The New Age of AI and What It Means for Nepalis

The ‘west’ has been abuzz with talk of the Age of AI.

Cars will drive themselves in the not-too-distant future, and brick-and-mortar stores will vanish as everyone begins to shop from home using a smart speaker named Alexa, Cortana, or some other nondescript approximation of a human being. The one thing that all examples of this impending futuristic age have in common is that humans are being replaced by Artificial Intelligence (AI), for better or worse.

In the Age of AI, doctor visits will no longer include an actual doctor, but will instead be diagnosed by a supercomputer in the cloud – simply call him Dr. Watson for short. In fact, any type of visit imaginable will include a session with some sort of chatbot or artificial being, rather than someone like us, with flesh and blood and the proclivity to make mistakes.

Everywhere we look, we see the beginnings of the Age of AI, from the way America is now fighting wars with drones to the way Americans are starting to shop for groceries – ordering tomatoes online via Amazon instead of walking down to their local shop.

Now, for those of us in the developing world (including Nepal), it appears that we are a long way from any of that. Some may argue that we are still in the Stone Age, far from the economic perils that the Age of AI brings to any society that accepts AI as a replacement for human intelligence.

Great minds such as physicist Stephen Hawking and tech billionaire Elon Musk have warned that “AI could spell the end of the human race,” and that “AI is our greatest existential threat.”

Great thinkers, movers and shakers, and academics such as Prof Vardi (Rice University / Guggenheim Fellow) all agree that AI could drive global unemployment up to 50%, eliminating middle-class jobs and exacerbating global inequality.

But what will the impact be in Nepal? I know you’re all curious.

How will all of this new-age automation affect us here in the desert, where you can’t even get online to read a web page, let alone order a home-automation system from Apple.com? Let’s face it: globalization may have conquered the rest of the world, but most of us in South Asia are still living in a post-50s world of doing things by hand and living hand to mouth on a daily basis.

Even outside of the immediate dangers of a drone strike, there are still risks for the developing world. Massive unemployment in the developed world may lead to even more in the developing world. Consider call centers, which may vanish as quickly as you can say “Hey Siri” once that technology is perfected just a little bit more.

Aside from call centers going the way of the Dodo, what about tourism in the age of AI? Will virtual reality trekking eventually supplant the real thing? I can’t say for sure, but if I owned a trekking company, I’d be concerned. After all, if human sex is predicted to be extinct by 2050, I’d argue that human walking has no chance of survival in a world where no one is even making babies the traditional way.

And for those who believe that low-cost manufacturing is the answer for Nepal, remember that AI machines must be built by someone, right? Wrong. AI machines of the future will be built by machines as well. As a result, only countries that are currently developing robots will be able to control that market in the future.

The one bright spot in all of this is that we are so far behind the rest of the world in terms of technology that we may be able to survive a little longer than others. In other words, the Age of AI will take a lot longer to change our lives in KTM than it will in London or New York.

Automated cars, for example, would be useless here until all of our gullies could be GPS mapped; automated online shopping will not happen here until everyone has a street address; and D. Watson will not work in any of our hospitals until they are wired for high-speed internet.

As a result of our technological ‘backwardness,’ we may face a delay in our demise. But when has a civil society’s backwardness ever been advantageous? I’m hard pressed to think of an example; historically, societies that fail to adapt to the latest technological advances tend to become historical footnotes, and even irrelevant decades later.

I suppose the best we can hope for in the upcoming Age of AI is that the gap – the delay in time before we catch up with the rest of the world – will allow us to live as humans have always lived, without the aid of anything artificial when making our most basic of decisions.





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