Why Software Hasn’t Won... Yet
AI is not an immediate threat to your jobs, but even IT engineers will have to adjust to the rise of ‘software intelligence’
SINCE IT WAS formally founded in the early 1940s, computer science has made extraordinary progress and contributed positively to society. It has, in many cases, lowered the barrier for access to information, transactions, education, and healthcare. It has enabled us to put man on the moon and perhaps even beyond. It fuels the most modern progress in science. It has rendered distance immaterial. It may even help by driving cars for us, delivering packages in cities and flying aircraft. And, in some cases, it even appears that ‘intelligent’ software systems may entirely take over from human beings. In fact, the birth, genesis and vision of computer science has always been to build a machine that can ‘accurately’ emulate human ‘intelligence’.
Despite all these strides, computer science still has a fair bit of distance left to cover before it can produce a software system that is functionally capable the same way a human is. The understanding of ‘intelligence’ in computer science, though defined in academic circles, has been fairly misused (and/or misunderstood) in popular reporting, giving people the impression that software can do just about anything a human being can. This notion is fundamentally misguided. We are not there. Or at least not yet. The gap between software and the human mind is still massive.
Software still operates, for the most part, on the paradigm of GIGO (Garbage in, Garbage out), meaning it mostly only does whatever we tell it to and is biased on the basis of whatever data we train it with. Though, in some cases, given large amounts of data and human input, we are able to get software to discover some rules on its own. But at the core of it is the fact that we have not invented any new magic wand to make software ‘think’ on its own or have any sense of ‘consciousness’, in the way humans do. Instead, the most important fundamental progress that technology has made over the past few decades is a dramatic increase in computing power coupled with a reduction in the cost of storage. Such progress has enabled us to run algorithms and code over swathes of data, and at a fraction of the cost, yielding what some may consider as more insights. Consequently, we are able to find patterns in large amounts of data. This, by some limited definition, is construed as intelligence and has been demonstrated in specific classes of activities, such as detecting diabetes from retinal scans, car driving, playing games, etc. In these cases, software can emulate human behaviour and perhaps even exceed human capabilities.
These gaps help deflate claims that artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are ready to take over people’s jobs and potentially spark mass unemployment, particularly in the Indian IT industry. This industry employs a couple of million people, largely comprising our Indian middle class, and recently has been called out by commentators as under threat from automation.
But automating away this labour force is not an
easy task. Even though, as a computer scientist, I am bred to believe in the superiority of silicon (computers) over carbon (humans), my work and study over the past few years in this industry has given me reason to pause and consider the unique contributions and value that humans bring to the table in enabling businesses the world over. Automating these unique attributes is to emulate the same value that humans bring to the table.
In the case of the Indian IT industry, for example, professionals perform a range of activities spanning understanding customers’ business requirements, writing code, maintaining software systems and processing transactions. Working in teams, they perform a variety of actions touching several information systems, coordinate with each other, navigate uncertain or changing scenarios, report to their managers, take bottom-line responsibilities for their respective systems, are accountable and serve customers across the globe. All these activities engender a deep sense of trust and confidence among their customers the world over.
At an individual level, each has traits such as intuition, experience, common sense and an ability to identify and fix the unusual. These are fundamental traits that all humans share, though admittedly, some more than others. Even in the most seemingly ‘robotic’ of tasks, each human has the potential and ability to apply these traits without necessarily being told to do so a priori, that are inherent to each one of us, and ultimately create trust and confidence in our colleagues. This trust and confidence are the fuel all businesses run on. Therefore, it has always been more than just following ‘simple’ rules.
SO ANY ATTEMPT by ‘intelligent’ software at automating all that work done by a single individual or an entire team of humans must involve recreating the same trust and confidence. This necessarily requires addressing the whole gamut of these activities that humans perform on a regular basis and with similar human traits, but in software. This is no longer about small piecemeal tasks that are easy to automate. It must involve emulating the same traits of common sense, intuition, teamwork, communication and an ability to deal with the unexpected.
Consider, for example, questions that managers could ask their teams today. ‘Why did you do that?’, ‘Why did you choose X over Y?’, or ‘Are you sure?’. Or more simply put, ‘explain yourself’. For all the reasons articulated earlier, these questions, though straightforward for humans, are very difficult for machines to answer. Therefore, the next stage of innovation in computer science will be not just to make software run faster, but also about how we get software to emulate more human-like traits and ultimately become truly trustworthy (like humans).
All this said, we should not be naive to think that technology won’t eventually succeed in recreating some—if not many—layers of human cognition and range of activities. And given this eventuality, it is important to think about and begin planning how India can excel in this new normal. Much of this, it appears, will depend on our preparedness for upskilling opportunities.
The IT industry is no stranger to upskilling. In fact, companies like Infosys and a few others have made unprecedented efforts in training campuses as a way to augment the engineering education imparted to the country’s young people. For example, Infosys has the capacity to train anywhere between 40,000-60,000 people each year at its Mysore campus. Such investments in training, perhaps more than anything else, give such companies an insurance policy against a future of automation. But one may say, isn’t an idea of ‘training’ a copout? In the software world, learning has been a constant feature. Consider this: in the 1980s, a FORTRAN/C programmer was in vogue, C++/Java in the 1990s, perhaps Python/Go/Ruby today, and so on. Hence, constantly learning and retraining has been a way of life in this industry.
But even if the promises of automation are only half as true as the hype, it suggests that just a fraction of India’s IT industry professional s, even with all that company-led training, will be required. Those who are needed will have to learn areas of computation that are far more advanced than what the IT industry presently offers. So, do we again look to the IT industry to lead the upskill charge, or is a broader public-private coalition required? India is not alone in this conundrum. Many countries, including the United States, have been grappling with the question of who owns the responsibility of upskilling, especially in the face of challenges from offshoring or automation. And, as recently evidenced, even notional attitudes of a community being overlooked by a changing economy can have significant implications on political outcomes.
Despite these struggles, and those of many other countries, it’s unclear if a paradigm for upskilling populations has emerged. Which brings us back to my original point: the remarkable capability of the human mind. In an ideal world, this push toward automation would be a catalyst for upskilling, which would unlock remarkable human potential and usher in a new, more technologically advanced economy for India. In the real world, however, this will take a shared mission, careful planning and genuine cooperation.
THERE IS OVERWHELMING consensus within the scientific community, based on independent evidence from multiple sources, that the ongoing global warming is caused by rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Most alarming is the accelerating retreat of planetary ice, particularly in the Arctic, which happens to be the fastest warming region on the globe. The 3,000 metre thick Greenland ice shield has been melting for many years, with two independent factors in operation accelerating the rate of melt: warming of the Arctic Ocean due to the steadily diminishing seaice cover and the fall in altitude with declining thickness of the ice shield. Complete melting of the Greenland ice mass will raise global sea levels by six metres. Ongoing thawing of the permafrost of the circum-Arctic tundra will release the trapped greenhouse gases, CO2 and methane, in quantities that would greatly accelerate the current rate of warming.
Heat waves increasing in intensity, greater frequency of freak weather events and rising sea levels are inevitable outcomes of global warming. Sea level rise is the most dangerous as it will inundate coastal cities, push estuaries upriver and displace hundreds of millions of people all over the world. Resettling these climate refugees will put enormous strain on the moral and material fabric of humane civilisation; I hesitate to dwell on that nightmare and prefer to think about what could be done now to avert it.
Sea level rise is a new concept in human history because coastlines have been anomalously stable over the last 10,000 years. The sea still laps at the shore of Lothal in Gujarat, the bronze-age harbour contemporaneous with the Harappan civilisation of 4,500 years ago. However, in the 5,000-year period between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago, when the last Ice Age came to an end and the ice shields covering northern North America and parts of Eurasia melted away, the sea level rose by 130 metres! In the same period, atmospheric CO2 concentrations increased from 0.18 to 0.28 per cent and remained as anomalously stable as the sea level until the end of the 1900s. Since then, with the dawn of the Industrial Age, they have steadily increased, and in 2016 crossed the 0.40 per cent level. In the space of a century, humans have added more CO2 to the atmosphere than accumulated there in the 5,000-year period of
the Big Melt. So it is not surprising that we have started the next Big Melt which, if left unchecked, will thaw the remaining ice shields and raise sea levels by about 100 metres. There are maps on the web that show what this does to the planet’s geography.
WHEN CONFRONTED WITH the inevitability of sea level rise, the big question that arises is: how much time do we have? The answer depends on what global humanity does in the coming years. If we continue burning fossil fuels and do nothing about removing CO2 from the atmosphere, largescale resettlement programmes for people evacuated from the low-lying fringes of coastal cities and deltas will have to start well before mid-century, i.e. when today’s children reach the primes of their lives. There is hope that the deadlines can be postponed if countermeasures are adopted on a war footing as soon as possible. Ratification of the Paris Accord by so many countries, including India, is no doubt a heartening milestone, but its goals fall short of what is required now. Attempts by the next US administration to change course on the climate front will be met by stiff internal opposition from an administration committed to combating climate change. This is where India, which prides itself on being the oldest continuous culture on the planet, should take up a leadership role and chart the course for a brighter future.
I perceive four fronts along which decisive action in India could be taken now:
developing a massive climate education campaign directed at people from all walks of life that explains the nature of the dangers to society lying ahead, their causes and consequences, and how these can be averted or at least mitigated;
curbing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels by switching to regenerative energy sources, in particular solar and wind;
developing a portfolio of approaches to remove CO2 from the atmosphere;
exploring innovative techniques to ensure long-term, sustainable food security. I deal briefly with each of these points in the following.
Understanding a problem is a prerequisite to solving it in the long term, and since motivated public participation is crucial for the success of this gargantuan undertaking, a climate education campaign, tailored to the situation in India, is the way forward. The type of public education campaign I am advocating is analogous to, but on a much grander and more urgent scale than, that implemented in the past decades for disease control and public health improvement: despite many shortcomings, their overall success is undisputed. Earth system scientists are making rapid advances in understanding how the climate machinery of our planet works. Their predictions of the effects of global warming are being confirmed by unfolding reality. The stories emerging from the various research fields, greatly aided by state-of-the-art computers, are exciting and worthy of broad public attention as they make sense in unexpected ways. They can be transmitted to the public by a combination of lectures, movies and animations on the web. The media and entertainment industry could play major roles in drawing attention to the problems ahead and how to solve them now. A major thrust of the campaign would be to teach cyclical thinking, for which the hydrological and carbon cycles of our planet provide the blueprint for deeper understanding. Cyclical thinking is the philosophical framework of sustainability and goes far beyond linear thinking, which is short-term, limited to the space/time scales of the thinker and the cause of our current problems. It is worth pointing out here that the concept of cycling is deeply entrenched in ancient Indian philosophy.
The vast improvement in public health and the quality of life has been driven by burning fossil fuels. India has paid a heavy price in terms of terrible air quality and its adverse effects on the health of people, particularly children. Will the babies born today have breathing problems when they grow up? Is not the dream of phasing out
internal combustion engines from the cities and replacing them with electric engines within reach? The process of countrywide electrification offers enormous growth potential and employment for a workforce ranging from unskilled labour to highly trained experts. The technology for implementing the transition to decentralised energy capture is already developed, so why wait for the future? The vision of a solar-powered India is the type of decentralised self-sufficiency that Gandhi dreamed of and that is now within reach of the entire population, rendered possible by modern, smart technology. There is enormous scope for innovation in the field of solar-generated electricity and its storage, which will lead to creation of new products for new markets. The Indian diaspora could be persuaded to contribute to this monumental effort.
IN THIS BRIGHT NEW LIGHT, investing in nuclear power plants is repeating the same mistake made at the dawn of the fossil fuel era—disregard of the fate and future impact of the waste products. Radioactivity is a form of energy humans cannot feel, hence easily misjudge. Germany is currently facing the onerous task of dismantling its reactors and disposing of their wastes. Apart from the enormous costs to be borne by the taxpayers, deciding where to bury them within the country is going to cause strife. India should be writing a new verse for Surya Namaskar (salutation to the sun) rather than burdening coming generations, labouring under increasing pressure from global warming, with spent nuclear reactors.
Other than planting trees, removing anthropogenic CO2 from the atmosphere is an unpopular topic in the scientific community, particularly as it’s believed that research in this field will distract from the primary task of cutting emissions. The analogy that comes to mind is that of a leaking ship already listing because the officers have decided not to let the crew start bailing out the water until the leak is repaired. That CO2 removal can never be an option for curbing emissions is illustrated by the magnitude of the problem. The mass of excess carbon in the atmosphere, as CO2, that would have to be removed to restore initial conditions (the difference between 0.28 and 0.4 per cent) is equivalent to 250 billion tonnes. For comparison, the total amount of carbon present in all the visible vegetation present on the continents, including crops, grasses and forests, is 500 billion tonnes. Where will the space, water and nutrients to increase vegetation cover by that much come from? For me, the answer lies in the vast deserts of the ocean—the subtropical gyres that cover half the planetary surface but barely contribute to food supply or carbon sequestration.
Alternative, secure sources of food will also need to be developed. My expertise lies in the oceans, and that is where humankind will have to turn to for creating artificial ecosystems by aquafarming in the ocean’s deserts. These are vast lenses of warm water about 200 metres deep, floating on nutrient-rich cold water that fills the oceans. The oases would be maintained by pumping nutrient-rich deep water to the surface layer where, after it has warmed, plankton productivity would feed fish and could also be used to grow seaweeds for consumption as well as for carbon sequestration. Local energy sources could accomplish the task. Such an undertaking will entail enormous infrastructure of pipes and anchored islets and will be an engineering challenge worthy of the smart era of technology that we have now entered. The alternative sources of food provided by aquafarming on the open ocean will not only release pressure on the present agricultural land and enable decongestion of cities, but also provide space for natural ecosystems to expand and sequester carbon. Instead of dreaming about space travel, we should be directing our attention to the unused inner spaces on our planet. Needless to say, India is well placed to launch such a venture.