Human Future in the Digital Era – Whence society? Whence humanity ?

irobot warrior


The current stage of human societies on Planet Earth has three defining characteristics. One: The extremely rapid penetration of science and technology into human societies, with concomittant changes in their social, economic and political structures. Two: An explosion in the totality of energy-use by industrialized and industrializing human societies, resulting in planet-level (climate) changes posing an existential threat to human and also other species. Three: The development of machines which are becoming more and more “human-like”.

Human ingenuity and creativity has brought about phenomenal advances in science and technology, and the cutting-edge technologies today concern information (IT), biotechnology (BT) and production/fabrication from extremely small levels of matter (nano-technology or NT). This trio of IT-BT-NT are all based upon the digital computational power made available through the development of machines (computers) operating on the basis of the binary numerical system. These machines with enormous computational capability are small in size and energy requirement, and can acquire, store and analyse data to acquire knowledge. In turn, based upon machine data handling and machine knowledge systems, developments and refinements have created the new, path-breaking field of artificial intelligence (AI). AI along with robotics, far exceeds human capabilities in several areas of knowledge and skill. AI is increasingly being used or planned for use in warfare, and the line or distinction between natural human intelligence and AI is blurring. These changes have huge ethical and even moral repercussions, matters which human societies need to address. Among these issues, the questions of defining “life” and “humanity” are perhaps the most basic and important.

Even while having potential for benefit, the IT-BT-NT trio poses challenges to humanity, because of its enormous potential for use by state or non-state actors for psychological, political or commercial manipulation of large populations for partisan purposes. This can alter the very manner in which individuals think, behave and act in the societal context, and can result in the replacement of unstructured, intuitive learning connected with the arts and humanities, with structured, cognitive learning and the rejection of all informal knowledge systems as unscientific mumbo-jumbo.

Almost imperceptibly, the IT-BT-NT trio is de-humanising the relationships between individuals and within societies. It is an important factor in the psychological evolution of humanity. The implications of this evolutionary change in the psychological make-up of our species are not fully comprehended.

Today, humanity is at the cusp of digital-driven change. Fundamental, existential questions arise – questions such as, will social changes due to IT-BT-NT drive changes in the human species to enable its survival on a planet which may be at the tipping point of climate change and mass biological extinctions? Can BT manipulate human genes to “manufacture” humans who can adapt to a vastly different and hostile thermal and chemical planetary environment? With extra-terrestrial exploration, can AI, enabled by IT-BT-NT, help humans to populate other planets within or outside our solar system? Will AI create conditions (perhaps sub-terrainean, perhaps ultra-low-energy-consuming) which can permit the human species to survive in some form familiar to us today? But these questions may return us to the need to define “life” and “humanity”, and the meaning of “consciousness”. They may drive us from the physical, including scientific investigations into the origin of the universe, to the metaphysical, including reasons for the existence of the universe.

However, to adhere to the focal theme of this Indian Social Science Congress, we need to focus on ideas and thought-streams which are more deterministic, in the interest of humanity at its present “digital crossroads”. This discussion therefore concerns the real-life aspects of digitization, which has the potential to change societies at individual, societal levels and global levels.

We will concern ourselves with digital data (as opposed to analog data) and its acquisition, processing, storage and manipulation, for desired outcomes. As digital technology is refined and made more efficient in terms of power, speed and reliability, and the development, production and use of digital devices proliferates, we should not fail to note that inevitably there are also undesirable and unpredictable outcomes.

From bulky computers of the 1960s using magnetic tapes and energy-hungry peripherals, today we have parallel computing using ever smaller devices needing minuscule energy and working at mind-boggling speeds. This has made reality of machine-learning and machine-knowledge systems, and the development and implementation of robotics and artificial intelligence, in the broad field of information technology. This has enabled huge computing capability for the good of societies even while creating the means for surveillance and control of societies in different ways. The time has come when the joke doing the rounds is that the managerial challenge today is dealing with artificial intelligence and natural stupidity!

Striking a balance

The media usually highlights the bright side of the burgeoning scientific and technological advances which bring digital devices and machines into common use. The commercial reasons for this are not difficult to understand. However, with technological advances or “solutions” there are unforeseen (sometimes unforeseeable) negative fall-outs due to the unintended consequences of misuse of technology or error in technical design.

There are many influential proponents of a future, of machines taking over the drudgery and physical needs of humans. This rosy picture needs to be tempered by a review of the already visible negative effects and of future negative effects of such advances. This paper attempts to strike the balance by examining the possibilities in the digital future of humanity, and raising some moral, ethical and legal questions.

However, this paper does not deal with the important social-justice issues of “which sections of present inegalitarian societies benefit from such frontline technologies, and which sections pay for it and in what manner”. These questions need to be separately addressed.

The “superior” species

The opposing thumb and the cerebral cortex distinguish humans from other mammals and other forms of life. Human hands with its fingers (digits) guided by superior human cerebral power, rocketed Homo Sapiens into becoming the most powerful species on the planet. The technology of fire-making and of the wheel were perhaps the two most important developments by which the digital era may even have started millennia ago! And today we observe youngsters with mobile phones using their thumbs to communicate very rapidly on social media!

The idea of “natural stupidity” is based upon the belief that machines doing something more quickly than humans is necessarily good. This has captured the minds of most leaders of societies worldwide, with the notable exception of Gandhiji. Such leaders are sold on science and technology (S&T), perhaps out of a respect based upon their inability to understand “scientific” knowledge because it is esoteric. This is partly due to our faulty education system and partly due to the jargon, hype and promises of science and technology, or due to sensing material or political benefit from the use of those technologies. This is reflected in the fact of the widely held belief that S&T can solve all sorts of problems including social problems, and justifying poorly planned introduction of S&T into all aspects of governance.

Science and technology is pushing the frontiers of knowledge, which is growing at a phenomenal rate. Today, virtually any information is available on the internet by using a search engine such as Google, and the problem is not insufficient information but information overload.

Information technology based principally on digital techniques has enabled the production and control of machines which are ever smaller or increasingly efficient, and has spawned other technologies and provided the tools for opening up new frontiers of science. Digitization refers to the capability and implementation of digital (computing) technologies into common usage for every-day tasks as well as for specialized or niche applications.

Humans rule Planet Earth by virtue of their intellectual and technological power. But the way in which human societies have grown has led to great divisions between and within societies. Today, while science and technology do provide means to benefit societies and individuals, it is also increasingly being used for life-denying applications like weapons of mass destruction. This destructive capability has been greatly enhanced by the connected technologies of IT, BT and NT.

Industrial activity of human societies has expanded based upon the ability to acquire and use energy from fossil fuels. The cumulative effect of human industrial activity over the last two centuries has led to rise in level of atmospheric carbon, leading to global warming. Global warming has led to climate change, which is an existential threat for human societies if not to humanity itself. Paradoxically, it is the much-vaunted “superior” human intelligence which is the cause for this existential threat.

Power centralization by digitization

Data has been referred to as “the new oil” of the digital economy. Data is a prized commodity and strategic asset. The real-time value of data is when it is acquired, organized as a database, and interpreted as an asset, to enhance national strategic/political aims and objectives or business/commercial interests. Management of the asset can provide valuable, actionable information. Creation and management of a large database can only be done with huge financial, technical and infrastructural resources. Such resources are available only with large business corporations or governments, resulting in centralization of political power, and making data the “oxygen of the digital economy”.

Proponents of the digital economy claim that in the public sphere, reaching social and monetary benefits to the deserving poor is made more effective due to elimination of spurious beneficiaries. The basis of this claim is belied by the technical, social and organizational realities of the scheme and its implementation. This points to the fact that digitizing an economy does not mean digitizing society itself, because society consists of real people with individual and collective strengths and weaknesses, which are irreducible to binary choices inherent to digitization.

Ultimately, digitized data is held, managed and controlled as a database by a human. Control over multiple databases through digitization therefore tends towards centralization of control. In the extreme, this can lead to a digital dictatorship, where the power of data and knowledge is wielded by a single person or a small group of powerful persons.

Such a person or group would have power over politicians who interact directly with people, and would constitute the so-called “deep state” – an unaccountable, unseen, but extremely powerful entity. Thus the foundational governance values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity are likely to be diminished rather than enhanced by digitization. It will cause fundamental change in the transactional relationship between governments and the governed, and thereby change society itself. Digitized governance systems tend to work in the direction of centralizing political power, and against the democratic grain.

The foregoing would apply to every society due to the deep penetration of digital technology into all aspects of daily life. Accordingly, inequality of political and economic power within and between societies may increase, with persons in positions of political and administrative power and authority being directly or indirectly under the control of the deep state, exercising vastly disproportionate influence on society in virtual master-slave or feudal relationships.

Centralization of political and economic power through deep penetration of digitization would be self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating, determine the nature of transactions and relations within and between digitized societies, and widen existing class and economic gaps. Dissent and protest by under-privileged sections of society arising from asymmetry of power-and-authority within society, will be easily suppressed using digital techniques of surveillance-and-tracking (use of drones), crowd control (using drone-mounted “plasma guns”) and biometric (face-in-the-crowd) identification of leaders of agitations.

The defence of digitization in an economically stratified society is based on the belief that society will be administered through benevolence, munificence and philanthropy by the power-group at the helm of governance. This is belied both by historical evidence and modern experience, since power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Digitization and cyber threat

Today, information technology (IT) capability and application are growing exponentially. The use of IT is centred on critical hardware and critical software which are purchased from international vendors. This results in the strong possibility of pre-installed hardware or software backdoors with the attendant risk of compromise of personal privacy and national security. The clandestine installation of microdevices in core hardware at some stage of the manufacturing process make possible, access to data and its processing and routing by the entity which installed the backdoor.

The interconnectedness between systems or autonomous data silos, facilitates free-lancing or institutional hackers to use a single “entry-point” in one database to access data in other systems or databases. The insertion of “worms” and “trojans” into databases and servers to disable them, and demanding money for removing them, is already established cyber crime.

Institutional and private entities which own and control state-of-the-art digital capability to acquire, store and process/analyse enormous volumes of data, possess huge capability for untargetted surveillance of populations, to further political or corporate interests. Given current digital technological capability, tracking persons by their mobile phones or monitoring private lives through embedded digital devices in homes is now easy. Thus, notwithstanding data protection laws (so far not enacted), invasion of individual privacy appears to be a certain scenario of the emerging digital economy.

The cyber threat to a nation-state grows as State, non-state, institutional and free-lance adversaries of the State become better equipped in the use of easily available cyber toolkits. Cyber attack could be directed at critical infrastructure or government – including the military – by deletion of data in databases or localized / region-wide disruption or denial of data through hacking servers or routers. Cyber attack can deliver body blows to the economy, even paralyse it. Indeed, wars in the future may be in cyber space.

The growth of terrorist outfits using cyber techniques is the ground for governments to surveil populations through facial recognition or other biometric matching, and by obtaining the metadata concerning their use of social media. Alongside this will be inevitable profiling of individuals within the population. Population-scale digitization and acquisition of personal data for untargetted surveillance in the name of security against terrorists, will not merely impinge upon personal privacy, but centralization of power and control through digitization of society could set the stage for the development of a police State.

At the forefront of current micro-minitiaturization work, is the production of very small (of size and appearance of an insect like a house fly) remotely controlled robots, which can enter living and working spaces for audio-visual surveillance, monitoring or spying.

MIT (USA) scientists have developed a process to mass-produce robots containing electronic circuits of the size of a biological cell, to transmit data from their location to an external monitor. Such robots can monitor conditions inside a gas or oil pipeline, just as easily as detect disease when introduced into the bloodstream of a biological being. These synthetic cells or “syncells” reportedly behave like a living biological cell, and have beneficial uses just as much as for imaginatively nefarious purposes in the hands of criminals or political enemies.

Digitization thus opens a wide vista of possibilities for beneficial as well as undesirable/criminal use of robots.

A digital future

In present times, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are fast developing realities, which one needs to understand before seeing what they can do. Briefly, AI is the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages. And ML is an application of AI that provides computer systems the ability to automatically learn and improve from experience without being explicitly programmed, by independently developing computer programs that can access data and use it to learn for themselves.

The combined four fields of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), neuron-based computing (extremely low power requirement and manifold enhanced computing speed), and 3D printing using exotic materials and nano-technology (NT), provide almost limitless scope for production of prototypes and mass production of end-use products. This combination may be referred to as the “digital future”. The products could be more robust AI computer systems, more and better robots and humanoids, or as-yet-undreamt-of machines and devices with undreamt-of strengths and capabilities to change virtual reality (which is possible even today) to a new reality.

Combined with biotechnology (BT) involving computer-based modification of genetic material, the digital future could permit designing and creating biological super-humans with desired capabilities and strengths. Of course, its undeniable flip-side is the possibility of inadvertently  or purposefully creating beings with undesirable qualities.

Social, legal, ethical and even moral questions arise along with each mind-boggling possibility. Let us consider just two illustrative examples.

#1. A robot, humanoid or not, which is designed to serve industrial, commercial, business or individual needs can become defective, whether due to deliberate (hacking, etc., done by humans or AI entities) or failure-mode change, or initial bug in the core hardware or software. Such a defect could turn a robot continuously or intermittently away from its design functions to wasteful, obstructive or destructive activities. What are the legal remedies for losses or harms due to such events? How would a human who is a physical or economic victim or encounters such a situation, handle it? What is the accountability of the manufacturer/maintainer/owner of the robot for damage caused?

#2. An anti-social or mentally deranged scientist using the tools of AI, or a highly developed AI system acting independently, can design or conduct a gene-splicing experiment, to create a Frankenstein’s monster, which will be essentially un-recallable. What are the moral and ethical principles, codes and norms which inform and circumscribe creative scientific and technological endeavours? How will society and who in society will decide and adjudicate on the imponderables of a digital future?

Thus the digital future of large masses of humanity contending with the consequences of deliberate or inadvertent glitches in the AI- and ML-enhanced creative abilities can be negatively synergistic, constituting safety, health and environmental threats.

The burden of proof of health and environmental safety should lie with the proponents of these technologies rather than on the public, who would be victims.

Creative thinking, discussion and debate

It is held that original thinking especially in the creative arts comes best, although not entirely, from reflection, debate and discussion in human-to-human learning and interactions. This involves expression of ideas and emotions through musical compositions and performances, painting-drawing-photography-cartooning, poetry, writings, story-telling, theatre and cinema, pantomime, puppetry, dance, and so on.

Such expression is connected with a good measure of spontaniety, especially among persons gifted with capability of expression in one or more of these fields. Today, persons who may not have particularly great abilities in the visual or performing arts, are turning to computers with specialized software, and are able to express themselves creatively in these very fields.

For the past few decades, people have used computers to create paintings and other works of art, or posters and advertisement boards, etc., and for special effects and animation in cinema. But today, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has started to create such art work, and very recently, a painting created by AI was reported in the media. The day when AI will engage in such creations in other visual and performing arts independent of human “priming” or intervention, may not be distant.

Will human creativity be transcended by AI creativity? If so, and if these creations benefit society, why not? But then there can be another, darker question. What indeed is the meaning of “creativity”, when creativity includes inventing devices and means of destruction of people and societies? The future of AI exceeding human capabilities in creating means for destruction is not beyond the range of possibility, in an era when de-humanized science and technology overtakes and submerges the arts and humanities.

Health and family

Cartoons showing physical and psychological effects of heavy usage of hand-held electronic devices are doing the rounds. Perhaps the most telling cartoon is of a person, mobile phone in hand, entering a De-addiction Centre and viewing a board which reads: “1st Floor – FACEBOOK; 2nd Floor – TWITTER; 3rd Floor – INSTAGRAM; (and most hilarious of all) Roof Top – TEXTING WHILE WALKING”.

The most ubiquitous digital device is the mobile phone. It has long ago transcended its basic voice communication purpose, and is today a veritable hand-held computer. Enabled by software applications (Apps for short), it is capable of texting, video calling across continents, taking pictures including “selfies”, GPS position, ordering taxi, food, etc., weather forecast, etc. It is not unusual to observe people sitting ostensibly “together”, with heads bent down and thumbs busy communicating with a third person (who may even be present!), or taking a selfie at a scenic spot or with an important person, to send it to a WhatsApp group.

Digitization has spawned vast numbers of video games and made them easily available to an owner of affordable electronic devices. It is now recognized that many video games and on-line entertainment, and even e-mail or mobile phone use are addictive, and others like “Blue Whale” can be dangerous. Reportedly, NIMHANS has recently recognized an addiction to “Netflix”, a non-stop entertainment channel. Children, even toddlers, are getting increasingly addicted to “screens” – TV, mobile phone or laptop. They are less able to socialize with peers, play team games or take physical exercise. A common anxiety, even nagging “fear”, is of one’s mobile battery power failing!

Persons using digital devices are often able to reduce time spent on routine tasks, whether personal or job-related, releasing the time saved for other activities, including more work. There are others who use digital devices to seek and secure more work. The accent is on “doing more” of whatever, making for a life-style which involves less physical (manual) activity and sedentary occupations. In general, this leads to working longer or erratic hours, as may be observed among young, e-savvy corporate executives, more work stress (with accompanying life-style diseases like obesity, hypertension and diabetes) and reduced quality of life, even if more income may raise the standard of living.

Labour-saving “automatic” home appliances from fuzzy-logic automatic washing machines to remote-controlled devices are digitally controlled. These machines certainly save labour or physical effort, but they also create dependence, making the owner/user helpless and stressed-out without it.

The reality is that these digital gizmos are affecting the physical and psychological health, cognitive capabilities, family cohesion, and inter-personal and social skills of significant sections of the population. These effects in one generation will inevitably affect their progeny, altering the basic psyche of significant numbers of humans and the structure and nature of human societies.

Politics and social media

American political commentator Jerome Corsi has opined that “the first principle of all propaganda and disinformation involves the manipulation of public opinion by the creation of a lie — known in today’s terminology as a ‘narrative’ [that is] crafted to be sufficiently credible [so that] a persistent campaign of repeating the lie can change public opinion, even if the lie — the ‘narrative’ or the ‘meme’ — is totally untrue [and] concocted without any basis in fact, evidence, or reality.” To ensure that the propaganda spreads, attempts to disprove the disinformation meme are countered or dismissed as conspiracy theories.

Putting out propaganda and disinformation using electronic communication media as a political tool, is greatly simplified and enhanced by the huge capabilities of IT for mass communication. Needless to say, the means of electronic mass communication would be controlled by the entity which initiates the propaganda or disinformation. This aspect of IT is already happening in many societies across the globe, and technological advancements will make it easier and more pervasive.

The use of social media for trolling (direct, anonymous or pseudonymous attacks) targetted individuals for almost any reason, is a reality. This is often off-the-record politics of plausible deniability. Social media on the one hand enables individuals or groups which have a propensity or readiness to be insulted or hurt by actions or spoken/written words, to advertise their victimhood.  On the flip-side, victims of injustice or crime are able to use social media to voice their problems to “name and shame” perpetrators of injustice or crime.

Laws to protect privacy and control misuse of social media are necessary, but the offender or criminal is always at least one jump ahead of the law. Social media and other IT communication tools work as force-multipliers equally for socially useful, socially acceptable, socially harmful or criminal purposes. Of course this is true of almost any technology, but powerful IT-enabled tools are easily accessible to almost anybody, and their illegitimate uses may well overwhelm their productive uses, unless there are valid and implementable social and legal restraints.

Transforming society by transforming humans

Recombinant DNA technology, or genetic modification (GM) for short, aims at modification of genetic material of biological species to transfer selected behavioural or physical traits from one species to another, by mechanical or biological introduction of selected genes of the ‘donor’ species into the chromosomes of the ‘host’ species. This causes modification of the physical or behavioural characteristics in the progeny of the host species. Modern IT tools enable GM with increasing predictability, according to experts in the field.

The Human Genome Project was conducted to determine the sequence of the nucleotide base pairs of human DNA (or “reading” the human gene) to identify and map genes which govern the physical and behavioural aspects of a human. This was a necessary stepping-stone for a line of research directed towards genetic synthesis, which is the meeting point of biological research with IT.

It seeks to develop the ability to synthesize DNA for plants, animals or humans to fit a pre-determined set of physical characteristics, abilities and behavioural patterns. Using a laptop and accessible software, the DNA code is written and sent to a 3D printer which prints the DNA molecule, which in turn is inserted into a cell to reprogram it. Since the cell is self-replicating, it would result in a biological entity which would never have been possible through natural processes of biological reproduction.

Such a synthetic human (or plant or animal) with precisely engineered physical and intellectual capabilities and behavioural traits, would be a super-human. Should experimentation go wrong due to invalid assumptions or experimental error, the end-product could well be a monster, which, in an end-game, could destroy natural humans and human societies. This is not anymore in the realm of conjecture. Research is well underway, but it is secret and outside the public domain because of IPRs.

The core issue is not improved predictability of such experiments due to better understanding or skill in manipulating genes. The issue is the combination of ethical, moral and legal positions of the GM processes, especially of genetic synthesis. The GM human product may be indistinguishable from “normal” humans, unless detailed testing is carried out. So it inevitably brings up some fundamental questions concerning introduction of ‘synthetic’ humans into the society of  “normal” humans. Questions arise regarding the genetic make-up of the progeny of ‘synthetic’ humans and indeed whether sexual reproduction would be required at all.

The synthesis of inorganic functional parts with biological material is not particularly new – we are familiar with cardiac pace-makers, prosthetic limbs, etc. However, now AI-ML-robotics can produce robots which are actuated and controlled by the thought of the controller. While perfection in this field may be in the future, integration of such a robotic device with a human or a ‘synthetic’ human is well on its way. This essentially transforms a living organism into a hyper-human if not a superhuman, bringing more ethical and moral issues to the fore.


Decision-making in ethical or moral matters in human affairs is still largely made by humans with all their fallibilities and frailities, but using cultural, social and individual values of “right” and “wrong”. These individual decision makers are responsible for the moral, social and environmental consequences of their decision. But in present times, as societies get more complex, and control gets increasingly centralized, decisions are necessarily subject to a procedural approach involving more numbers of persons, like a committee consulting a rule book, or disputes referred to a court of law. The alternative is of course, unilateral decision(s) by a dictator or powerful ruler, who may stifle those who question his/her decisions.

With digitization, decision-making in complex situations of many variables is possible by employing purpose-made algorithms working on knowledge systems and databases. This is standard practice in gaming, ranging from simple naughts-and-crosses games through chess, poker and corporate boardroom strategic decisions, to war-gaming.

Today, the human soldier uses several digital aids for combat. He takes decisions and acts and issues orders based upon his assessment of the information available to him from digital networks. Operating under military law, he remains responsible for his decisions and actions.

However, in the battlefield of tomorrow with AI put to use, the decision-maker could well be an AI-powered machine. For example, based on available input information in the battlefield, a robot soldier or a pilotless aircraft may fire weapons, raising questions of accountability, when targets are identified wrongly and attacked, or attacked disproportionately, or when the robot disobeys orders. Can a robot be punished for decisions which humans judge as wrong? Does a robot soldier come under military law? Can a human commanding officer be held accountable for a mistake committed by a technically defective robot soldier? Similar questions would arise in the corporate or governance context.

Complexity and system failure

Urbanization of human societies as human populations grow is a defining feature of present times. Today, more than 50% of the planet’s 7-billion population live in urban settings, and this urbanizing proportion is increasing. Human societies are systems of great complexity, with interactive sub-systems and sub-sub-systems living cheek-by-jowl, especially in the more densely populated nations of the “third world”. It is these continuous interactions, not all of them peaceful, that make for a dynamic balance of society within urban agglomerations and within nation states. Indeed, maintaining a dynamic balance within complex societies is the leading political challenge of present troubled times.

The digitization of societies is increasing the complexities and speed of interactions and socio-economic transactions within and between societies, as a function of economic and political policies. It is known that complex systems are more prone to collapse since the sub-systems and sub-sub-systems are tightly coupled. That is, the effects of failure of a sub-system for any reason (like say, large-scale natural disaster or successful cyber attack by an adversarial nation) can quickly and negatively be transferred to other sub-systems, with possible “house-of-cards” type of failure, unless immediate and adequate measures are taken to revive the failing sub-system or resuscitate the failed sub-system.

Such failure can only be avoided, mitigated or remedied by firm and rapid political-economic measures based upon person-to-person contact. However, due to the real-life “distance” between the rulers and large sections of the people, and notwithstanding the positive possibilities of electronic social media, handling large-scale failure in a complex society is beyond the capabilities of present disaster management organizations. In the context of extreme climate events due to creeping climate change, this predicament will only be magnified.

Communication with plants

Human languages are largely based upon functioning of the human cerebral cortex, and linguistics is the scientific study of language and its structure in terms of grammar, syntax and phonetics. Human-machine communication, as with computers, is through electro-mechanical devices, and also calls for linguistics. Although limited human-animal communication has been happening for millennia, this communication is not formalised as a language.

With present advances in nanotechnology coupled with information technology, the possibilities of communication between humans and plants are beginning to manifest. Inserting carbon nanotubes into plant tissue to detect nanoscale electronic changes in biological systems has enabled very rudimentary communication from plants to humans, like detecting and communicating the presence of explosive chemicals in soil for forensic purposes. The scope for development of this subject of nanobionics to a wider spectrum of plant-human communication is as yet open-ended and loaded with opportunities.

Plant-human communication will undoubtedly lead to better understanding of “language” in general. Notwithstanding, one wonders whether working towards better human-to-human communications would be more important, so that tensions and conflicts within and between societies can be replaced by peace through tolerance and acceptance of differences between individuals and societies.

Social interactions and software tools

IT software tools to assist in compositions in the fields of prose and poetry, and in the visual and performing arts are already easily available, and are getting ever more powerful and user-friendly. These tools enable persons otherwise unable to undertake these activities, to enter these fields to enrich their own experience. For example, a beginner with little or no discernible talent can compose prose and poems or music, paint and draw (computer art), and sing using digital pitch correction software, etc. Thus, IT can and does help in social skills, to connect with other humans in society through socially acceptable self-expression.

However, these social skills are acquired by dissociation from society since it calls for long hours of sitting before a computer screen to acquire these skills. The trade-off point is to be drawn and defined by every user of these IT software tools. A “wrong” definition can lead to actually withdrawing from society, even from family.

On the flip side, there are IT tools for image manipulation (such as “photoshop”) which can be and are being used, to create and communicate images which are deliberately false and misleading. This is obviously socially undesirable and often criminal.

Robots and AI – End game

It is reported that USA’s military (the Pentagon) plans to program the brains of soldiers to control robots with their thoughts. [1] Clearly, in this wanton scheme of science-for-killing, humans will control robots to kill humans (soldiers and civilians) and other robots. But since the the power of AI is superior to all but the most agile and gifted human minds, robots can theoretically at the very least, take control of militaries or strategic weapons, and deny control to their erstwhile human controllers. The repercussions of this scenario are alarming.

AI-driven robot soldiers and armed drones may be able to fight ground and air battles, while fighting a war is predicated upon strategic use of a combination of cyber attack, electronic warfare and psychological warfare. This will perhaps minimize direct soldier casualties. But again there is definite possibility of AI-created robots taking control of nuclear weapons from humans, and using them to eliminate humans (and coincidentally most other biological life forms) through large-scale nuclear exchange leading to immediate human deaths of hundreds of millions. The radioactive fallout will kill many more millions and disrupt societies. The inevitable consequence of large-scale nuclear explosions is fire-storms which will spew microparticles into the stratosphere to block sunlight and stop photosynthesis, thus destroying the food base for humans and other species. This could be a cause for the deaths of almost all of the surviving human populations and also to the end of human societies as we know them.

Some may view this ending on a sombre note as an extreme view, as unmitigated pessimism. But perhaps rationality would use the word “realism”, especially as humans are Planet Earth’s dominant life form, and a predator species. Humans, self-certified as “superior” and “rational” and self-named as Homo Sapiens, with intelligence and intellectual capabilities, has unilaterally claimed a position at the “top” of the evolutionary ladder, only to be on a self-destruct path. We need to examine the various possibilities that a digitalized future may hold for humans and human societies, and for other life forms on planet Earth.

From examination of the possibilities of broad-spectrum, in-depth digitization in the lives of individuals, communities and societies, salvation for human societies may be through competent leadership at various social levels. Leaders and people in general need to understand that humanity is merely one among the myriad life forms on the planet, if we are to check our current downwards spiral to self-destruction. It is appropriate to recall the timeless wisdom of Native American Chief Seattle: “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves”.


The “digital era” has the combination of information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology (IT-BT-NT) as the cutting edge of civilizational transformation. All three technologies are based upon digitization of data. Even at the design and engineering level, they are dependent upon digital techniques of computation and production. The individual or institution which owns and/or controls data will gain control over systems which use that data, whether the systems are machines or social structures.

The IT-BT-NT trio are game-changers which will transform the structure of societies so as to concentrate political (including military and police) and economic power in a very few persons. These persons will wield unquestioned and unquestionable authority simply because they would have access to information about persons and institutions within society.

There is the definite possibility that the “State”, howsoever it is defined and exists, would be controlled by the “deep state”.

The availability of various technologies – and especially IT-BT-NT together with others like nuclear technology – could be generating more problems than they solve, and are ecologically destructive, run-away technological solutions in search of problems to solve.

On the other hand, a pragmatic view may be to accept these technologies as a “given”, and initiate, engender and disseminate social processes to ensure that they are deployed and used for democratically improving life and livelihoods and sustaining biodiversity. This will undoubtedly involve a difficult and lengthy process of educational and social reforms, so as to shift out of the current paradigm of perpetual-quantitative-economic-growth together with economic-growth-at-any-cost. But it will surely be worth attempting, because without it, the slow or rapid collapse of industrial civilization and human populations due to climate change or nuclear holocaust or biological calamity, or some combination of these, appears inevitable.

In the distinct possibility of civilizational collapse, whatever the trigger(s), the quality of leadership needed to steer humanity out of its existential crisis will be crucial. The leaders of the societies of tomorrow will face enormous challenges, which the members of those societies will also be forced to confront.

It is appropriate to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes’ on what an economist should be, in terms of the qualities that a leader of tomorrow should possess in a world fraught with the challenges of nuclear holocaust or financial collapse, and the effects of global warming & climate change. He must be mathematician, scientist, historian, statesman, philosopher in some degree, able to contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and deal with the abstract and the concrete in the same flight of thought. He must view the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard, and he must be purposeful and yet personally disinterested, as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes be the wily politician. He must be able to steer human creativity out of its death-and-destruction mode towards conservation and sustainability through social change.

And further, to paraphrase John Stephens writing about the civil engineer, the leader of tomorrow should be able to understand the positive and negative implications and effects of digitization in social terms, be capable of embarking on the higher flights of science and technology even while being capable and willing to wear the gumboots required to negotiate the sticky mud of political situations, when meeting and interacting with the poorest in his society. He must be able to cross the borderlines of the disciplines of his political colleagues and opponents and engage effectively with cost accountants, economists, financial specialists and management consultants, for the greater social good. He must also be able “to walk with Kings nor lose the common touch”, if he is to be aware of ground realities.

Digitization tends towards greater centralization of politico-economic power and towards homogenizing societies. These tendencies of digitization go against democratization of societies and the general principle of diversity being the strength of eco-systems including human societies. I need to stress that this is not a neo-Luddite call to stop or reverse technological advances.

Human leaders need to acquire a broader understanding that technology cannot solve human social problems, and that biological and social diversity are essential for survival. They will also need to understand and genuinely implement the principles of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, to change or tweak existing economic and political systems. Survival is not possible without protection, preservation and conservation of natural resources and bio-diversity, for egalitarian provision of the basic needs of water & food security, clothing & shelter, and health, education, welfare and employment, for all.

Leaders and opinion-makers in societies need to acquire the practical wisdom to understand that climate change due to global warming is an existential threat to most living species and certainly to human societes. The threat is growing and not receding. Measures based on that understanding need implementation to mitigate the effects of climate change, and find an easier transition to so-called “deep adaptation” necessary for species survival. Solutions for mitigation and adaptation as a survival route for human societies, may not lie with blindly promoting digitization-based technologies.


  1. Gross, Michael Joseph,(2018); The Pentagon’s Push to Program Soldiers’ Brains: The military wants future super-soldiers to control robots with their thoughts; November 2018 issue; The Atlantic; <>.


S.G.Vombatkere holds a PhD in Civil Structural Dynamics (1987; I.I.T., Madras), and is a Fellow of The Institution of Engineers (India), and Fellow of The Indian Social Science Academy.

Email: <[email protected]>

(Acknowledgement: Paper presented at the 42nd Indian Social Science Congress, Bhubaneshwar, 2019. The Paper was published by the Indian Social Science Academy; Indian Social Science Academy 2022; ISBN:978-81-7097-318-8; pp.20-38).


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