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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power by Rajiv Malhotra Book Review

Almost two decades back, the world was rather over-optimistic about the “democratic” potential of digital media. The World Wide Web was still in its adolescent experimental phase, blogging was still a developing mode of content creation, and today’s social media giants like Meta were mere exciting technological startups providing a free space to people for creative, critical, and personal expression. Thus, we all were highly excited about the enormous transformative potential of digital media, how it disrupted the hegemony of mainstream media owned by big corporates and gave unlimited avenues to people for personal and political expression. Remember the Arab Spring and how it was the first political movement that spread rapidly due to social media, toppling the governments of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen.

Come 2024 and the digital media has ended up replicating the power structure of the same global elite it claimed to criticize in its heyday. Google, Microsoft, and Meta have become powerful multi-billion-dollar conglomerates counted among the most powerful businesses in the world. The digital media is no longer a happy space for experimental startups, but it’s become a monopolized entity where a few players reign supreme. These handful of big tech giants, having access to valuable data of people and often governments across the world have become so powerful that they can manipulate public opinion, influence elections, and topple democratically elected governments.

Thus, far from the eutopia of freewheeling expression and enterprise that it was projected to be, digital media has turned into a dystopia. In its quest to create even more lucrative business models by making further inroads into the lives of people, artificial intelligence is big tech’s latest strategic weapon.

The kind of over-optimism that the world harbored for digital media about two decades back, one can see a similar sort of over-the-top optimism about AI now. Even as the government goes on and on about the transformative potential of AI, scholar, author, and a pioneer in the research on technology and civilization, Rajiv Malhotra alerts us to the danger of AI in his seminal book Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power: 5 Battlegrounds.

To begin with, Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power is a great starting point for someone with little or no knowledge of AI. Rajiv Malhotra comes from a tech background (he ran 20 tech companies in different countries at a point of time), but he has simplified and demystified the basic concepts of artificial intelligence for the lay reader. The book gives you a nuanced idea of how AI algorithms work, and how they are trained on various data sets. The layperson takes Google search results at face value.

It wouldn’t cross their minds that the Google search engine runs on sophisticated algorithms that are prone to bias since they have essentially been trained on data sets developed by humans. Even if the algorithms embark on a self-learning spree (known as unguided learning in AI jargon), they are still prone to internalizing biases depending on the data sets they are exposed to. The bias of the developer and the larger ideological interests of the various concerned stakeholders invariably impact the ideological orientations of the algorithm. In a nutshell, we can say that AI algorithms are not neutral and disinterested entities.

Let’s understand this through the example of the Google search engine. When you Google something, the results the search engine shows on the top and the ones it omits altogether depend on its bias. If Google has a leftist bias, it will show more articles written by leftist think tanks, organizations, and entities in its search results. Similarly, it would downplay the content created by those who are not a part of the leftist ecosystem. Thus, it can introduce bias in the minds of the readers by showing them only particular kinds of results.

Thus, the book gives you a nuanced understanding of the whole AI ecosystem and how the algorithms are developed. Even a lay reader would perhaps look at the digital media ecosystem more critically rather than just passively using all these platforms after reading Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power by Rajiv Malhotra.

It’s an ambitious work both in its expanse and scope of engagement. Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power is a first-of-its-kind book that offers a multidisciplinary perspective on artificial intelligence. The book combines approaches and critical perspectives from fields as diverse as political science, economy, technology, management, sociology, psychology, literary theory, cultural theory, international relations, media and communication studies, and geopolitics.

This work, I think would be especially useful to students and researchers from disciplines like Media and Communication Studies. The impact of AI on the global media and communication landscape, its implications for the larger political economy, and its impact on human subjectivity and free will are subjects that haven’t been explored much in academic research. Rajiv Malhotra’s Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power provides a plethora of valuable ideas and insights for future research on the impact of new media technologies on society, culture, and politics, especially in the Bharatiya context.

Coming to the Bharatiya context, the book is an eye-opener for policymakers, politicians, and think tanks alike in its projection that Bharat risks becoming a digital colony of the US and China, if we do not take substantial steps to develop our own indigenous digital ecosystem soon. These are not speculations that the author is throwing at readers. The book is based on rigorous academic scholarship and everything the author says is supported by a plethora of scholarly evidence.

There is a whole chapter dedicated to China’s rise in AI and how China rose from the margins to become a fierce competitor of the US in the field of AI, whereas Bharat stands nowhere in the global AI ecosystem. The author provides a systematic overview of the government policy landscape of China that led to the focus on the development of AI technologies and how Bharat lost the game because the development of a strong indigenous ecosystem was never on the list of our policy priorities.

In the context of Bharat’s lopsided AI development, the country’s political system also plays a role, suggests the author. The one-party system of China, while it may be criticized for a lot of shortcomings and lack of freedom of expression, works well when it comes to designing homogenous policy measures for the whole of the country and implementing these in a streamlined fashion, says the book. On the other hand, Bharat with its federal structure of governance and the multi-party, finds it extremely difficult to implement any policy uniformly because of massive red tape and opposition to everything and anything that the government tries to plan and implement.

In the context of Bharat, the author aptly points out how we are just toeing the line laid out by the west but not embarking on any innovations of our own when it comes to artificial intelligence. Rajiv Malhotra is critical of the Bharatiya government’s extreme dependence on the likes of Google and Microsoft for the implementation of initiatives connected with the Digital India campaign. In the book, he laments about the fact that Bharatiays occupy top-notch positions in leading global tech companies, but we haven’t yet been able to develop our own version of Google, Facebook, or WhatsAspp. We are happy to be dependent on the western ecosystem for our technological needs, even as ironically enough, they are using Bharatiya brains to develop those technological products and services, and then sell those back to us at exorbitant prices, says the author.

The book offers lot of material for soul-searching and introspections to highly educated Bharatiyas, especially those employed in the tech sector. The author shows us the mirror as he minces no words in saying that most highly educated Bharatiyas are happy being slaves of the west in return for big money but they wouldn’t take initiative and embark on an innovation for the sake of the country. The same attitude, says the author, is reflected in our industrialists and big businesses, whose myopic vision makes them willingly accept the mastery of the west and subservience to western technologies, whatever gets easy money is good for them, they don’t think from the long-term strategic point of view of making Bharat a visionary leader and innovator, says the author.

In the context of Bharat becoming a digital slave of the west, Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power: 5 Battlegrounds also raises the issue of the west stealthily collecting and owning data on Bharatiya citizens. Due to the virtual absence of any legal framework safeguarding the private data of citizens, digital media giants collect massive amounts of data of Bharat’s citizens. This data, says the author is then used for developing sophisticated AI algorithms that the digital media giants can use for anything from influencing public behavior for marketing purposes to selling it to public relations firms for influencing the political opinion of citizens. Imposing privacy laws, argues Rajiv Malhotra, doesn’t mean that the concerned digital media company removes the private data of citizens from its servers once the task is done. The Bharatiya government needs to understand that the private data of millions of Bharatiyas showcasing their lifestyle choices, religious affiliations, etc. to political choices is used to develop sophisticated algorithms. In other words, digital media giants monetize this data without the consent of either the citizens whose data they are using or the consent of the Bharatiya government. Thus, foreign companies get access to a wide variety of data that ideally should be maintained strictly by the Bharatiya government, and no foreign company should be able to monetize it, says the author.

Another important point that Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power raises is the massive impact of AI on job creation in Bharat. The book points towards the alarmingly rising gap between the educational competencies of Bharatiya citizens, and the kind of skills required for getting employed in the fast-changing job market. The author argues that Bharat is adopting AI technologies at an unprecedented rate without giving itself sufficient time to train its people and upgrade its education systems to keep pace with the changing technological landscape. As a result, the problem of unemployment might become even more rampant in coming decades as a number of entry-level jobs in sectors such as banking, telecommunications, etc. will be taken up by AI. For the limited number of new jobs that will be generated, a vast majority of the Bharatiya population would simply not have the skills to execute these jobs, says the author.

Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power also raises important questions about the impact of AI on human subjectivity and consciousness. What will be the impact of AI on human agency? What will be its repercussions for human free will and notions of agency and individual choice? The book presents the premise that as artificial intelligence will increasingly lull people into a world of sensual and aesthetic pleasure mediated by the likes of augmented reality and virtual reality, most people will slowly surrender their agency to the likes of “Google -devta” and the whole AI ecosystem. This says the author, will result in “moronization of the masses”.

Thus, Rajiv Malhotra is essentially arguing that AI will probably have the same impact on human subjectivity and consciousness that the critical media theorists of the Frankfurt school were arguing about the potentially devastating effects of mainstream media on the human psyche when television was in its heyday. Are people that susceptible and vulnerable to the lure of digital media and artificial intelligence though? Wouldn’t they have their own set of values that would eventually save them from the onslaught of this technological dystopia to an extent – community life, family values, ethical values, religious beliefs, spirituality, etc? These are the few points that came to my mind when I was reading Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power. However, irrespective of the extent to which you agree with Rajiv Malhotra’s thesis on artificial intelligence ultimately enslaving people mentally and the phenomenon of what he calls the “moronization of the masses”, what he presents is certainly worth pondering on and heralds an exciting area of future research on the impact of AI on society and culture.

The most pertinent point the book raises is about AI’s ability to disrupt the spiritual moorings of consciousness. “The two most foundational theories of consciousness are spiritual and materialistic, and they explain consciousness in entirely different, opposing ways. I have invested deeply in the spiritual approach to consciousness, and one of the primary reasons for writing this book is to expose how AI’s influence is empowering the opposing camp of materialism”, he says.

Rajiv Malhotra argues that in the scientific approach adopted by developers of artificial intelligence, the human body and mind are being reduced to biological algorithms. This highly materialistic model of human beings, he says, is being used to develop technology such as biological implants whose “commercial success is not likely to be hampered by the ideological consideration that it boosts a purely materialistic model of human beings”. This materialistic model of human beings, according to the book, makes human beings move down the trail of the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure and gratification, thus taking away their subjectivity and free will, and hollowing the spiritual core of their consciousness. Such human beings would no longer need grand narratives, rather what they would get used to is the postmodernist multiplicity of perspectives where they would get fragmented half-truths floating in the social media universe. Thus, such human beings would happily and willingly surrender their agency to the big tech, becoming morons in the process.

Rajiv Malhotra’s Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power constructs a technological dystopia, somewhat reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984. In that sense, despite this being an academic book, the author has taken certain creative liberties and one can see glimpses of science fiction in Malhotra’s conceptualization of the global technological dystopia brought forth by the development of artificial intelligence. But then again, even this bit of the book has a lot of direct quotes and paraphrasing from other authors, so we can say this dystopia too is supported by academic research and is not an exercise in imaginative excesses on the part of the author.

The most remarkable feature of Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power by Rajiv Malhotra is its take on how AI is being used to disrupt Bharat from within by all sorts of anti-Bharat stakeholders, and artificial intelligence is unfortunately becoming an apt weapon in the process. The book throws ample light on the psychological manipulations of AI, and how it can propagate certain narratives and make people think along certain lines. We see that in the Bharatiya context a lot, how social media algorithms actively encourage and promote leftist viewpoints and subtly silence the nationalist or non-leftist ecosystem of Bharat.

Finally, I would conclude by saying that this book works at multiple levels and for different kinds of readership. It’s such a complex book and covers such vast ground that it’s impossible to do justice to the book in a review. But overall, the book offers thought-provoking insight and analysis into the ecosystem of big tech, and its repercussions on emerging economies like Bharat.

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Rati Agnihotri
Rati Agnihotri
Rati Agnihotri is an independent journalist and writer currently based in Dehradun (Uttarakhand). Rati has extensive experience in broadcast journalism having worked as a Correspondent for Xinhua Media for 8 years. She was based at their New Delhi bureau. She has also worked across radio and digital media and was a Fellow with Radio Deutsche Welle in Bonn. She is now based in Dehradun and pursuing independent work regularly contributing news analysis videos to a nationalist news portal (India Speaks Daily) with a considerable youtube presence. Rati regularly contributes articles and opinion pieces to various esteemed newspapers, journals, and magazines. Her articles have been recently published in "The Sunday Guardian", "Organizer", "Opindia", and "Garhwal Post". She has completed a MA (International Journalism) from the University of Leeds, U.K., and a BA (Hons) in English Literature from Miranda House, Delhi University.

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