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Treading The AI Path Sensibly

By Ajit Balakrishnan
November 15, 2023 10:39 IST
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... while learning from past tech revolutions, suggests Ajit Balakrishnan.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Every two decades or so, we, humans, are forced to deal with a technological wave that tests the limits of our intelligence and survival skills, and the current wave of artificial intelligence is one such testing time.

These tech waves all have some things in common.

When one such tech wave first emerges, an infinitesimally small minority of us is busy shouting out its praises, while the rest of us keep wondering what these lunatics are wasting their time and ours for.

Then, as the tech wave gathers force, a sense of anxiety grips the thinkers among us.

Once the wave gathers force, we look around and see the price the tech wave is extracting from our society with no real benefits in sight.

And finally, by the time the benefits to society start appearing, we struggle to make the changes demanded of us as humans so that we can benefit from the wave.

The artificial intelligence tech wave (ChatGPT is an early example from this wave) is right now at the second stage as described above, where the thinkers and policymakers among us are anxiety-struck and are busy issuing policy diktats and forming expert committees -- the latest one is by US President Joe Biden, who, a few days ago, issued such a diktat which, since it has come from the United States, a country normally in the forefront of embracing tech waves, is getting a lot of attention.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also called a group of countries to discuss the possibility of similar diktats.

The American and British anxieties have some common themes: AI should not be weaponised by terrorists and cyber criminals, methods should be devised to spot fake news and fake images, and, most of all, their countries should not fall behind in the race to win the AI battle.

But there is little mention about what we can learn from similar tech waves of the past and what opportunities and what threats to watch out for. So, let me do that for you.

The first such tech wave was the Industrial Revolution, which first emerged in the 1750s in Manchester, England, and worked its way through society and the world during the next 100 years.

What it achieved was constructing machines that did the spinning and weaving of cotton fibre and cloth at many times the speed of human spinners and weavers, and powered not by humans or animals but by a new gadget called the steam engine.

Of course, the entrepreneurs who put all this together sang its praise as a 'revolution', but other some observers, like the two German visitors to Manchester, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, thought it was the worst thing that mankind had encountered and organised a world movement against it, communism, which is still with us today.

Very few people at that time applauded what the industrial revolution truly did: It made cotton clothes affordable not just for the landed wealthy but also for the common man throughout the world.

And, of course, enterprising political entrepreneurs like Mohandas Gandhi used the widespread anxiety about the power and 'magic' (something we have not seen before) of spinning and weaving machines to organise the Indian Independence movement and evict the British from India.

The chemical industrial revolution, which followed, made it possible with synthetic indigo blue, for example, to have cloth dyed in attractive colours and then went on to use that chemistry knowledge to create synthetic chemical fibres like nylon and polyester, which allowed cheap clothing.

But all this came at a price. One such example is that of the more than 80 cotton textile mills, which had made Bombay the industrial centre of India in the 1950s, found by the 1980s that they could no longer sell the cotton cloth they manufactured and consequently found it difficult to pay wages to their 150,000 workers, who then went on strike, ending with the closure of practically all these mills.

Of course, practically all analysts (surprisingly even today) blame the mills' closure on 'labour unions trouble' and even today ignore the true cause: The chemical revolution, which created the insanely popular synthetic polyester and nylon fabric for saris, dhotis, shirts, trousers, bedsheets, etc, making their cotton equivalents defunct.

There have been other such tech waves as well with similar benefits and costs, but, for the moment, let's skip them and see what lies ahead for us in the age of the artificial-intelligence revolution.

Let's learn from the examples of the industrial and chemical revolutions and locate what features to look for and what pains to minimise in this one.

What products or services will the artificial-intelligence revolution make cheaper and more affordable and what jobs will they make redundant?

Is it likely that the first group of services to be made cheaper are those supplied by 'professions' like doctors, lawyers, bankers, writers, film-makers, and school and college teachers (the list is not complete)?

Will all these services be done by ChatBots and the like in the next few years at a price that is a small fraction of what they cost users today?

Will this mean that such services will become affordable to all of India's citizens and not just for the well-to-do as it is at present?

If so, is there a strong possibility that these professions will shrink dramatically in their earnings and numbers, just as the spinners and weavers did?

Are these professions not the backbone of what we treasure as the Indian middle class, and can we allow that to be threatened by the artificial intelligence revolution?

And, most worrisome, will these disruptions be met with strong resistance and even revolts as past tech revolutions have done?

Or can sensible policies allow us to reap the productivity gains from artificial intelligence while making this transition peaceful?

Ajit Balakrishnan (, founder and CEO,, is an Internet entrepreneur.

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