This paper was read as a Plenary Lecture at the 44th Indian Social Science Congress, held at Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, March 15-19, 2021, and is part of the Proceedings of the Congress.
The world of Homo Sapiens
For most of the Second Millennium CE onwards, humans in most societies have viewed the world around them as human-centric. This assumed “superiority” of humans over other forms of life and over all inert matter, puts Sapiens on a self-created pedestal as the acme of evolved life on the planet.
Over millennia, as humans learned to acquire and harness energy sources, they grew exponentially in numbers. The current global human population is 7.8-billion (U.N estimates, February 2021), up from under 2-billion in 1900, and 0.3-billion in 1000. Especially since the industrial revolution, for most societies, matter and life which is not human is considered as a resource, with the implicit assumption of their being “meant” for human benefit, and are therefore to be used and disposed off. This is the anthropocentric world view, which is the current ruling paradigm.
However, tribal societies on all continents (Adivasis in India) do not share this view. They live with bare feet planted firmly on earth, understand the inter-dependence of all forms of life, and know the true meaning of “enough” as they draw from nature even while giving back to nature. Today, tribal societies are depleting and vanishing, and with them, their knowledge systems and cultural heritage. Their natural wisdom has fallen victim to expansion of the know-all ‘civilized’ societies.
Humans are divided within and between societies on the bases of ethnicity, language, caste, religion and gender. Pre-historically, historically and even today, this has been cause for conflicts and wars, and mindless oppression, subjugation and slaughter, often based upon categorization of “superior” and “inferior”.
Modern industrialized or industrializing societies are complex entities characterized by urbanization, industrial development, social stratification, some form of government, and refined communication systems. Within these “civilized” societies, the distribution of social, economic and political power is skewed, with power concentrated in relatively few hands. Modern industrial civilization designed by humans themselves, attempts to control nature, including human beings. Acquisition and consolidation of power and authority for control and dominance is the name of the game.
A ‘machine’ society
Sapiens have grown into the dominant species on the planet, with global influence. Starting perhaps with fire and the wheel in pre-historic times, Sapiens has creatively envisioned and constructed devices and machines which have multiplied individual and group power exponentially. For example, in just one Century (the 20th Century), humans invented the airplane and landed a human on the moon, even while transiting from logarithmic tables for rapid calculation to parallel-processing super computers in the same period, these and many other inventions and discoveries going together.
The so-called educated among Sapiens believes that the species is at the apex of the “evolutionary ladder”, having evolved from “lesser” species into becoming the best of God’s marvellous creations, with the divine right to use and control its environment for its own benefit. This belief fails to understand that Sapiens has co-evolved with other species, with inter-dependence.
Sapiens stand near the end of the first quarter of the 21st Century with amazing scientific and technological capabilites, but without matching social skills. The effect of this sapient (Meaning: wise, or attempting to appear wise) species on the global environment and ecology – of which it is a part, not the master – increases with every new discovery, invention or development.
It is no exaggeration to say that Sapiens global dominance has brought itself to an existential crossroads particularly because of global warming and climate change. But as importantly, Sapiens’ increasing dependence upon the machine-world it has created with its amazing creativity and industry, threatens its future in an existential sense.
Information Technology (IT) has grown exponentially in terms of hardware, software and systems capabilities, and provides enormous computational and data handling capability. The fields of biotechnology (BT) and nanotechnology and many fields of natural science have expanded mostly based on IT capability.
Some of the present capabilities of cutting-edge or emerging technologies are demonstrated as pilots, but not yet scaled up or fully implementable. Others are available at a cost, but most are secret (e.g., military-use technologies developed by USA’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)) or protected by patents or IPR for commercial or business purposes.
The most talked-about “new” field based upon IT is Artificial Intelligence (AI). At present, AI mimics natural human intelligence especially in the areas of cognition, learning and problem-solving. Another path-breaking field is robotics, although this is not new or recent, combining computer science and engineering. Already robots which vacuum and mop floors, and AI-enabled robots which can remotely control other devices based on recognized voice commands, are available in the market.
The day when AI can be an autonomous entity which independently makes its decisions and acts accordingly, and controls other AI entities and robots to perform specific tasks, may not be in the distant future. Such an AI entity would be able to independently acquire or access data, and use it to teach itself varied subjects, including comprehension of abstract ideas.
3D printing is a manufacturing technique of building a solid object by computer-controlled process of depositing/ joining material according to a 3D computer model. At present it pertains to inert objects. As techniques and processes improve, and AI gets integrated into systems and processes, mass manufacture of parts, components and sub-assemblies required for assembling any end product, will be possible without human intervention. Already, robots are independently assembling automobiles, etc., upto the roll-out of the end product. [Note 1].
If the end product is a robot, an AI entity using robots can manufacture parts/components and assemble robots. That is, robots will manufacture robots from 3D printing to final assembly and roll-out, with an AI entity in control. This will make robots for multifarious repetitive functions affordable, bringing ease and convenience into Sapiens’ lives, and large profits to the corporate manufacturer.
Thus, the robot population can grow enormously in numbers, and take over several functions which are done by Sapiens. While jobs like sewerage cleaning and garbage handling should most certainly be done only by robots – dangerous/toxic materials-handling is already being done by robots – the exponential growth of robot populations will create machine-dependency of Sapiens, albeit among the economically better-off sections in society.
From a sociological viewpoint, this will result in some changes in Sapiens societies. One, it will reduce direct and indirect human-to-human interactions, which is already happening with mobile phones, social media, banking, travel, hotels, tele-marketing, merchandise-delivery by drones, etc). Sapiens, supposedly a social animal, will lose inter-personal skills, and alter the psychological make-up of successive generations. This may be mostly among the economic upper-crust of Sapiens societies. Two, it will create a section of society which is physically helpless for certain routine but essential jobs/functions, even if they have the desire to perform them. There will be resultant change in the physique of successive generations of Sapiens. This also may be mostly among the economic upper-crust of Sapiens societies. Three, AI-enabled untargeted, intrusive surveillance over entire populations will introduce an element of pervasive fear and a sense of subordination to a remote, unquestionable authority. This will destroy individual creativity from an early age, affecting every individual psychologically, to become obedient and supine under any or all circumstances. A society comprised of such Sapiens would be grist to the mill of authoritarian social-political leaders in nexus with corporate owners of surveillance systems.
Thus, in the physical-psychological-social sense, this effectively re-engineered Sapiens a few generations in the future may be as different from the present Sapiens, as the present Sapiens is from its pre-historic Sapiens ancestors.
Social media is increasingly being used by interest groups to influence opinions and even mindsets. Misinformation, disinformation and false information, formerly psywar tools of intelligence agencies, are now being used for political purposes by shadowy actors. The world has moved into times in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs. Information, generalized as ‘data’, is being used to manipulate minds for commercial or political purposes, noting that the distinction between ‘commercial’ and ‘political’ is becoming increasingly blurred.
Zach Tratar [Ref.1] writes; “A mass hijacking of our minds is currently underway. Perhaps you’ve felt it for a while now. Underlying facts seem increasingly rare, “the truth” is debated back and forth without progress, and people’s behaviors continuously bend towards the irrational“.
Entire populations are dumbed-down and public opinion manipulated to carry out the designs of the controllers, who profess to know what is correct, desirable and good for Sapiens society. Regardless of the socio-economic level of such people, they form the beginnings of a subaltern class.
Questioning authority becomes defiance of authority, so people take the easier path of acquiescence or supine acceptance of authoritarian coercion or fiat. They easily and unquestioningly submit to technological biological/genetic manipulation, and would even possibly further the policies and purposes of the controllers, by enforcing it on others who may not be so pliable. Even presently available science & technology (SciTech) makes eugenics technologically possible by differentially enabling or disabling different sections of people selectively, to create subaltern Sapiens societies.
However, SciTech is not essential to create a subaltern class. Although Constitutionally barred, a subaltern class of the “lowest” caste and even a caste-less population beneath this “lowest” caste, exists in the ages-old multi-tiered caste hierarchy.
Parallel, competing societies
As SciTech advances, it would be relatively easy to biologically and socially transform Sapiens, along with – perhaps unintentionally – creating a parallel society populated by AI-actuated machine robots, sentient humanoid (android and gynoid) robots, with autonomous AI-entities in control. Mayet Ligad Yuhico [Ref.2] has coined the term Homo Roboticus for such entities possessing phenomenal learning and cognitive capabilities [Note 2].
The controlling entity of the two societies would at first be the very few numbers of humans possessing the educational-financial means and access to deep and comprehensive understanding of SciTech, using the AI resources.
Over a few generations, using AI and SciTech-enabled genetic modification (GM), these humans could self-engineer their own DNA so as to acquire physical and mental capabilities far superior to the vast majority of Sapiens populations. This superior class of Sapiens would be able to exercise hegemonic power over the vast majority of the subaltern population.
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Sapiens populations thus controlled, can be subjected to eugenics policies by engineering their DNA tailored to specific service functions with designed mental and physical characteristics and capabilities, to create Sapiens sub-species for specific purposes determined by the superior Sapiens for its own benefit.
Likewise, dominant AI-entity members of Roboticus could also modify physical characteristics, mental capabilities and personality traits of other humanoid Roboticus members using GM and other SciTech capabilities which they would have mastered and used for themselves. Roboticus individuals would be AI-programmed to perform specific functions to create a social structure within Roboticus.
Inevitably, Sapiens and Roboticus would be competing species, each with its own socio-political structure and leadership. The ethnically and racially diverse Sapiens societies and the less diverse and rigidly hierarchical Roboticus, would interact based upon an agreed protocol according to stated and unstated policy. Inter-species competition for dominance would include clandestine efforts by both species to engineer genetic and other changes in their own and the other species.
Sapiens biological vulnerability
IPCC predicts that a warmed-up planet and changed climate would result in loss of land space due to rising ocean level and desertification of large parts of global lower latitudes, with lesser areas in more northern latitudes improving for agriculture. This would cause extremely inhospitable conditions regarding food, water and living conditions, threatening survival of Sapiens in large numbers.
Roboticus individuals created using 3-D printing from molecular level need only materials sources and non-food energy sources. Thus, Roboticus would have low biological vulnerability by design. Indeed, the meaning of “birth”, “life”, “survival” and “death” for Roboticus would be predicated on their requirement of sources of materials and energy for survival and reproduction.
The asymmetry of vulnerability of the two species would translate to efforts of one to retain or gain ascendancy over the other. The inter-species interactions may include establishing protocols, parleying, bargaining and internecine conflict. The possibility of kinetic conflict cannot be ruled out, but the industrial-era style conflict would likely be superseded by data-era style conflict for more than one reason.
Conflict of interests
Only the top echelons of both species would have access to AI, robotics and other emerging and cutting-edge SciTech, with undisputed and undisputable control over their respective societies.
It is not difficult to envisage a situation when Roboticus uses the AI resources and their own capabilities of asexual, large-scale self-replication to over-ride, even usurp, the power and authority of the minuscule numbers of superior Sapiens who control them, both in terms of numbers – with the sperm count among the ruling Sapiens males declining [Ref.3] – and physical-mental-intellectual capability. The subaltern Sapiens populations would become the “prize” for the Roboticus take-over. But even before this contest, a conflict of controlling interests between Sapiens and Roboticus could arise.
The hard and soft sciences
Starting with the industrial revolution which enabled production of goods – and later services – on an unprecedented scale and rate, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have been at the core of discoveries and inventions. These goods have provided economic or commercial advantage to the developer and producer, and often been used for military or political advantage. Over the decades, the focus of STEM has shifted from being human-benefit-centric to becoming the driver of industry primarily for economic growth and financial profit through trade and commerce.
In present times, STEM is used primarily to improve competitiveness in science and technology development, with an unstated emphasis on commercial profit. Although not formally acknowledged, the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) are accorded status secondary to STEM.
Development of SciTech and applying it to industrial production processes calls for application of scientific methods for management of STEM. Thus, adding the ‘M’ of management to coin ‘STEMM’ may be appropriate.
AI as the outcome of STEMM and HASS
Extremely rapid developments in AI are leading to fundamental changes in the way in which a large proportion of Sapiens live. Algorithms which are the core of AI, can already detect Parkinson’s disease and cancer, although this is expensive and therefore available only to a socio-economically privileged minority, when seen in the context of 7.8-billion Sapiens on the planet. Therefore increased longevity and improved physical and mental functionality for Sapiens individuals will be available only to the superior Sapiens.
AI combines cutting-edge, cross-disciplinary SciTech, and will be some combination of STEMM and HASS; that is, a convergence of the hard and soft sciences. With intensive capital investment, AI will possess broad-spectrum applicability, enabling deep socio-political penetration.
As with almost any technology, AI offers both positive (opportunities) and negative (threats) possibilities. The manner in which societies accept and implement AI, and changes within and between societies, will depend upon their inherent strengths and weaknesses.
The relatively new subject of Data Science is an IT-based inter-disciplinary convergence of theories, techniques and methods to model real-life phenomena, for knowledge-creation using data bases or large data sets. Data Science is about acquiring, storing, handling and processing “big data”. Recognition of its fundamental value may have prompted the quip, “Data is the new oil”. Data Science may be used for strategic decision-making in fields as diverse as military, intelligence, politics, business, commerce, communications, science, etc.
Experience, capability and strategy
There is no guarantee that the biological child of a Sapiens couple will inherit the (superior) physical and mental capabilities of either parent. Furthermore, when a parent dies, the information, knowledge and experience dies with him/her. Although all that can be stored in a computer system, Sapiens progeny needs to learn, understand and internalize it and gain experience with passage of time. The possibility of surgically embedding in the child’s brain, a low-energy micro-miniaturized system containing the knowledge cannot be ruled out. But even so, experience cannot be gained by this means. Biological death of any Sapiens individual will raise the identical problem.
On the other hand, an AI entity who is a member of Roboticus, suffers no biological death. If sub-systems malfunction or require upgrading, they can be replaced. In effect, the AI entity lives on “forever”, or at any rate, much longer than any individual member of Sapiens, or even several generations of Sapiens. More importantly, such an AI entity would continue to accumulate experience without the interruption with which Sapiens would have to contend.
AI’s present capability for facial recognition and emotion analysis, is already being deployed by some governments as part of public surveillance for security. [Ref.4]. This capability when developed further, would be available to an autonomous AI entity which has accumulated data on Sapiens individuals, for independent strategic decision-making. However, Sapiens leaders cannot reciprocally use this AI capability on humanoid (or droid) Roboticus, because their “facial features” are exact reproductions, displaying emotions which are part of the in-built algorithm.
AI capability is developing very rapidly, and a recent study shows that “AI can learn to identify vulnerabilities in human habits and behaviours and use them to influence human decision-making”. [Ref.5] Put another way, AI can influence and modify human behaviour. This idea when extended implies that as AI’s capability develops, an AI entity (Roboticus) can insidiously influence, even train, Sapiens on how and what to think.
An entity mastering Data Science for strategic purposes would gain strategic advantage over another entity with lesser mastery. As discussed earlier, an autonomous AI entity could out-manoevre a human who uses AI as a tool, howsoever intelligent the human is. Thus, Roboticus could likely out-STEMM and out-strategize the superior, ruling-class Sapiens. And therein lies a challenge.
As an example, consider an outcome of USA’s Freedom of Information Act. It revealed that the US National Office of Military Space Intelligence has developed a powerful artificial brain named ‘Sentient’, primarily for military use. [Ref.6]. Vladislav Tchakarov writes: “Unlike any other AIs in existence, it differs in the degree of independence. Usually the algorithm works with the loaded information, but Sentient can even direct satellites to get images of the objects it needs. In fact, it can be called an artificial brain”.
‘Sentient’ is cognitive since it can perceive what it possesses and what it does not. It has the capability to feel a need for something which it does not possess – that is, it has ‘desires’. In a sense, ‘Sentient’ may be said to be both cognitive and conscious – a living, sentient, perhaps even self-aware being. The given name ‘Sentient’ is surely not arbitrary, and its development for military use is ominous when we consider a Roboticus population of AI entities with Sapiens qualities.
As researchers develop more powerful algorithms, ‘Sentient’ or other similar AI entities can develop more independence and along with it, a sense of volition. Such an AI entity will purposively strive to satisfy its needs, wants and desires, and develop aspirations. It will transcend from simple decision-making to develop a sense of determination and initiative. It will possess a psyche and consciousness, like a member of the Sapiens species.
As an aside, it is tempting to shift track into the Vedantic philosophy of consciousness and being, but that would be an uncalled-for digression in the current context, and can be discussed separately.
With the advent of digital information technology, the volume of knowledge is growing at an exponential rate. In 2019 it was assessed that the body of human knowledge was doubling every 12-months. The growth of knowledge is linked closely with the volumes of data acquired or accessed, stored and processed, and in turn is connected to improved, and still improving, low-energy hardware and software. It is anticipated that the body of human knowledge will double perhaps every 12-hours in the not-distant future. [Ref.7].
Even today, the most intelligent members of Sapiens – like say, members of Mensa International – cannot even peruse the enormous volume of knowledge being developed within and between multiple disciplines, leave alone study, understand and remember it for intelligent application.
Information overload is a problem for Sapiens. However, that may not be a serious problem to AI entities (like an upgraded ‘Sentient’), which would be a part of Roboticus. It is not difficult to conceive of a future when AI entities of Roboticus could compete with its progenitor Sapiens, and even pose an existential challenge to Sapiens.
Yesterday’s science fiction is today’s reality and tomorrow’s common practice. The world of tomorrow may consist of different kinds of humans (Sapiens), and humanoid and machine robots (Roboticus), with populations under the influence and control of AI. We are transiting into times with a planet and a world which are transforming uncontrollably and unpredictably in multiple ways. The direction of change is towards using SciTech to centralize social, economic and political power.
It would therefore be wise to carefully examine the social, economic and political effects of AI on societies, and the ethical and moral dilemmas with which humanity may be confronted.
Starting in the 20th Century, there has been a concerted move to “transform our world”, the possessive pronoun perhaps indicating hubris. Initiated by world leaders and the economic upper crust of societies worldwide, this move to “transform” is based upon ideas discussed at the World Economic Forum, which meets annually at Davos. The WEF prepared Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) for 2000-2015, and later Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2015-2030, all with action plans. These transformative measures were designed for large-scale social and economic reform and change, without disturbing political power structures.
However, those who seek to transform “our” world fail to understand that the relentless march of SciTech is willy-nilly transforming the world in unintended ways. To quote Aroon Raman [Ref.8], “The world ‘is’. But humankind does not accept this. We seek to mould the world to our desires. The result is violence against the world, which is also a form of violence against ourselves”. Will the out-of-control advancement of SciTech cause violence against ourselves?
In the new technological society which Sapiens is creating, it is imperative that we need to examine the evidence at hand and ask ourselves three questions, namely: (1) Has Sapiens opened a SciTech Pandora’s Box? (2) Could Sapiens’ SciTech capability empower Roboticus with superior SciTech capability to control, even subjugate Sapiens? and (3) Is Sapiens on a self-destructive path because of its SciTech capability?
The unintended transformation could hasten creation of an AI-dominated “deep state” [Ref.9], leading to dystopian surveillance regimes. [Ref.10]. Judging from recent reports of several large countries worldwide, perhaps this process is already underway.
Whether or not this is the end-game, if Sapiens is to steer away from possible take-over by Roboticus, we need a “road map”. This would be for world’s political and thought leaders to understand that they cannot “transform our world” using the current failed paradigm of competition-dominance-control. This failed paradigm should be replaced by a new paradigm of of cooperation-understanding-sharing within and between societies. This should encourage people to seek and secure justice, liberty and equality along with democratic rights. This is surely a tall order, but hope is ever-present in every sane mind that it is doable in the best interest of 7.8-billion Sapiens alive today, and their progeny.
Is this airy-fairy idealism? This and other questions need to be considered by those with wisdom which this writer does not claim to possess. The answers to the questions may determine the future of our species as a part of the new global technological society.
4D printing. 3D printing connected with nanotechnology has made 4D printing possible, starting 2012. This involves designed post-production, time-based, structural changes in the object created by 3D printing. Integration of 4D printing with emerging genetic modification techniques creates a number of bio-technological possibilities to mimic biological life.
According to Susan Krawitz, Homo Roboticus is a richly-imagined cautionary tale of a future earth in which long-feared climate disaster has actually happened, the world’s population is permanently at war, and robots have become almost more human than their creators.
- Zach Tratar; “Disinformation: The game of belief is now a war”; <https://zachtratar.com/Disinformation-The-Game-of-Belief-is-now-a-War.html#.YBkQgdbhVuS>; February 1, 2021.
- Mayet Ligad Yuhico; “Homo Roboticus”; <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50795699-homo-roboticus>; 2019.
- Ashley Fetters; “Sperm Counts Continue to Fall”; The Atlantic; <https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/10/sperm-counts-continue-to-fall/572794>; October 12, 2018.
- Steve Nouri; “How AI is making an Impact on the Surveillance World”; https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2020/12/04/how-ai-is-making-an-impact-on-the-surveillance-world/; Forbes Technology Council; December 4, 2020.
- Jon Whittle; “AI can now learn to manipulate human behaviour”; The Conversation; <https://theconversation.com/ai-can-now-learn-to-manipulate-human-behaviour-155031>; February 11, 2021.
- Vladislav Tchakarov; “Sentient: The Artificial Brain Created By The Military”; <https://curiosmos.com/sentient-the-artificial-brain-created-by-the-military/>; Curiosmos; January 31, 2021.
- Duli Pllana; “Expanding Entire Volume of Knowledge Influences on Incrementing Individual Knowledge”; Global Journal of HUMAN-SOCIAL SCIENCE: H Interdisciplinary; Volume 19 Issue 8 Version 1.0 Year 2019; Type: Double Blind Peer Reviewed International Research Journal; Publisher: Global Journals; Online ISSN: 2249-460x & Print ISSN: 0975-587X; <file:///tmp/mozilla_sgv0/3032-1-2977-1-10-20191224-3.pdf>.
- Aroon Raman; “The Treasure of Kafur”; Pan Books, 2013.
- The Wachowskis & Joel Silver; “The Matrix”; <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Matrix_(franchise)>.
- Rod Dreher; “Remember what Snowden told us”; <https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/remember-what-edward-snowden-told-us-surveillance-state/>; January 19,2021.
**Dr.S.G. Vombatkere, retired in the military rank of Major General as Additional DG Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ AG’s Branch. His area of interest is strategic and development-related issues. He holds a PhD in Civil Structural Dynamics from I.I.T Madras. He is Life Fellow (No.LF/2326/602/2019) of The Indian Social Science Academy.