The next generation of Indian politicians could be robots

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Vote for me.
Image: AP Photo/Koji Sasahara
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What if the future president or prime minister or a chief minister in India is a robot? Would the robot be a better alternative to a corrupt, incompetent, rabble-rousing politician? Or how about an algorithm as a deputy finance minister? That way we can keep the much treasured “human touch” alive and balance it with the power of data.

These questions are not to be taken literally (yet) but as the fourth Industrial Revolution, or second machine age, kicks in, big data, artificial intelligence (AI), and 3D printing are going to fundamentally change the way we interact with each other by fusing the physical, biological, and digital worlds.

The resulting systemic, structural, and operational changes will unleash a wide spectrum of opportunities in every industry and raise serious ethical conundrums. So, even though it seems too futuristic and improbable, it’s worth considering what role big data and AI can play.

Let’s take, for example, the organisational structure of Deep Knowledge Ventures. This Hong Kong-based venture capital firm invests in regenerative medicine, fintech, AI, and big data. In May 2014, it appointed an algorithm called VITAL to its board. VITAL makes investment recommendations based on advanced analytics and enjoys voting rights, just like the other five board members.

What if a similar data-driven approach was applied to governance and public policy in India? I am not proposing replacing politicians with algorithms but I am very much in favour of having a metaphorical seat at the table for big-data analytics and AI in every serious government deliberation.

But that will require a change in perspective. Over the past two years, I have stumbled upon two broad categories of AI experts: the techno-optimists and techno-pessimists. The techno-optimists are convinced that the answer to all human challenges, from broken hearts to broken minds to broken countries, is AI. Techno-pessimists, on the other hand, believe AI can do no good and is destined to take away jobs, stifle creativity, corrupt the moral imagination, and exacerbate inequalities of all kinds.

Fortunately for us, both are wrong.

Techno-optimists give AI the status of God and techno-pessimists believe AI is Satan incarnate dressed in big data. But AI isn’t the source of or solution to all problems. It is time we calibrate our expectations and bring some nuance into the gloom-doom-bloom debate.

It begins by turning AI into IA: Artificial Intelligence into Intelligence Augmented. The media would like us to believe it is a battle of humans and machines. It isn’t. The optimum balance is humans leveraging machines intelligently, effectively, and empathetically.

This is critical if we wish to re-imagine politics in India. It’s time our elected leaders are judged based on clearly-defined metrics, as opposed to hollow, impassioned rhetoric. That can’t happen if key decisions are taken based on election dates and critical voter segments. We need data to define public policy, shape public expectations, and enhance implementation efficiency.

Unfortunately, at the moment, policy and law are still playing catch up with technology, particularly in emerging economies. It’s ironic that even today most state government offices in India are flooded with thick, faded green files that rest undisturbed for years. The sheer sight of such an office makes the need for AI clear.

India is a data-rich country but our data sets don’t interact with each other. They are victims of sequential, bureaucratic, and clunky guidelines, largely a by-product of our colonial hangover, which act as bottlenecks for transforming data into actionable insights.

However, cross-tabulating socio-economic data with demographic data could yield specific recommendations to bridge the policy-implementation chasm that has plagued every emerging country for decades. And the growth of cloud computing and machine learning, coupled with Indian ingenuity and engineering talent, could help predict the probability of student dropouts in low-income schools, enhance clinical efficiency in healthcare delivery in rural areas, and even increase farmer productivity. This is already happening in pockets, but effective public-private partnerships can scale such projects and significantly reduce the cost of delivery.

And that’s what voters must demand from politicians. They need to ask the right questions, demand tangible results, and judge the success of politicians based on key performance indicators. Essentially, the quintessential argumentative Indian—both within and outside the parliament—needs to argue better, argue with data, demand with empathy, and deliver with purpose.

I began this article discussing some aspects of the fourth Industrial Revolution but I missed mentioning the obvious—revolutions don’t announce themselves; they don’t knock on doors, they just show up. The last thing we want is to be caught off-guard, unprepared for this data revolution.

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