Narratives of AI in India – day 2

I couldn’t be present for the entirety of day 2, but I was able to get online for most of the event. I’m really busy today, so this is just going to be a quick smash-up of ideas without pictures and links. Sorry. You can see day one remarks here.

The first panel was on conceptual perspectives on universal ID and Aadhar.

  • Srikantha Nadhamuni of Khosla Labs discussed the conceptualization and management of India’s Aadhar system and also about public hopes/fears for AI technologies. The Aadhar system is a national registry of citizens incorporating biometric data. He argued that the success of Aadhar indicates that Indians will effectively use AI in health and other public matters.
  • Sewak Sharma of National Health Authority also discussed the Aadhar project, including fascinating remarks about the difficulty of establishing a citizen’s registry in a country where a tremendous number of people have no official documentation as to their identities, and the need for speed and scaling up to make the project work for a population in excess of one billion people. Getting people enrolled required incentivizing use, and so a big part of that was to make the system ‘plug and play’ for any transaction needing to check identity (banks, mobile phone carriers, etc.). Given the incorpration of things like digital consent systems built into the Aadhar framework (obviating a variety of other laws and regulations), perhaps the Aadhar registry is an example of a leapfrogging technology, as was referenced in yesterday’s talk by SB Divya. Ultimately, he argued that technology can be leveraged to solve the hard problems of management and government in India.
  • Chinmayi Arun, fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale, noted that Aadhar has its critics as well as champions but focused on the larger philosophical questions of biometric and technological solutions for society. She described how one’s worldview influences, if not dictates, one’s perspective on using technologies in this way. For some people, a digital app could be a tool for looking out for your family’s safety whereas for another it might be a tool for stalking and controlling family members. She provided some examples of how datasets used for AI and other uses often reinforce social stereotypes. I might have been inclined to say something like “yes, we already know this” but just a few days ago I attended a lecture by an white, male (of course) AI expert who explicitly denied that our datasets do this! Those of us who pushed back against him were, I think, quite surprised by his position. So obviously we need to keep talking about this and make sure public pressure directs us to good technological design. Systems like Aadhar, built to empower people, must also be used to protect people. Finally, she concluded with an emphasis upon our need to be guided by empathy in our technological design.

I had to drive from my home to the office after that session and missed part of the next session, which was on AI in Hindi, Bengali, and Malayali science fiction (SF) literature. Given my own limitations on language, I was really looking forward to this! Well, I caught a little of it.

  • Manoj Kumar, author of Badalta Hua Desh….. I missed this one
  • Shiju Sam Varughesi of Central University of Gujurat … I missed part of this one, but in what I heard he provided 3 themes in Malayali literature: (1) AI assists the protagonist, obeying the protagonist’s commands, (2) female sex robots, (3) AI leads to crisis, but a resolvable one (this part I was a bit distracted by things happening in the office so I’m not sure I heard correctly). Near the end, he seemed to be arguing that in Malayali SF there exists an attempt to manage and engage posthuman relations with machine intelligence. I wasn’t sure, however, what meaning he was assigning to “posthuman.”
  • Samrat Sengupta of Sammilani Mahavidyalaya College discussed SF in Bengali (Bangla) literature going back to the 1960s. He argued that while SF lived outside the elite fringe of literature it was not low brow, but was engaged by some elites (e.g. Satyajit Ray) and lived in the middle class. This was a particularly interesting thing to me because I’ve been talking to scientists about SF for years and they routinely note (as yesterday’s SF authors did) the marginal status of SF in India. Of course, the Indian middle class–especially in the 20th c.–is not as large as in some countries. So a genre of the middle class might by definition be marginal! 🙂 As one might expect, he pointed to how SF handles contemporary social anxieties. After all, that’s pretty much the way of SF everywhere.

Nowadays, we’re seeing a rapid growth of English language SF in India, and much of this is available internationally. Indeed, I think authors (including yesterday’s) are poised to have substantive impact on the operations of SF around the globe. But it’s very important to think about how narratives from outside the English sphere can help us see the world in new and different ways (even if only through translation into English, which comes with its own philosophical questions over whether we can translate worldviews into new languages).

There is a collection, It Happened Tomorrow, of SF translated from Indian vernaculars to English–technically, English is also an Indian vernacular…but you know what I mean–by Bal Phondke (one of speakers mentioned it near the end). My friend Bruce Sullivan of Northern Arizona University introduced me to the book what feels like a million years ago. It’s a valuable contribution for those of us who cannot read in the various languages of India; but most of the stories are not particularly compelling and I wonder if greater access to the stories of India would expand our awareness of how Indians thought about technology in the mid- and late 20th century. As the moderator, Tejaswini Niranjana of Lingnan University pointed out at the end, we have a huge task ahead of translating and commenting on the examples from throughout India and ascertaining what differences there are among the different linguistic traditions.

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