Atul Jalan thinks of himself as a futurist. The founder and CEO of Manthan Systems, a business intelligence and analytics company based in Bengaluru, believes that the first person who will live to be 150 years old has already been born, the screen that we peer into will soon be within us, and we could be taking happiness pills before breakfast. Jalan’s book, Where Will Man Take Us?: The Bold Story Of The Man Technology Is Creating, explores the intersections between technology—from Artificial Intelligence to nanotechnology, space technology, quantum computing and genetics—and society, morality and ethics. Running a data analytics company with enterprise customers across 21 countries, Jalan has the opportunity to observe the way technology is influencing human life and behaviour, and brings this insight to his first book. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What made you want to write this book? Since when have you been writing?
I have always loved writing. I have written articles for media publications, written op-eds, and even dabbled in poetry (laughs). But given my ringside view of how technology is shaping human life in the 21st century, I felt my insights would have some value in a book format. And I have always been fascinated by humanity and its achievements—we are not the strongest animal in the world, and our ranking on the food chain is around 2.21, “somewhere between anchovies and pigs" (as French researchers who ranked humans on the food chain put it after mapping humans on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the score of a primary producer and 5 being an apex predator). Given that, how did humans achieve their primary position? I believe it’s because we have the power to tell stories, to imagine, and then to transform what we imagine into reality. And, of course, communication—other animals communicate too, but language gives us a unique edge.
So are you excited about living at a time like this?
I am thrilled. I used to lament that I didn’t live through an epochal time, such as the freedom struggle or the European Renaissance. But now I believe we are living through a truly epochal time. Just like the Industrial Revolution changed everything, changed the world map so to speak through colonization and migration, I think we are on the cusp of a similar overhaul brought about by technology. And this is going to be even more profound because technology is merging with biology and we are going to see evolutionary changes in human biology. Genetic engineering is already creating these changes, and soon our legal systems, our ethics, will have to be redefined. All our institutions will evolve, and eventually I believe we will see direct, citizen-led democracy—like in Switzerland. You may say that it is possible in Switzerland, which is a largely cohesive small country. But I believe that technology will enable a direct democracy model worldwide.
What is this ‘happiness pill’ that you mention in the book? Can happiness truly be delivered through a medical mechanism?
We already see a growing acceptance of “biohacking" worldwide, with the legalization of marijuana and other psychedelics. What are they except ways of delivering mood alteration and happiness? But they are crude. You cannot control the exact effect. I believe biologists will soon be able to create accurate, ethical drugs that are tailored to your personal neurological make-up—a perfect neurological orchestra that will help you control your happiness.
But will that not mean giving up more and more control over our lives to corporations?
If you look at the internet and social media, that has already happened. We had imagined that the internet will make us more open and united, more empathetic towards people we don’t know. But actually the reverse has happened. It has locked us into our own echo chambers—our “filter bubbles", as Eli Pariser, the founder of (viral content website) Upworthy, called it. That’s the most worrying aspect of it for me. This knowledge-driven ignorance is driving us to become kupamandukas. We are frogs in a well that is expanding with knowledge, making us feel that we know everything and removing humility and empathy.
How do we regain control over the internet then?
I believe this is going to happen, and very soon. I predict that we will start hearing murmurs against the bigger ecosystem players in the content game—the Googles and Facebooks of the world—within the next three-six months. Digital media is struggling at present, because the lion’s share of the revenue based on content that they are creating is going to these larger players. In 2018 alone, it was recently reported, Google earned $4.7 billion ( ₹32,430 crore) in revenue from news without investing a penny into creating content. But this is unsustainable, and I believe we will see legislation to control this very soon. Producers will be able to take control over their own data and content. And that will create a revolution.