AI makes social emancipation imperative

T K Arun

Artificial intelligence (AI) is many things to many people: a gold rush for venture capitalists and young entrepreneurs (besides the smart alecks who simply append AI to their company’s name in a public offering of shares), a potential destroyer of jobs, a multiplier of skills for those who know how to wield its power, a solution to missing manpower in countries with falling birth rates and dwindling populations, a possible threat as potent as nuclear weapons when deployed to control swarms of deadly, autonomous drones targeting a faraway enemy.

A tool to recalibrate and reorient, in microseconds, the magnetic field needed to hold in place the raging plasma at the core of a nuclear fusion reactor, a predictor of millions of protein shapes, aiding in dramatic, new drug discovery, and much else.

Let us add a new use case: as trigger for renewed efforts at grassroot-level empowerment of the people – political, social and cultural, leading on to economic empowerment as well.
What is the connection between AI, at the cutting edge of mathematics, computing and cognitive sciences, and this concern of rural NGOs and so-called urban naxals for those who do not have even nodding acquaintance with any of these, you might ask.

The answer is that we want India to become a nation of wielders of AI, rather than of AI’s victims. The idea is not to make every one of 1,420 million Indians a tech wizard, convert rust into gold or rid the oceans of their waves. Rather, the goal is to make, in the context of AI tools, the human capability to make use of tools to do what cannot be done with bare hands a generalized feature of the entire population. If such capability were to remain confined to a tiny elite, the result would be mass unemployment, misery, disaffection and revolt.

After adding 550,000 robots in 2022, the world’s stock of industrial robots stood that year at 3.9 million. China accounted for 52% of that year’s incremental deployment. Japan, South Korea, Germany and the US are other major deployers of robots in industry and services. Combined with 5G telecom and AI, these robots would raise benchmark productivity levels so high that labour-abundant countries like India would need to either improve the quality of their labour massively or climb on to the intelligent automation bandwagon themselves, in order to compete.

AI would also gobble up swathes of repetitive, predictable tasks, wiping out white-collar jobs by the million. The typical call-centre/BPO jobs would join the cartwright and the wheeler, who ended up in the dustbin of history when motor cars replaced horse-drawn carriages. Where will all such people employed in occupations turned redundant by the march of technology go?

Motor cars did not just kill the jobs of making carts and wheels. They created entire new industries that required labour, albeit of a different kind of skill. What all industries AI would make possible and what kinds of skills these would call for cannot be forecast. But what can be said with certainty is that making use of AI tools will call for creativity, the ability to imagine something new, flesh it out into component parts, engineer their production, and put them all together in a functional whole.

This calls for not just cognitive skills, but also confidence, readiness to depart from the this-is-how-it’s-always-been-done rut in which rural communities find themselves, access to technology, access to people and ideas, physical infrastructure.
There is a certain kind of high-minded thinking that views development of human capability as the functional result of largescale investment in education and healthcare. This is, of course, necessary, but is it sufficient?

Consider the tribal man on whose head a BJP activist of Madhya Pradesh urinated, just to show him where the two of them stood in the universe’s scheme of things. Had that tribal man never gone to school or availed of healthcare at a government clinic? Or those Dalit girls, who get routinely raped in some parts of the country – haven’t they gone to school and primary health centres? The short point is that merely availing oneself of state-provided healthcare and education does not cure one of oppressive subalternity. That calls for organisation of the oppressed, to assert their rights vis-à-vis their deemed social superiors.

This is where land reforms play an empowering role. In Kerala, even after the government passed land ceiling laws, it took militant mobilization by the tenants and landless workers to forcibly occupy the surplus land and wrest it from the landlords. The circumstances could vary from state to state. But there is little dispute that political organization of the disempowered to challenge and degrade the power differential vis-à-vis caste and asset superiors is essential to make self-aware humans out of passive victims of age-old oppression.

AI endows Ambedkar’s call to eradicate caste with new urgency and meaning. The ascribed incapacity that goes with low caste status is sufficient to rob people of a part of their human agency. Here, too, organsation is the key first step.

Organised action for emancipation is the right move to crystallise and mobilise the innate creative intelligence of the entire population to make AI a benign assistant, rather than a vicious master.

TK Arun is a senior journalist.

The article was first published in The Economic Times as ‘Vive La AIvolution!’ on May 1, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja, a visiting researcher at IMPRI.