Opinion Columnists 06 Jul 2021 Aakar Patel | As wor ...
Aakar Patel is a senior journalist and columnist

Aakar Patel | As world changes rapidly, Indians stuck in the past, not eyeing future

Published Jul 6, 2021, 6:45 am IST
Updated Jul 6, 2021, 6:45 am IST
Newspaper column writers are not experts in any particular subject or field

Column writing is referred to as “punditry” in America. Their definition of pundit is “an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called upon to give their opinions to the public”. However, this is not how punditry usually expresses itself. Newspaper column writers are not experts in any particular subject or field. Almost all of them are drawn from the pool of journalists and used to be reporters or editors earlier.

If they are experts at anything (and this is highly disputable), it would be in the narrow reporting space that they worked in. But how much expertise in medicine and surgery does a reporter on the healthcare beat really have? None. Editors, and I have been one of four newspapers, are not experts at anything. Column writers are post facto commentators. They write about what has already happened. We have no idea what is to happen. How many Indian columnists predicted the recession, the pandemic’s second wave, the Chinese intrusion in Ladakh, the farm laws, the highest unemployment in history, the public’s response to the CAA, demonetisation and three years of declining GDP growth, the failure of GST or the dismembering of Kashmir? None.


Forget that, how many even predicted the landslide election result in West Bengal? We are not even experts in the political field and shouldn’t be taken seriously. To be fair to us, it’s not our fault. The near future is hard to predict as it involves human agency. The government chooses to do something or not do something, and this has effects. None of us can tell how it will end, including often even the government.

But the longer term is easier to predict because it is not based on human agency but on technology and science. Some things are bound to happen because technology and its rate of improvement is predictable. Computers will get faster, petroleum will finish, manufacturing will need fewer people, robots will get better. All of these are already happening and will continue to happen. To foresee the future is only to be able to examine the rate of progress.


The climate will change because science tells us that it is changing. Inequality will increase because companies are getting larger. Foreign influence will increase in the politics and economies of countries like India as they are technologically dependent. Warfare will become less violent but more decisive as military power is linked to technological power.

The question is what all of this will ultimately mean for us. For centuries, this sort of thing did not matter because progress was slow compared to today. For a period in the 19th century, when electricity and mechanised and locomotion were discovered and invented, the change was dramatic. The first man flew in December 1903, on a plane that could go a few metres. Within 66 years, one lifetime, Americans put men on the moon. That is change of a pace not seen before, but change has accelerated since then, because of increasing power in computing.


Today’s supercomputers have far more capacity at computation than the human brain. It’s only a particular software or algorithm that requires to be developed to make them like us, which means for a computer to have general intelligence. Already at narrow intelligence, a computer is much better than us, from flying airplanes to playing chess to scanning X-rays. But a computer cannot read a book like we can and doesn’t know the difference between a dog and a sitar. It has no ability to think and people are now working (most notable at Google-owned companies) on training computers to be like us.


What happens when such general intelligence is developed, as is being predicted will happen in the next few years? That machine will be able to improve itself rapidly, through instant evolution. AI being smarter than us will be able to make itself better and more intelligent to the point that we would think of it as God. Again, many books have been written on this and in some of the most intelligent circles in America, including people like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, these things are being discussed seriously. They are doing so because artificial intelligence of that sort is perhaps only 20 years away and may prove to be a threat to mankind.


But while the world’s most powerful people are talking about this, and to some extent some governments (both America and China have artificial intelligence programmes in their military), these are not subjects India thinks about.
If the West transitions rapidly by 2030 to renewable energy and electric cars, what will that mean for crude oil production? An American company is planning to colonise Mars within the next 10 years. The rockets to do this are already being made and tested. What will that mean for the future of the earth and its nation-state system? In a world where the difference between natural and synthetic is fast vanishing, how long will competitive sport be popular? 3D printing will soon change manufacturing and make a lot of trade obsolete. What is the future of nations which, like India, are still poor and have not transitioned to becoming developed? Where will our crores of people get employed?


Life for all of us will be very different in 10 years from how it is today. In 20 years, life might be unrecognisable from how it is now. But wallowing in the narrowness of Indian politics and society, none of us can see it, much less predict it.