Rise of the machines (Technology & Environment) -DAWN

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IN ancient Greek tragedies, as the villain was about to triumph over the protagonist, a plot device was sometimes employed to force the story towards a happy ending. This device often took the shape of a crane-mounted Greek deity that descended onto the stage to provide relief from certain annihilation. This serendipitous solution to an otherwise insoluble problem came to be known as deus ex machina, or the god of the machine. Of late the abiding trust some techno-optimists have been placing in technology’s efficacy in delivering the human civilisation from certain annihilation shows an uncanny resemblance to the ancient crane, or machine-mounted solution. Where technology has been a boon in various fields, its application needs to be carefully monitored and regulated lest it become a force of destruction itself.

Some techno-optimists, argue that we can counter climate change by throwing more capital investment into technology, eventually developing perfectly renewable or alternative fuels that will wean capitalism off from its fossil fuels addiction. Technological application is also said to raise living standards since enlarging an economy has long been associated with increasing productivity or the technology quotient. Moreover, technology, it is argued, will enable a continuous and unrelenting economic growth cycle since any depleting natural resources would be substituted by an equal amount of capital, like machines and factories. There are also purported tangible social benefits that accrue from increasing technology applications, according to techno-optimists. These benefits come from diverse applications like providing banking services to the unbanked through cell phones to improving electoral outcomes through the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs).

The problem is that these purported technology benefits are premised on some heroic assumptions. Ecological economists have shown that using more capital actually increases fossil fuel energy consumption making capital and fossil fuels very poor substitutes, if at all. There are also doubts about the very rate of technological innovation that is said to drive the economic growth process forward. Robert Gordon, an economic historian, argues that the rate of technological innovation has already peaked after the ‘special century’ of rapid technological innovation from 1870 to 1970. Finally, the choice of particular technologies takes place within a certain political economic context creating winners and losers. When machines were introduced in the British textile industry in the 19th century, it drove many artisanal workers out of work forcing some of them to rise in rebellion against labour-displacing technology.

Technology’s application needs to be carefully regulated lest it become a force of destruction itself.

These challenges notwithstanding, the political economic underpinnings of introducing new technologies like EVMs merits more reflection. The election process in this country suffers from significant distortions even before the actual polling day. These include alleged gerrymandering to favour particular candidates; the use of illicit wealth to buy votes; law and order problems as well as the misuse of state machinery, to name a few. EVMs do not directly address any of these challenges. In addition, no official figures have been shared on how the government hopes to pay for this technological switch. As such, there are significant costs attached to procuring and installing the required 0.4million EVMs. Back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate that as much as Rs70billion to Rs120bn may be required. Detractors argue that post-election audit of paper ballots acts as a form of quality control on the process. Detractors also point out that it would be very difficult to ensure the electoral process’s reliability if there is a system breakdown or if a foreign government’s agency tampers with ballot programming infecting the machine’s memory card with malicious software. It goes without saying that even a slight loss of confidence in the electoral process would create widespread confusion, chaos and social unrest in the country.

Serious doubts about the safety and reliability of EVMs have led to many countries abandoning the machines after initial trials. Citing such concerns, Germany’s highest federal court declared the use of EVMs unconstitutional in 2009. Even those countries that have adopted EVMs have done so carefully and incrementally. It is no wonder that it took India 22 years to widen the use of EVMs having first used the machines in 1982. One should not doubt the prime minister’s earnestness behind his vehement support for EVMs. But this government’s singular focus on EVMs in the absence of broad-based support for this initiative may be painted by some as a strategy to win the next general elections at any cost.

Still, it is clear that societies that invest heavily in modern technologies stand to reap the greatest benefits. According to a report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, artificial intelligence (AI) could end up adding $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030. New technologies would still need to be modulated by humans for two chief reasons. New technologies are often introduced to the detriment of a particular section of society. People whose jobs are taken away by new technologies often end up resisting violently, at times. Apart from the mentioned social disruptions in Britain, the introduction of tractors in the early part of the 20th century drove many African-Americans out of work forcing millions to undertake the Great Migration to the industrial cities of north and Midwest US. In other words, if the introduction of a new technology is not carefully managed, resistance from those who seemingly lose out carries the potential to subvert the entire system.

On a more sombre note, some intellectuals now feel that technology — AI to be exact — will attain ‘singularity’ meaning that at some point in the future, technology residing in machines will supersede the human race intellectually. Leading intellectuals believe that once machines reach singularity, they will become super-intelligent through iterative behaviour thereby either enslaving or annihilating the human race altogether. Let us hope that we are far, far away from that future.

The writer completed his doctorate in economics on a Fulbright scholarship.