Sovereignty in the Age of Dataism
Artificial Intelligence (AI) had been an extended human intelligence. If AI-based algorithms had contributed immensely to human progress, the age of human intelligence is nearing an end with the advent of ‘Dataism’, the Data Religion, predictably by the second half of the 21st century. How will this new cult affect the conventional Global Order? What will be the future of ‘We the People? How will the Democratic
Republic respond to these new ways of subverting sovereignty and security?
On the occasion of 71st Republic Day of India, we can’t drift away from the responsibility of addressing the emerging threat posed by Dataism to the sovereignty of our Republic. That could lead us to a Data Colonisation. Upholding the spirit of our constitution, for the government and citizens, it’s time to assert that India’s data must be controlled and owned by Indian people – and not by Corporate and global superpowers. Since the roots of this menace to be traced in Cartesian logic, the only way out is adopting an integral approach which can essentially spiritualise the technology. In this issue of Organiser, we are examining various aspects of Dataism, Artificial Intelligence and Data Sovereignty in the backdrop of Republic Day:
The human consciousness as taught by Sri Aurobindo will bring out the best of human beings who can supersede the challenges posed by Artificial Intelligence and other technologies
Taking a pedestrian view of Artificial Intelligence (AI), it was hitherto considered as an organic development of extended human intelligence. Armed with science and technology and AI, the Homo Sapiens has overcome his/her biological limits, seeking to change the laws of life and engineer inorganic beings. Envisaging a world where human intelligence ceases to exist, it is a Frankenstein moment for humanity where artificial intelligence creates supreme inorganic beings or data processors and overpowers the living beings. In this milieu, we have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by technology; delegated life-and-death decisions to algorithms. Decisions on our health, wealth and even mundane daily routines, which were once made by doctors, financial experts, and a legion of service providers are now being decided and influenced by algorithms. While AI-based algorithms contribute immensely to human progress, their unpredictability represents a great threat as well. The fantasy of Dr. Frankenstein no longer remains just a fantasy, as the age of human intelligence is coming to an end with the advent of ‘Dataism’, the Data Religion!
Boon and Bane
‘Dataism declares that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing,’ writes the renowned author and historian Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus. Dataism seeks to confine the infinite human cognitive potential into a mere algorithm to process data, which will eventually render the organic world into an apocalyptic tech-driven world. The data religion treats organisms as biochemical algorithms. According to Harari, ‘Dataism thereby collapses the barrier between animals and machines, and expects electronic algorithms to eventually decipher and outperform biochemical algorithms.’ The Dataism looms large over the human race as an existential threat, seeking to replace human intelligence with Artificial Intelligence.
Cambridge Analytica Saga
We have seen how the personal data of social media users have been misused by a private agency, Cambrige Analytica. The scandal exposed the extent to which data can be misused for political machinations and manipulations. Facebook had shared private information on 87 million users, including 5,60,000 Indians, with Cambridge Analytica to influence their decision making. The news that the Indian National Congress was also a client of Cambridge Analytica was quite shocking fo us.
However, the positive side of the scandal was that it has brought home the imminent danger of personal data manipulation. It also showed us how data could be used to widen faultlines already existing in the society and aggravate social schisms. Kartik Hosanagar of Warton School of the University of Pennsylvania, in his book, A Human’s Guide to Machine Intelligence, reveals that algorithmic decision-making can have potentially dangerous ramifications. According to him, we need to equip ourselves with a better, deeper, more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon of algorithmic thinking. He points out that algorithms often think a lot like their creators. For instance, Microsoft’s chatbot Tay, which was designed to interact with respondents on social media like a teenage girl, had turned sexist and racist.
While in the past imperialists used trade and military prowess to colonise countries, in the knowledge economy-dominated world there are other potent tools to influence and dominate countries. Data is a strategic asset. As rightly pointed out by Mukesh Ambani, chairman and MD of Reliance Industries Limited, “India’s data must be controlled and owned by Indian people—and not by corporates, especially global corporations. For India to succeed in this data-driven revolution, we will have to migrate the control and ownership of Indian data back to India—in other words, Indian wealth back to every Indian.”
Unfortunately for India, US tech corporations dominate our internet, triggering fears of data colonisation. However, countries like China have taken effective steps to protect their data. China has cut off its internet from the global one and allowed domestic internet companies to flourish. Its home-grown internet giants can any day give their US counterparts a run for their money. The European Union has also put in place stringent privacy laws. India has been lethargic in this regard. Highlighting the need for putting effective systems in place, former ISRO chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar states: “The digital data generated needs to be stored, transported from one place to another and accessed for utilization. The technology of moving data around and storing them and accessing them has evolved at such a pace that today one realises how new technologies have made countries and their citizens vulnerable to influence, dominance and attacks without anybody physically entering into the sovereign territory of a country. It is in this context that India which has been an active user and contributor of many of the features of knowledge economy needs to put in place a mechanism for ensuring data sovereignty.”
Dataism and its Impacts
As stated above, Dataism has already posed a potential threat to our existing value systems and fundamental institutions like democracy upon which the present-day world rests and thrives. Jamie Bartlett, in his book The People Vs Tech, argues that a series of threats, including automation and Artificial Intelligence applications, and the algorithmic remaking of publics by data aggregators such as Facebook, will erode the conditions necessary for democracy to thrive.
“At a deep level these two grand systems—technology and democracy—are locked in a bitter conflict,” writes Bartlett. “They are products of completely different eras and run according to different rules and principles.” According to Bartlett, the six conditions for functioning democracy, such as active citizens, shared culture, free elections, stakeholder equality, competitive and civic freedom, and trust in authority are already or about to be subsumed in artificial intelligence or robots.
While delving deep into the topic, Bartlett makes an interesting observation that democracy is analogue rather than digital. The human being and the values evolved around human life are grounded in physical reality, not in virtual reality. When the world is shifted from human-centric to data-centric, all data is processed and all decisions are made by a single central processor. This dystopian state, according to Harari, is nothing but Communism!
Though the onus of seeking a way out of this catastrophic self-destruction mode of technology is on the technocrats and the scientific community, it is pertinent for us to examine how this deviation occurred. The current scientific dogma, which Yuval Harari referred to, the fallacy of modern scientific expeditions traces its roots back to the ‘Cartesian Cogito Principle’ which is essentially dualistic in nature. It clearly distinguishes the nature of mind from that of matter, seeking to give a philosophical basis for modern science. Since the times of Rene Descartes, the modern science took a new direction. ‘The scepticism of Descartes reaches its limits and breaks against the intuitive certainty of self-consciousness: Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I exist),” observes Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. Further he writes, ‘If the ‘I am’ depends on an ‘I think’, the ‘I think’ must also depend on another ‘ergo’, and so on, and it will land us in infinite regress.’
Compartmentalisation of Human Life
The fundamental problem lies in the compartmentalisation of knowledge and perceiving human being as a mere bio-chemical being, apart from a spiritual being. When the evolution of artificial intelligence poses an imminent threat to the human intellect, a possible solution as per Hindu worldview is exploring the gradations of the higher consciousness. In this regard, in Sri Aurobindo, we find the integration of ancient Hindu wisdom and modern science, which together can be called Evolutionary Spirituality that combines ‘philosophical brilliance and a profoundly enlightened consciousness’.
The founder of ‘integral spirituality and integral yoga’, Sri Aurobindo does not limit consciousness as mere intelligence. For Aurobindo, mind is only one level of the multi-level reality called consciousness. Two terms which he laid emphasis on, while explaining the progressive manifestation of Consciousness, are supermind and superman. The many gradations of mind, which the modern science and the authors of dystopian non-fictions fail to see, are ranging from Higher Mind through Illumined Mind, Intuition, and Overmind up to Supermind, which is in between Sachchidananda — the one who is above all the manifestation and the flux of the many in the manifested universe. ‘We call it Supermind or the truth-consciousness, because it is a principle superior to mentality and exists, acts and proceeds in the fundamental truth and unity of things and not like the mind in their appearances and phenomenal divisions,’ Sri Aurobindo explains it in The Life Divine.
Exploring the potential of human consciousness as taught by Sri Aurobindo and fulfilling the evolutionary intent and spiritual growth of life will bring out the best of human beings who can supersede the challenges posed by Artificial Intelligence and other technologies.
(The writer is national convenor of the Prajna Pravah. Excerpts from a chapter in the book ‘Hindutva for the Changing Times’)