Opinion | Tech-determinism and catastrophic stupidity

Idea of tech-determinism holds that tech has the ability to solve all our problems

Last week in this column, I wrote of a phenomenon called “catastrophic forgetting", which besets artificial intelligence (AI) computer programmes today. I contrasted this “catastrophic forgetting" with what I called the “catastrophic thinking" of our limbic brains, which supposedly reside in vestigial areas in our cerebral cortex and from where many of our survival-based thoughts arise.

Limbic thinking makes us react emotionally to some simple everyday situations as if they were existential threats, much like our primitive ancestors would have reacted to a predator. I concluded that understanding this “catastrophic thinking" is the only true antipode to AI’s “catastrophic forgetting".

This is because almost all AI computer programme development seems to be “top down", which looks at the thinking and reasoning accomplished by the more advanced areas of our brain. It is not “bottom up" and so does not start with the deeply embedded thought patterns that have established themselves in our brains long before we evolved into Homo sapiens.

It appears that there is yet another area of catastrophe that I failed to mention, and that is the “catastrophic stupidity" of our age. In March, Umair Haque, in a blog post titled The Age of the Imbecile, on the website medium.com, defined our current age as “catastrophically stupid".

Haque’s piece is wide ranging; it touches on several socio-economic and political issues, and scolds the reader by saying that it is we, the individuals, who the world over have actually chosen all this, and have made our present world one of “futility, emptiness, and hollowness".

Haque traces at least a portion of the explosion of stupidity to the last financial crisis, which is a decade-old this week. He points out five different types of what he calls imbecilic thought that have produced our current age.

The first is economic stupidity—as evidenced by nationalism, populism and austerity programmes.

The second is social stupidity, which is the idea that society can function without a well-defined set of social contracts, which allows for an “Uber that replaces ambulances" and “hyperloops that replace buses". The third, and the subject for more exploration in this column, is the idea of “tech-determinism", which holds that technology has the ability to solve all our problems. The fourth form of Haque’s definition of stupidity is “cultural stupidity" that gives rise to extremist religion and racism.

Haque’s fifth and final type of stupidity is psychological—evidenced by our denial or self-chosen ignorance, where we simply go on with our lives thinking that everything will be okay and go back to normal. Whew!

The tech-determinism that Haque speaks of was of special interest to me. I think this form of catastrophic stupidity is reflected in the attitude of the modern individual who experiences the forefront of technological change. I find it curious that people find it acceptable that their email or messaging provider has the ability to peruse the contents of their emails and messages, and suggest appropriate responses. To me, this is an abhorrent state of affairs—rather like someone steaming open an envelope addressed to me so that he or she can read the contents of a private missive to me.

Yet, many people I speak to seem to be able to accept this technological development nonchalantly, naively believing that this makes their lives easier. The same extends to our willingness to cough up our Aadhaar numbers to firms that ask, and our fingerprints, facial images and detailed medical records to firms that don’t always actually ask, such as our smartphone manufacturers or social networking sites or medical insurers. All this for an imagined increase in “productivity" and “convenience".

Tech-determinism is also alive in many of the statements that leaders of the technology world make. While most are sanguine about our technology driven future, Elon Musk has famously said, “With AI, we are summoning the demon", he has also painted a future where humans could move to Mars and colonize it in an attempt to escape World War III. Alas, we would just be exporting our catastrophic stupidity to another planet.

As an old friend and mentor told me when I was moving back to India from the US, “Sid, never forget—wherever you go, there you are!"

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India.