Photo: SpaceX via AP
Photo: SpaceX via AP

Of rockets and cyberspace

There is a clear hegemony with respect to the Internet, Artificial Intelligence and cloud computing that at the moment rests with Facebook, Tesla and Amazon

Billionaire Elon Musk has many interests. Apart from the Tesla electric car, he is also a heavy investor in space travel and in artificial intelligence (AI). His company, SpaceX, has claimed that it wants to colonize Mars. In an unfortunate turn of events for his intergalactic ambitions, his rockets have been exploding, one last June, and the other just last week.

This last rocket was carrying an important payload. It was a satellite belonging to Facebook Inc., which intended to use the satellite to beam its version of the Internet down to remote areas of Africa. Facebook is now forced to rely on drones to bring the Internet to areas where access is poor, apart from trying sociopolitical manoeuvres like its ‘’, which the company says is designed to bring the Internet to all people worldwide.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Musk are not alone in exploring the skies. Jeff Bezos of Inc. is reportedly trying a secretive way to move his company’s cloud operations quite literally into the sky. Other investors are backing personal space travel and missions to find extraterrestrial civilizations.

What concerns me is not the fact that there is a revived interest in space and what the extra-terrestrial has to offer. It is the fact that there is a clear hegemony with respect to the Internet, AI and the cloud. Its frontiers seem to stop at nothing, and space travel is just another way to extend its sway. And it is not well understood and is therefore completely unregulated and unpoliced.

Elon Musk himself has been quoted as saying “with AI, we are summoning the demon". The issue is that the demon is not some extra-terrestrial being. It is within the hearts and minds of the people administering this sort of technology. According to The New York Times, five of the world’s largest technology companies are coming together to create standards of ethics for the use and creation of AI. Amazon, Facebook, International Business Machines Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc. (Google’s parent) are reportedly coming together so that they can claim that they have created a framework which is self-policing and which they will all adhere to.

A Stanford University report (issued by a university committee headed by a Microsoft executive) titled Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030 argues that the regulation of AI is impossible, seeing as it will permeate everything. AI has upped the ante in recent years and has started to make astonishing leaps in areas such as driverless cars, and in speech recognition in devices such as Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Now. It also has many uses in the much vaunted Internet of Things where every aspect of the functioning of the things that you and I use in daily life may well be monitored by a satellite in the sky.

This, to me, seems like setting the fox among the chickens. Why would we allow the very firms that want to control every aspect of our lives—and of our interactions with one another—the ability to form their own rules about how they may want to go about doing so? Does the individual lose his or her say?

In a recent article in the Financial Times, Yuval Noah Harari, a historian, claims that we are entering a new age where the network—and data—will be the new Higher Being. He calls this new creed “Dataism".

According to him, the creed of Dataism sees humans as being little more than biochemical algorithms whose final goal is to create an all-encompassing data processing system— and then merge into it. His argument is that mankind, which went from believing in a deity upon high to believing in the individual’s free will—right around the time of the industrial revolution—will now move to this Dataist view of existence.

He proffers the example of Angelina Jolie undergoing an elective double mastectomy since the ‘data’ predicted that she had an 87% chance of contracting breast cancer since she had a dangerous mutation of a particular gene. How one goes from mutated genes to purposely mutilating oneself is beyond me, but I guess my faith in data science is not of the same order as Ms Jolie’s.

In Harari’s defence, he says that Dataism still has no answer to the “hard problem of consciousness". In an earlier column, I had brought up just that point—the fact that true cognition happens only in sentient beings that are possessed of consciousness. And in so far as that is concerned, no amount of computing will be able to corrupt it. Computers are machines, and being insentient, can never be possessed of consciousness.

Since that is the case, then the policing of these new technologies needs to return to first principles, as are found in most democracies the world over. Guaranteeing individual and personal freedoms is the job of the state, not of a corporation (or of a small set of corporations). Technology policy needs to become at least as important as economic policy, immigration policy and foreign policy—and needs to play the same role in ensuring we elect the right politicians who espouse the type of policies that we most approve of.

In support of the common good, it is time this important aspect of our lives is taken out of private hands and passed on to the governments we elect. India’s public systems shut down ‘Free Basics’— the Indian avatar of ‘’ early this year. More such activism from governments worldwide will be needed in the wake of corporations trying to set down the laws themselves.

Siddharth Pai is a management and technology consultant.