India lags behind China in artificial intelligence by a decade, may slip towards digital colonisation

China has been using artificial intelligence as its strategic weapon to leapfrog ahead of the United States and achieve global domination

Rajiv Malhotra November 15, 2021 18:23:48 IST
India lags behind China in artificial intelligence by a decade, may slip towards digital colonisation

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Artificial intelligence amplifies human mind and ingenuity in amazing ways across virtually every domain. It is the engine driving the latest technological disruption that is shaking the foundations of society. My use of the term includes the entire ecosystem of technologies that AI propels forward, such as quantum computing, semiconductors, nanotechnology, medical technology, brain-machine interface, robotics, aerospace, 5G, and much more.

On the one hand, AI is the holy grail of technology; the advance that people hope will solve problems across virtually every domain of our lives. On the other, it is disrupting several delicate equilibriums and creating conflicts on a variety of fronts. I discuss the impact of this game-changing technology in my book, Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power.

A recurrent debate surrounding AI concerns the extent of human work that could be replaced by machines over the next twenty years when compared to the new jobs created by AI. Numerous reports have addressed this issue, reaching a wide range of conclusions. Experts consider it a reasonable consensus that eventually a significant portion of blue-and-white-collar jobs in most industries will become obsolete, or at least transformed to such an extent that workers will need re-education to remain viable.

The percentage of vulnerable jobs will continue to increase over time. The obsolescence will be far worse in developing countries where the standard of education is poor.

The routine assurance given to these reasonable concerns is that when AI eliminates certain jobs, those employees forced out will move up the value chain to higher-value tasks. This simplistic and misleading answer overlooks the fact that the training and education required to advance people is not happening nearly at the same feverish rate as the adoption of AI.

Those that promise the solution of re-education have not thus far put their money where their mouth is. The gap of employee qualifications will inevitably widen.

Business owners and labour have competing interests, with the former looking to optimise profits and the latter concerned about wages and employment. Artificial Intelligence disrupts this precarious balance because it suddenly kills old jobs; it also creates new jobs, but the most lucrative new ones will be concentrated in communities with high levels of education and availability of capital.

More broadly, AI will worsen the divide between the rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots, and this could precipitate social instability. Especially for countries like India, where a large percentage of the population lacks the education that is vital to survive a technological tsunami. Civic leaders, politicians, public intellectuals, and media cannot continue to ignore the evolution of AI.

China has been using AI as its strategic weapon to leapfrog ahead of the United States and achieve global domination. Both these superpowers recognise AI as the prized summit to conquer in their race for leadership in economic, political and military affairs. While aerospace, semiconductors, biotech, and other technologies are crucial in this race, AI brings them together and catapults them to new levels.

Both these countries are heavily invested in AI, and between them they control the vast majority of AI-related intellectual property, investments, market share and key resources.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Chinese military are among those developing AI systems that multiply a single fighter plane into a squadron or mini air force of drones at the push of a button. Similarly, artificial foot soldiers will be adept at negotiating potholes, rocks, landmines, shrubs — any natural or artificial land features that create significant obstacles for the average soldier.

Robotic warriors will eventually perform more effectively than human soldiers in tough terrain and climatic conditions. Both China and the US are upgrading their weapons systems to fight wars with smart autonomous weapons, and the strategic and tactical decision-making will be supported by AI-based systems capable of analysing complex situations and taking independent action.

Besides competing directly against each other, the US and China will also compete for control over satellite nations and new colonies. This results from the fact that the disruptive technology will weaken many sovereign states and destabilise fragile political equilibriums. There is a realistic scenario for the re-colonisation of the world as digital colonies.

China’s rise to power in this century must be compared with Britain’s emergence as the world power in the 1700s. Britain achieved dominance through the Industrial Revolution, and China aspires to achieve it through the AI revolution. China has successfully catapulted itself from a poor country to an imperial power, asserting its influence over Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia.

China has gambled its entire nation-building strategy and is taking huge risks and making bold long-term investments. No other country has bet so much of its future on AI. Given its form of government, China can gather data about its population better than other countries. In fact, its citizens are accustomed to the loss of privacy and have become convinced of the benefits to the collective good. There is no serious resistance to surveillance in China.

China is projecting its technology and financial capital to colonise other countries, most notably Pakistan and developing countries in Africa. Colonisation secures the strategic trade routes, the sources of raw materials, and the captive markets for its industrial goods. In some places China has already started using AI facial recognition to monitor populations on behalf of totalitarian regimes. Such applications are a new kind of colonisation facilitated by AI.

A key contributor to the consolidation of AI-based global power is the harvesting of big data from poor countries where it is easy to take advantage of ignorant and corrupt leaders. Private companies controlling this technology could become more powerful than many countries, just as the British East India Company — a private joint-stock company — became more powerful than any country of its time. What does this portend for India today?

Overpopulation, unemployment and poor education make India especially vulnerable. Many of its industries are technologically obsolete and dependent on imported technologies. India currently has a disappointing level of AI development and it needs to embark on a rapid programme to catch up. India is home to one of the largest talent pools of young brains, yet the short-sighted policies of its leaders continue to sell them out as cheap labour to make quick profits from wage arbitrage.

In this way, India has squandered its software lead. While aspiring to become a world-class manufacturing base, most of India’s workforce is likely to remain immured in low-wage and low-skill tasks relative to better educated countries. India’s education system is uncompetitive to produce workers for the industries of the future.

India is lagging behind China in AI by at least a decade, and it also routinely gives away its unique data assets to foreign countries because of the ignorance of its leaders. Given its lack of effective strategic planning on AI and big data, plus its dependence on American digital platforms and Chinese hardware, India might slip further towards digital colonisation.

We must question and openly debate why India lags at least a decade behind China in AI and related technologies, despite India having been recently proclaimed as the world leader in software. How vulnerable is India to becoming a digital colony of the West and China? How do Indian industries, military, and other sectors stack up in addressing the AI-based technological revolution?

India’s security involves combating internal insurgencies as well as protecting long borders with hostile neighbours; this requires considerable manpower that consumes the bulk of the military budget. Insufficient funds remain for indigenous R&D and technology related modernisation. India is dependent on imported weapons to defend itself.

It is impossible to escape the ubiquitous impact of AI technologies, as an individual, a society and a country. Asking these tough and incisive questions and raising the level of national discourse is now necessary more than ever.

The author is a researcher, writer, speaker and public intellectual on current affairs as they relate to civilisations, cross-cultural encounters, religion and science. His latest book is ‘Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power’. Views expressed are personal.

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