Natural enemies and man-made enemies

It is my piece in MINT on Tuesday. I enjoyed writing this but it was also one of the most difficult pieces to write. I spent several hours on it. But, the end result is gratifying.

A few weeks ago, I saw a news story that the eco-sensitive zone around the Bannerghatta National Park would be reduced by 100 sq km. This news was covered in a small way in the national newspapers. Since then, a campaign has been mounted to prevent this proposed reduction from happening. This story reminded me of an interaction with Meghna Krishnadas of Yale University early in November.

In the paper Weaker Plant-enemy Interactions Decrease Tree Seedling Diversity With Edge-effects In A Fragmented Tropical Forest, written with Robert Bagchi, Sachin Sridhara and Liza S. Comita (Nature Communications, Vol. (9), article number: 4523 (2018)), she tested the hypothesis that natural enemies—insect herbivores and fungal pathogens—help shape plant diversity, especially in the context of forest fragmentation. These enemy effects or their absence are more pronounced in forest edges than in the interiors.

In plain English, if some plants are not regulated by natural enemies, they will tend to grow unregulated and uninhibited. That would reduce plant diversity. So, applying pesticides and destroying insect herbivores and fungal pathogens destroy plant diversity too. In other words, the fragile balance between humans and nature has to be nurtured carefully. If we don’t, we will not be able to sustain biodiversity, especially in fragmented forests. That is why the decision to reduce the eco-sensitive zone around the Bannerghatta National Park deserves the scrutiny it is getting.

Many people feel that there is a trade-off between short-term economic growth imperatives and the need to preserve the ecology and environment. Western countries could burn hydrocarbons without a worry when they were developing countries. Developing countries have to be mindful of carbon emission and their commitments to international climate accords.

However, these commitments are not merely a case of being good global citizens. They are necessary even to maintain the health of local citizens. Without a healthy population, there is no sustained economic growth. So, sometimes, these trade-offs are more imagined than real.

The fragile balance between nature and humans was also the subject matter of the recently released Rajinikanth-starrer 2.0. After having feted technology in his earlier films, director Shankar reminds himself and his audience that technology and seeming technological progress are, more often than not, only mixed blessings. The message to be sensitive to the need for the winged population to survive is neither a luxury nor a concern of developed societies. The movie reminds the audience that by preying on insects and worms, birds maintain plant health and obviate the need for the application of pesticides.

Juxtaposing the message of the paper with the message of the movie gives us a beautiful insight. Birds are natural enemies for insects and worms. Without birds, we will have too much of them. Without them, we will have too little plant diversity. Nature has arranged itself well.

We do not understand it and frown upon any effort required to preserve its fragile balance as a hindrance. We clothe our laziness and our short-termism in intellectual terms, arguing that economic growth and poverty alleviation require relegating environmental considerations to the background. We do so at our own peril.

We cast our interference with and trampling upon natural arrangements as the triumph of human intellect. I view them with trepidation. For example, Financial Times featured an article recently on embryo selection (Profiling For IQ Opens New Uber-parenting Possibilities, 22 November 2018). The article briefly mentions personal and social costs of such embryo selection without going into details. It is fraught with immense danger.

It will be polarising at a social level. It will add yet another dimension of inequality to the ones we know. At a personal level, it will add immense stress as competition will be intense among the so-called “super kids” of which there will be plenty. There is a reason for nature’s bell curve distribution of many things. Consequences of extremely thick fat tails are unknown unknowns.

Indian cricketer Cheteshwar Pujara had said, “When you start playing shots [during a testing spell], that means your game is not capable enough to play the Test format. You are trying to survive rather than understand the situation and play accordingly.” He is right. When someone wishes to rush through a situation that requires deliberation, they are fearful and doubtful of their staying power. That is how humans are reacting to the complexities of the world, some of which may be self-inflicted. When Seth Klarman told the audience at Harvard Business School in October that one of society’s most vexing problems was its relentless short-term orientation, he was echoing Pujara. Short-termism betrays lack of confidence in long-term staying power.

Finally, the conclusion that natural enemies are useful for biodiversity is readily transferable to societies. Natural enemies are useful for diversity of opinions and ideas. So, the more we shut down opposite views (enemies), the less intellectually vibrant the society becomes. Just as biodiversity is beneficial, diversity of views is also beneficial. For that, one needs natural enemies. Therefore, common sense and self-interest dictate that we don’t smother natural enemies.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is the dean of IFMR Graduate School of Business (KREA University). These are his personal views.

Comment are welcome at

The techypocrisy

The wheel has come back a full circle or is on its way – or so it seems. See two recent NYT articles here and here. The digital gap is not what you thought or think it is and that technology deprivation is no deprivation but a blessing!

Of course, I am not sure extreme answers are the right ones or that they would be effective with all children. To each children, each parent. In fact, I am wary of fundamentalist or extreme views with respect to technology – utopia vs. dystopia. But, evidence points to a compelling case that modern technology is shaping a dystopian world.

But, what psychologists working for tech. companies do and how tech. company executives themselves have discouraged their own children from taking up ‘screen’ habits are extremely illuminating and insightful. Of course, without mincing words or sentiment, they are most troubling and leave us fulminating, angry and helpless, all at the same time.

[On a related and unrelated note, read this piece about the forked tongues of tech. leaders.]

The march of progress be damned and perhaps, named something more appropriately for what it is.

These developments are consistent with ‘More is preferred to less’ axiom of neo-classical economics. That is why we have frequent updates to hardware, software and also so many clickbaits with man apps.

I would also recommend the 4-part (each approximately one hour) documentary on ‘The Century of the Self’. I have watched two parts. Very, very insightful. m/the-century-of-the-self/ (This is the link to the complete 4-hour video)

Those who teach consumer marketing should find it useful as to how it all began. You may draw your own conclusions as to the morality (or, lack thereof) of it all. On my part, I am clear. Consumer marketing – for most products (fast foods, soda, entertainment electronics, to name just a few) – sails close to the wind on ethics and morality or beyond it.

Kissinger on Artificial Intelligence

I am no fan of Henry Kissinger. One cannot be, after reading ‘The Blood Telegram’. But, his comments on Artificial Intelligence were very thoughtful. They were written in ‘The Atlantic’ three months ago. I do not know why I never got around to posting the extracts from that article here, although I had saved the extracts for posting as soon I had finished reading that piece. Today, when I read the well-written review of Yuval Harari’s latest book by Manu Joseph in MINT, I resolved to post it here today:

Inundated via social media with the opinions of multitudes, users are diverted from introspection; in truth many technophiles use the internet to avoid the solitude they dread. All of these pressures weaken the fortitude required to develop and sustain convictions that can be implemented only by traveling a lonely road, which is the essence of creativity. ….

………….  Before AI began to play Go, the game had varied, layered purposes: A player sought not only to win, but also to learn new strategies potentially applicable to other of life’s dimensions. For its part, by contrast, AI knows only one purpose: to win. It “learns” not conceptually but mathematically, by marginal adjustments to its algorithms. So in learning to win Go by playing it differently than humans do, AI has changed both the game’s nature and its impact. Does this single-minded insistence on prevailing characterize all AI?…

…….  Through all human history, civilizations have created ways to explain the world around them—in the Middle Ages, religion; in the Enlightenment, reason; in the 19th century, history; in the 20th century, ideology. The most difficult yet important question about the world into which we are headed is this: What will become of human consciousness if its own explanatory power is surpassed by AI, and societies are no longer able to interpret the world they inhabit in terms that are meaningful to them?

…………  Ultimately, the term artificial intelligence may be a misnomer. To be sure, these machines can solve complex, seemingly abstract problems that had previously yielded only to human cognition. But what they do uniquely is not thinking as heretofore conceived and experienced. Rather, it is unprecedented memorization and computation. Because of its inherent superiority in these fields, AI is likely to win any game assigned to it. But for our purposes as humans, the games are not only about winning; they are about thinking. By treating a mathematical process as if it were a thought process, and either trying to mimic that process ourselves or merely accepting the results, we are in danger of losing the capacity that has been the essence of human cognition….

….. the scientific world is impelled to explore the technical possibilities of its achievements, and the technological world is preoccupied with commercial vistas of fabulous scale. The incentive of both these worlds is to push the limits of discoveries rather than to comprehend them. [Link]

So, what did Manu Joseph write about Artificial Intelligence that triggered this post?

To draw our attention to the impending darkness, Harari mentions a chess contest that was held in December last year. One of the contenders was known to chess players around the world. Stockfish, believed to be the world’s most powerful chess engine, is a computer program that has been designed to analyse chess moves. No human has a chance to beat it. Stockfish played AlphaZero, Google’s machine-learning program. The two programs played a hundred games.

AlphaZero won 28, drew 72 and lost none. The programmers of AlphaZero had not taught it chess; it learned on its own—in 4 hours.

Google’s claim of “4 hours” is actually a bit dramatic and opaque.

Also, AlphaZero has been training through such powerful devices that we should not try to comprehend “4 hours” in human terms. Harari, despite being a historian, is not concerned with the nuances of it all. He wants us to be scared. All things considered, it still is extraordinary that AlphaZero could teach itself chess and become the best chess player in the universe known to us. Harari uses such events to point to the future when machines will do almost all human tasks.

It is fitting (in many ways) to end this post with a link to the article by Nicolas Carr published in 2008 on whether Google was making us stupid. Now, we know the answer or do we?

On reading ‘The future does not need us’

One of the delights of reading ‘The Final Hour’ by Sir Martin Rees was the discovery of the article by Bill Joy: The future does not need us’ published in ‘Wired’ magazine in April 2000. I read it for the first time today.

There were so many thoughtful observations by the man who was the Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems. I will start with the footnote!

The footnote on the decision taken by New York Times and Washington Post to publish the ‘Unabomber’s manifesto’ is itself worthy of a separate case-study.  Bill Joy reproduces two paragraphs from the Unabomber’s manifesto that Ray Kurzweil had reproduced in his book. They are actually very perceptive.

For me, this was one of the most important passages in the article by Bill Joy:

Accustomed to living with almost routine scientific breakthroughs, we have yet to come to terms with the fact that the most compelling 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology – pose a different threat than the technologies that have come before. Specifically, robots, engineered organisms, and nanobots share a dangerous amplifying factor: They can self-replicate. A bomb is blown up only once – but one bot can become many, and quickly get out of control.

The second paragraph from Bill Joy that I liked:

I realize now that she had an awareness of the nature of the order of life, and of the necessity of living with and respecting that order. With this respect comes a necessary humility that we, with our early-21st-century chutzpah, lack at our peril. The commonsense view, grounded in this respect, is often right, in advance of the scientific evidence. The clear fragility and inefficiencies of the human-made systems we have built should give us all pause; the fragility of the systems I have worked on certainly humbles me.

He is referring to his grandmother in that paragraph.

This is a key proposal:

The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.

This is so thoughtfully funny:

Do you remember the beautiful penultimate scene in Manhattan where Woody Allen is lying on his couch and talking into a tape recorder? He is writing a short story about people who are creating unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves, because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.

Bill Joy also cites a wonderful paragraph from Carl Sagan’s ‘The Pale Blue dot’:

Some planetary civilizations see their way through, place limits on what may and what must not be done, and safely pass through the time of perils. Others, not so lucky or so prudent, perish.

Bill Joy on Sagan and humility:

For all its eloquence, Sagan’s contribution was not least that of simple common sense – an attribute that, along with humility, many of the leading advocates of the 21st-century technologies seem to lack.

That is a good moment to end this blog post. Read or re-read that article again.

Don’t know; can’t know

Every once in a while I visit the twitter handle of Martin Ford (author of ‘The rise of the robots’) to catch all that is happening, not happening or should not be happening (but happening) in the world of technology, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). I am profoundly sceptical of their net impact on the world. Yes, they may help in criminal investigations, in making some diagnoses for certain diseases, etc. Humans may even live longer, thanks to them. I do not know if it will happen and if it happens, whether it is a good thing. I do not think it is a good thing.

But, on balance, with its impact on employment, on its potential avaialbility only to the rich and the well-heeled, I think AI and Robotics will accentuate the many faultlines in the society.  Also, humans, bored stiff, and having too much time to kill, will actually turn destructive of one another, of the society and of the environment. Sounds bleak,  I know. But, it is just one person’s view. As fallible or as correct as anyone else’s or like any other view that I have held. But, some of the recent links:

Luke Dormehl writes about eight jobs that are under threat from the AI revolution. Non-paying or pro-bono blogging is not one of them.

This WSJ article says that employers are relying on intelligent software to figure out what you meant when you said or wrote something in an employee survey.

Although this article is in the context of the use of robotics and AI for elderly care, this question is relevant in all contexts:

“The greatest danger of Artificial Intelligence,” he writes, “is that people conclude too early that they understand it.”

Any serious discussion of AI’s impact on the aging population must start with Yudkowsky’s implied question: Do we understand it? And if we do, how do we harness it to enhance the lives of our burgeoning population of older adults? [Link]

‘Retailers race against Amazon to automate stores’ is the header of this article in New York Times. You think of a supermarket that is eeriely quiet and there are no tellers at checkout counters. I think humans will forget how to communicate. They will become idiots, I think. In that sense, AI will have triumphed over Real Intelligence or RI because it would have extinguished whatever RI was there in humans.

Stephan Talty thinks of five sccenarios in 2065 with AI but he is not thrilled or that is what I think:

If there’s one thing that gives me pause, it’s that when human beings are presented with two doors—some new thing, or no new thing—we invariably walk through the first one. Every single time. We’re hard-wired to. We were asked, nuclear bombs or no nuclear bombs, and we went with Choice A. We have a need to know what’s on the other side.

But once we walk through this particular door, there’s a good chance we won’t be able to come back. Even without running into the apocalypse, we’ll be changed in so many ways that every previous generation of humans wouldn’t recognize us. [Link]

It is a fascinating, engrossing and scary article. Certainly, I do not want to live in that world. Give me the messiness of humans, any day.

This article proves the point that Stephan Talty makes. It is about AI professors boycotting a Korean University for its killer robots. It sounds nice and brave but the conclusions are sobering and realistic:

Although a boycott against KAIST would be significant, some experts say the campaign to control the development of autonomous weaponry is futile….For Walsh and others, though, the danger is too great to be complacent. “If developed, autonomous weapons will […] permit war to be fought faster and at a scale greater than ever before,” said Walsh in a press statement. “This Pandora’s box will be hard to close if it is opened.” [Link]

Walsh is a Professor at the University of New South Wales.

Spectre or spectacle or scenario?

This sentence in the FT article on the latest (and probably intentional, at least so far) and major design flaw in computer chips caught my attention:

But the inevitable trade off between efficiency and security has not always been made with perfect knowledge of the consequences. [Link]

What was amusing about this sentence was that it did not seem to recognise the fact that most of the things that have been happening around the world – not just in the world of computing – in the last three to four decades have been done without due (or any) regard for the consequences.

Examples: QE, or, financial de-regulation or algorithmic trading or dark pools or negative interest rates or Arctic drilling or fracking or smart phones or social media.

A distracted post

I saw the link to the story in FT Alphaville about smart phones and their impact on productivity.  We should not be surprised at all. The evidence is in front of our eyes, as we walk on the road, as we drive, etc. Almost everyone is distracted, to the detriment of not just productivity but of safety. The FT Alphaville story is here. The original blog post is here. The original post is worth reading for it teases out other dimensions of what it means to be part of the distracted generation.

Izabella Kaminska had written in 2014 about supermarkets, big data and manipulation of human preferences. That link appeared in the post above. I quickly glanced through it. Helps us to focus on how powerless we are and how little influence and control we have over our own lives and choices. It is as much a spiritual realisation as it is a consequence of modern technology! Humans have unleashed a Frankenstein monster on fellow humans. Quite likely they did not intend it that way since they are not in control themselves! So, who really drives this? Perhaps, no one. Once we set down on a path of ‘conquering’ everything that we viewed as obstacles, this ought to be a logical conclusion?

In case you are too distracted to read ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, please do watch Dan Ariely’s TED talk. I had posted that several times. But, worth reiterating.