Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Robots at Aichi and the Future of Humanity

Recently, I was able to visit the World Expo in Aichi which is about a two and a half hour journey from Tokyo - one needs to take a Shinkansen (“bullet”) train to Nagoya, and then the Shuttle Bus (more expensive) or local trains/linimo (cheaper).

The Expo will close in September and is extremely popular They were originally hoping to have 15 million visitors, but they have already sold 10 million tickets…and there were very looooooooooooooong queues everywhere (usually took up to an hour just to get INTO the Expo, and then up to an hour at each of the most-popular pavilions, though you could walk into the less popular pavilions, which is most of them). Fortunately, I was an official guest, so was able to bypass most of the queues.

I did look around the British, French. German, Indian and Swiss pavilions, but my main interest was Robotics, as Japan is the world’s leading nation in this field. The robot highlights (in my experience) are at the Robot Station, the Morizo & Kiccoro Messe, the Toyota Pavilion, and the NEDO Pavilion.

What I saw was both exciting/amazing and frightening.

Exciting/amazing because of what these robots can do now, from playing music in an opera, to acting as guards (able to fire 20 paint balls a minute at an intruder, check for fires – 360* vision! – can even spot a human on the other side of a (thin) wall, multiply the physical strength of an old or sick or weak person manifold, clean surfaces (including vertical windows in high-rise buildings), play baseball (bowling as well as batting), assist surgery…there were therapeutic robots, child-care robots (able to talk and play with children and even give them quizzes etc to do), dog robots, snake robots, amphibious robots, self-reshaping robots, bomb-disposal robots, robots that communicate with each other, robots that tell you “I am hungry” when they start running out of electricity and then take themselves off for recharging, robots for Reception work in Hotels or Offices (already able to speak in 4 languages – very good voice recognition, though a bit slow), robots that have “legs” so that they can then walk along or go up stairs BUT can also able to transfer their own weight to wheels in order to speed along a paved surface (tolerance of irregularities in the surface only 10 cm at present, and able to go up/down inclines of only 10% at present, moreover their speed is only 6km at present but in principle there is no reason why they can’t in future go at the same speed as a car or aeroplane), robots that will take you around obstacles (living and non-living) to a predetermined destination without you having to “drive” them, an “artist” robot that creates caricatures of the people in front of it, using crayons on huge rice crackers (you could take the caricature of yourself home, but the queue was too long so I did not bother to have mine done).

There was also a “dance” robot but, so far as I could make out, the poor male dancer was actually pushing and shoving the “female dance robot” around – the robot was not dancing by itself …

OK, so these are all prototypes and there remain many glitches to be sorted out and the “active life” of these prototypes seems rather short (there were an enormous number of them out of commission, being repaired, that I did not see in action – presumably I would have been even more impressed if they had also been in commission!), but what will happen when these glitches have been sorted out and such robots can be mass-manufactured?

The whole drive at the Expo was to soothe and reassure the public that these robots were intended to assist particularly an ageing society in Japan, and the propaganda was in full swing, using music, multimedia and interpersonal interaction by the scientists and technologists involved with developing robots.

But if the main problem is ageing, it is much easier (and it would contribute to sorting out many more world problems) if an appropriate number of poor unemployed young people from round the world were to be imported into Japan and taught Japanese language and culture - the spoken language one can begin to cope with in about 2 months, the written language I understand is an entirely different matter, and the the culture is rather more difficult - but presumably robots will not be able to cope with nuances of culture in the foreseeable future?

In any case, the propaganda did not address the question: if we have robots that can do all these things, what “jobs” will be left for humans to do? (So far as I can make out, only the creative ones of *creating* art, music, literature, cuisine and so on, the “scientific” ones of discovering new knowledge and systematising it (including, for example, history and so on), and the technological ones of *conceiving, designing, prototyping, manufacturing and maintaining* robots)…Not a small number of jobs but nowhere near the half a billion or so "jobs" that exist today...

The jobs that would be left to do in a robot-driven world are not jobs that the mass of human beings can do and, if we could do them, the oversupply would be so great as to render the resulting “products” (under the current economic system) nearly worthless….

Anyway, I conclude that the real question for the future of the globe is not sustainability (true, the impact of our non-sustainable policies has started effecting us and will gradually worsen, but it is not going to be catastrophic for humanity for probably the next 50 or so years, as far as I can make out), the real question is how we will as a human society adjust to a world with such sophisticated robots (which the Japanese guess will start making an impact within 7-15 years)

More precisely, the question is: who will own the robots - and will the owners be humanitarians or despots?

If despots, they could use all these robots to keep the rest of the world population in virtual slavery - finally bringing about the world of "1984", and demonstrating that Orwell was only about 30 years out in his estimates (though of course he had in mind a different kind of fascism).

No doubt, my concerns will be dismissed by many as mere doom-mongering.

However, I am convinced that the question facing the world by 2015 (or 2020 at the latest) is how to build a global system, using the unparalleled prosperity and freedom from drudgery which will be possible due to robot-driven agricultural and industrial production, to enable every human being to live a more dignified and worthwhile human life.

An eminently political (that is, ultimately, a spiritual) question.

The frightening thing is that the most able people in the world are largely focused on (a) making more money for themselves or (b) wrestling with the enormous challenges already facing humanity today.

I don’t duck the making of money (I do work for one of the world’s largest banks!). Nor do I duck the challenge of the present (e.g. corruption in India, or the challenge of social justice and sustainability worldwide).

However, no one seems to be working on the challenge of robots – and this challenge will very quickly dwarf all the other challenges facing humanity at present.

So who wants to join me in addressing the key challenge posed by robots to the future of humanity?

ENDS Sphere: Related Content

On Nick Robins's article regarding The East India Company

Nick Robins's article "The world's first multinational" (below) is a a good and thought-provoking piece in the current context, but it takes too negative a view of the East India Company.

Moreover, it fails to distinguish between the three phases of the Company's involvement with India:

1. from 1600 to 1827 or so, when it was a simple matter of looting India as much as possible, as Robins notes (leading to the Nabobs in Britain)

2. from 1827 or so till 1880 or so, when the Co was forced to develop and implement what we would today call "Corporate Social Responsibility", as a result of the work of the Clapham Group (sometimes called the "Clapham Sect") - that work is an entirely untold story, because of the impact of the Darwinists who have obliterated their story as well as many other such stories from history - Robins seems to be unaware of this

3. from 1880 or so till the independence of India in 1947, when (as a result of the impact of Darwinism) the Raj became a sort of "hangover" of the past with no purpose to it (in the first phase, it was loot; in the second phase, it was stewardship; in the third phase, after the impact of the Darwinists, naturally all purpose was lost, not only to the Raj, but also to humanity and indeed to all life and to the universe itself) - again, something of which Robins seems to be unaware.

Given, additionally, the lack of men in Britain following the two World Wars, it was only a matter of time before the Raj came to end - surprising, really, that it lasted 70 years or so after Phase 2 (comes back, possibly, to my point about generations?)

"The world's first multinational"
by Nick Robins's
Published in New Statesman, 9 December 2004

NS Essay 1- Corporate greed, the ruination of traditional ways of life, share-price bubbles, western imperialism: all these modern complaints were made against the British East India Company in the 18th century. Nick Robins draws the lessons:

In The Discovery of India, the final and perhaps most profound part of his "prison trilogy", written in 1944 from Ahmednagar Fort, Jawaharlal Nehru described the effect of the East India Company on the country he would shortly rule. "The corruption, venality, nepotism, violence and greed of money of these early generations of British rule in India," he wrote, "is something which passes comprehension." It was, he added, "significant that one of the Hindustani words which has become part of the English language is 'loot'".


ENDS Sphere: Related Content

CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) in India

20 May 2005

The following answer to a question from a PhD student in Germany may be of wider interest, so I am posting it as a blog:

Her letter read as follows:

Dear Professor Guptara,

I am currently pursuing my PhD in the field of corporate sustainability reporting. My research compares the information sought by employees in different countries and cultures as well as their references to the concept of sustainability in order to make suggestions for adequate sustainability related communication in different countries. Focusing on a comparison between India and Germany, I also analyse cross-cultural principles of effective knowledge transfer in a trans-national organization. I am on scholarship from the German National Academic Foundation (Germany's largest sponsor of intellectually outstanding students).

It was with great interest that I read your article entitled "The Limits of Corporate Social Responsibility in India" (published by the EU-India CSR Network, Brussels, Belgium). Therein you assert that "In India, responsibility was traditionally limited to 'insiders' - you looked after members of your own immediate and perhaps your extended family, you might even extend some minimum care to members of your clan, or at most to members of your caste. Other 'outsiders' had no relationship to you, so their welfare was not your responsibility." This is a point of view that I have often encountered in literature as well as in discussions with interviewees in India.

However, what astonishes me is that, just as frequently, I come across the contention that, while Corporate Social Responsibility might be a new term in India, it is certainly not a new concept. Commonly given reasons for the prior existence of this notion are the Vedic tradition, Gandhis concept of trusteeship and the spread of philanthropy in India.

In the article to which I refer, you write that Indian "mythology has saintly or noble figures who cared for "complete outsiders", but their behaviour remained a remote ideal rather than everyday reality." and that in "a society bound by notions of caste and fate, the idea of responsibility for the whole of society constituted a cultural revolution caused by foreign influences. [...] Influenced by such foreign ideas, Indian reformers, such as Guru Nanak, Swaminarayana, Rammohan Roy, and Mahatma Gandhi in turn then launched reform movements which slowly began to change our values."

In considering these various claims, I wondered how to reconcile the notion of "traditional limitation of responsibility" with the contention that CSR is not a new concept.

I would be very grateful for any thoughts or insights you could share with me. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,


Dear Ms H

Your questions are most interesting and reveal a depth of acquaintance with the literature about India, as well as depth of thought about my country.

1. The reason why one hears such astonishingly untrue statements as "CSR is not new in India" is because we Indians are a very proud people and don't like to admit that anything new has really come to India from abroad. According to us, everything was already known in the Vedas. In addition, we lack a historical sense. There are no explanations for quite simple questions to do with our history. The most elementary facts of our own history are not known to us, and we care for our history even less. For example, the Taj Mahal was being used as a stables when the British rescued it from that use. The reason for this lack of a historical sense may perhaps become clear to you if you read my short booklet on Indian Spirituality (attached), at least those pages which are on the history of the development of Indian spirituality (pages 5-15 in the attached version).

2. The fact is that the Vedas, however they may be interpreted today (and not many will interpret them to indicate any great social responsibility) were historically interpreted through the lens of caste as well as the practice of untouchability towards those of lower castes. Because of the always huge numbers involved, responsibility was always restricted to those with whom one had (and even today, has) the closest contacts and these are always members of your own family (and a limited close circle around that).

3. It is entirely true that, under reformers such as Mahatma Gandhi, a wider movement for national responsibility started in India. However, we must remember that these reformers were themselves influenced by Christian ideas of service and sacrifice (still referred to in India as the "missionary spirit") - for a full study of this, see Dr Vishal Mangalwadi's book, INDIA: THE GRAND EXPERIMENT, or M M Thomas's THE ACKNOWLEDGED CHRIST OF THE INDIAN RENAISSANCE. Those who practice philanthropy outside their own caste are, in technical terms, "un-Hindu" because they are breaking caste. Traditionally, we upper-caste Hindus would have had to go and bathe in the Ganges or perform other ritual ablutions if even the shadow of a lower-caste person fell on us (this was true throughout the country and with only a few exceptions till my generation, though this is now less and less true, particularly in the cities - read the novel, UNTOUCHABLE by Mulk Raj Anand, published in the 1930s, which perfectly captures the plight of the lower castes - which is still what exists in most villages specially in Central India. I hope to put related material on my website when my son gets around to completing it after his exams in a few weeks. As India has put traditional Hinduism behind it, it has progressed, just as China has progressed to the extent that it has put traditional Confucianism behind it, and Roman Catholic countries have progressed to the extent that they have put traditional Roman Catholicism behind them.

4. However, even at the time of struggle for independence from Britain, the number of people who followed Gandhiji were relatively small, and certainly the number of companies that backed Gandhiji were tiny - notably the Birlas and the Tatas (and we must remember that the Tatas are Parsis, not caste-oriented Hindus). Both the Birlas and the Tatas were rewarded, for their involvement in the the independence struggle, by means of lucrative licences and contracts, by post-independence Indian governments who created an oligopoly in a restricted market, which held back India's progress till the partial-reforms that are now helping the country to forge ahead. Fortunately for India, as well as for the Birlas and Tatas, businesspeople are adept are adjusting to new circumstances, and the business houses continue to flourish today.

5. Historically, it was the duty of my caste to make money and we were authorised (and in reality did) charge unlimited interest (or, to be more precise, as much interest as the market would bear), reducing tens of millions of people from other castes to bondage (virtual slavery) - something that, shamefully, still exists in parts of India.

6. Consider also that India is still one of the most corrupt countries in the world - and this corruption exists not only in politics but specifically in business. The Indian Stock Market is, regretfully, one of the least transparent and reliable in the world, and there are frequent scandals which are widely reported in the press, as well as other scandals which are not reported in the press but are public knowledge. Even though Indian shares are doing very well at present, I would not invest in most of the companies that are on the Exchange without inside knowledge of the individual company concerned (which is technically, in Western terms, illegal as well as immoral). However, portfolio investing in such companies is of course a different matter and can be less risky as well as more profitable. And I should say that there are a few individual companies whose accounts and statements I trust (including Infosys, Wipro, Tata Group, et al) - but these are a handful of islands in a sea of corruption. The relationship of this corruption to our spirituality is essential to understand. Our traditional spirituality related only to caste (dharma) and did not - and does not - have anything to do with morality in the Western sense. In fact, when an Indian becomes a "saint" he (usually "he") is considered to be beyond earthly things like morality. So he can indulge in the most immoral behaviour and still be accepted as a "holy man" - perhaps now you will understand why "gurus", such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Osho, were and are able to retain their status as "gurus" in spite of doing what would be regarded as totally unethical things if done by normal, ordinary or average people, let alone by "saints". Christian priests and evangelists immediately lose credibility if they indulge in any immoral behaviour because the behaviour contradicts their beliefs, but immoral behaviour does not traditionally undo the reputation of Hindu "gurus" because their beliefs imply no earthly morality.

Does all this perhaps help to place in context why I said what I did in my article on CSR?

yours sincerely

pg Sphere: Related Content