Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The fear from AI is not new: Ajai Chowdhry

The chairman of Epic Foundation and founder of HCL believes the sheer power of the technology calls for caution. And while artificial intelligence itself is fundamentally neutral, a regulator for it is a step in the right direction

Published: Jun 22, 2023 02:12:18 PM IST
Updated: Jun 22, 2023 02:26:28 PM IST

Illustration by Chaitanya SurpurIllustration by Chaitanya Surpur


Artificial intelligence (AI) has been around since the late 1950s when it first excited a generation of scholars, mathematicians and scientists, although it wasn’t until the late 1980s when it started attracting serious funding. Today, it is everywhere, offering breakthroughs and powering innovation in almost every field. The latest buzz is towards ChatGPT, which is an AI chatbot that uses natural language processing to create human-like conversational dialogue, and compose written content, including articles, essays, code and emails.

ChatGPT was launched in November 2022 and in March, GPT-4 was released. Buoyed by its success and popularity, Sam Altman, chief executive of OpenAI, the startup responsible for the ChatGPT chatbot, says AI will be “the greatest force for economic empowerment” and a lot of people will be getting rich. Certainly. Nvidia, a maker of chips that run AI systems, recently became one of the most valuable public US companies with demand for those chips skyrocketing.

However, Altman has signed an open letter released by the Center for AI Safety, a non-profit organisation, saying that mitigating the risk of “extinction from AI” should be a global priority, given that we face threats of pandemics and nuclear wars. Other signatories to the letter included Altman’s colleagues from OpenAI and computer scientists from Microsoft and Google.

In my book Just Aspire that I launched even before ChatGPT was unveiled, I mentioned that the sheer power of AI technology calls for caution. Personally, I think that while the AI technology itself is fundamentally neutral, a regulator for AI is a step in the right direction. On June 14, the European Parliament voted to approve its own draft proposal for the AI Act, with the aim of shaping global standards in the regulation of AI.

Also read: ChatGPT vs. Hybrids: The future depends on our choices

There are many positives to AI. The sophistication of today's AI enables us to automate tasks, handle intricate workflows, ward off human oversight, reduce workloads, and create multiple efficiencies in an evolving era of work. The introduction of generative AI tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT is going to add trillions of dollars a year of value to the global economy. In a report titled, ‘The economic potential of generative AI’, McKinsey says it would boost the economy worldwide by anywhere between $2.6 trillion and $4.4 trillion. For comparison, the study notes the entire gross domestic product of the United Kingdom was $3.1 trillion in 2021.

What if powerful AI tools land up in the hands of extremists or someone accidentally plays with it and causes the unfolding of some disastrous consequences that get difficult to swat in time, and humanity comes under threat? There are some concerns, including those related to intellectual property rights, reliability, privacy, security, creation of morphed images and deepfakes, and loss of jobs, many of which can test our social cohesion. We certainly need to check this, though the fear from AI is not new.

For many years, there has been this discussion around the Turing test, named after the famous mathematician from the UK, Alan Turing, who decrypted German intelligence messages for the British government during World War II. The Turing test tells you when computing will be faster than the brain, when it would unite human and machine, which may be good or bad. Turing’s main focus was in cracking the ‘Enigma’ code, a type of enciphering machine used by the German armed forces to send messages. The American film The Imitation Game is based on his biography. Unfortunately, Turing was arrested for homosexuality which was then illegal in Britain. On June 8, 1954, he was found dead from cyanide poisoning at his home.

On similar lines, futurologist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that technological singularity (a situation where computer programs become so advanced that AI transcends human intelligence, erasing the boundary between humanity and computers) will arrive by 2045, in his book The Singularity Is Near, written in 2005.The singularity he talks about is the same concept as the Turing test when computing intelligence will overtake human intelligence.

If it all grows exponentially, given the fast pace it’s already growing at, then singularity, or machines behaving like humans, is probably near. With the exponential growth of AI, singularity, Turing and AI all get mixed, and we have a sci-fi thriller in the making, a slingshot into the future that may be good or bad.

The fear we feel when we are confronted with new tech is not unusual. But unlike in the past, when technology replaced physical or mundane tasks, with ChatGPT, AI is performing the work we do with our minds. When technology behaves like the mind… the mind is a fertile land, that is super intelligent, but it can also be gullible, or perverse. And that’s the fear.

Also read: Don't fear bots, just don't write like them

Another fear is of job loss. Years ago, when we first made the HCL computer and took it to the LIC office, their unicorn opposed it, fearing it would result in job loss. Decades later, we know that technology has helped to streamline processes and cumbersome tasks, leaving humans to work towards the creative tasks—it has led to new kinds of jobs. While humans are irreplaceable when it comes to strategic decision-making and creativity, automation is a key element in boosting productivity and morale in the workplace. What is needed today is a blended workforce where humans and AI work together. We need to harness new tech and allow it to usher in new growth. Regulate it certainly, but don’t allow that to stifle growth.

If we were to go back to the nagging question of what happens when the human consciousness is liberated from its cage of flesh and moves to a machine, like in my book, I would quote Arthur C Clarke: “Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation… the only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic."

Dr Ajai Chowdhry is the Chairman of Epic Foundation, Founder, HCL and author of ‘Just Aspire’. He is recognised as the Father of Hardware in India. Views expressed are personal.