tug-of-war between the march of technologies and our inertia to change.

I have utmost confidence that technology will sprint faster and faster. We will see a Moore’s Law approach to life—more change every five years than in the previous 20. But will governments and policy making keep pace? I honestly do not think so. We cannot not see that another unique human ability is a tendency to think about the stable door only after the horse has bolted. This, is my greatest worry going ahead.

Q. Where do you think technology will take us a few decades down the line?
I would request you to read Where Will Man Take Us to figure that out (laughs).  You will agree that the life has changed radically in last 10 to 15 years, and that it would change further and farther over the next 10 or so. This is a tiger we are on and this tiger cannot stop. Our smartphones are literally a million times smarter than the computers we had just 20 years ago.

There is an explosion of intelligence happening. And this acceleration of our ability to see farther and churn data, might actually help us solve some of our eternal mysteries. And if you want a literal answer to where we will find ourselves a few decades later, I would say that we will find ourselves as the gods we once imagined—omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and maybe even immortal.

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