I must have mentioned that my new book, coming out this year, is about artificial intelligence in the U.S. and India. In particular, it engages conversations or narratives or perspectives about AI…it’s not about actual AI research or technologies. I’ll probably have more to say on it as it makes its way past the production stage and into print. But given that I’ve been working on this, imagine my delight that the Leverhulme Center for the Future of Intelligence at Cambridge University has launched a global narratives of AI project. I’m writing this blog post as I listen to an online symposium they’re hosting on narratives of AI in India.
The project is run by Steven Cave and Kanta Dihal, whose previous work on AI is very compelling and addresses pressing concerns in the field (including the dangerous inclination–more than inclination even–toward whiteness in AI). Here are a few highlights from the event:
[starting with the panel on science fiction in India]
- Samit Basu, the tremendous author of The Simoqin Prophecies (and the rest of the GameWorld Trilogy) and Turbulence (and its follow-up) engaged the small presence of AI in Indian storytelling. He argues that only that the audience is unfamiliar and so filmmakers stick with tried-and-true narratives that lack science fiction. This is a topic I engage from a different perspective in my book Temples of Modernity. I haven’t read Basu’s latest book, Chosen Spirits, but I am excited to do so. He has an expansive imagination and is a perfect example of how we can producing circulating, shared, open ideas about technology (including AI) in our global world.
- SB Divya, engineer and award-winning SF author, agrees that the SF ecosystem in India is limited and discussed how her own work looks to how today’s leading-edge technology could operate in our daily lives a few decades hence. I was not familiar with her work, but plan on reading both Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse and Other Possible Situations and her new novel, Machinehood, soon. When asked whether California or South India would be more adaptable to technological change, she notes the leapfrogging potential of India where existing infrastructure is missing. Telephones to mobile phones is the classic example here because telephone lines were quite uncommon but mobile phones are now ubiquitous. I would like to have heard a more specific prediction of what technologies or kinds of technologies could follow that pattern. She believes, however, that the availability of employable labor that while Indians will remain at the forefront of math-related AI research, there will be minimal push for hardware and other forms of AI automation.
- Tanuj Solanki, author of The Machine is Learning places that book in the recent past rather than the future. So I’m interested in seeing his book also. Again, he agrees there is no real formative canon of books in India that position AI as a central conceit. He notes that in the last few years, that S. Asia generally has seen an uptick in fiction that features how technology reinforces existing social divisions. This is an important issue. If we are to use our advancing technology to reduce inequalities, we will have to do so actively and forthrightly. Otherwise the limits of our current lives will structure our vision of the future and, indeed, the lived reality of people. In Q&A, he argued that there is no current room for a utopian view of technology in India precisely because of the present structures of caste and class (interestingly Basu followed up with the uneven distribution–paraphrasing Gibson–of utopia and dystopia, saying he tries to give his characters a space for hope even in dystopic environments).
[and from the next panel, on history and philosophy of AI in India]
- Arun Sukumar, author of Midnight’s Machines (a book that’s already on my to-read list), spoke about the general patterns of technological engagement in India. He added a valuable insight into how global value chains affect things like cultures of technology. In the case of India, he argued that a pattern preceding advanced AI research existed in which Indian tech is responsive to problems in other parts of the world–that is, India becomes a source of labor to solve others’ concerns but that prevents the establishment of its own national culture of tech and AI. He also (I think) noted that it would be a good thing for AI and the world to see a contribution from India in our global view of AI. It’s possible I heard that because I wanted to, however, as it’s a theme in my forthcoming book. But I think he said that also. 🙂
- Daud Ali of UPenn, also engaged attitudes toward technology but from an historical perspective. I first came across Ali’s work in the very fascinating book Medieval Robots by E.R. Truitt. Thanks to that book (and Ali’s influence on the author), I was led to several interesting medieval Indian texts that reference automated machines and have incorporated that into a forthcoming article. So I owe him a considerable debt! As of my last look he hadn’t published on this area yet; but perhaps he subsequently has, in which case I’ll want to read the work. He discussed some of his discoveries of automata and courtly machines described in the 10th and 11th c. of India. He noted that parallels exist across the Indian Ocean. He brought up the total paucity of explanations for construction and the medieval authors’ claims that explanations would (a) remove the wonder from the devices and (b) put the machines’ makers out of work (I think he needs also to point toward the lack of ability to make some of what is described–some things were surely possible and others surely imaginary because there’s just no scientific ecosystem for some of what’s claimed). But really more interestingly he points toward the fact that mystification leads to wonderment. So, the whole point of the machines is in some sense to deceive the senses, confuse the viewer, and thus provoke wonder. Smriti Srinivas carries a related argument about technology in contemporary Bangalore (i.e., that it is utilized to create a sense of wonder) in The Cow in the Elevator. And I wrote about prestige, power, and social cachet in the construction of automata and other technological “life” in Apocalyptic AI, especially in the second appendix to it. One distinction between us all is that we see the the wonder located in different places. For Ali, it sounds like wonder is associated with the machine itself. In my case, I think the attribution of such machines is a way of reflecting upon the glory of their owners or creators more so than the wonder located in the machine itself. Srinivas focuses upon a social and religious experience of wonder–the incursion of wonder into the life of the collective that bursts the dams imposed on life by neoliberal economic oppression. What a delightful set of differences!
- Noopur Raval, of the AINow Institute, described a project looking to break away from US-exclusive views of AI and the immensely important and difficult challenge of avoiding cultural essentialism in our views of non-US cultures. She also engaged the moral and political responsibilities when engaging postcolonial nations, especially as we pursue a shared world and shared history. She’s also working on directly relevant issues, such as the use of AI in policing in India and on the relationship between portraiture in colonial contexts and the representations of people that end up in postcolonial technobureaucracy (including race and AI policing, etc.). She notes that there’s an intentionality (and no innocence) about how people frame personhood and criminality in the colonies and in the present. So perhaps the goal of an Indian history of AI should not just locate AI but develop a position that locates dominant imaginations of AI and the impact of these upon colonial/postcolonial persons (though she frames this as postcolonial bodies).
What a great few hours of engagement! I look forward to seeing more from all of the contributors.