Sharmaji Ke Beton, Artificial Intelligence is Coming for You


Sharmaji Ke Beton, Artificial Intelligence is Coming for You

Illustration: Juergen D'souza


o be a creative professional, you have to be aware of your place in the food chain, both proverbially and literally. Whether you’re a painter, a poet, or simply a lowly arts major-turned-pauper, the starving artist cliché is alive and well, perhaps even more so than the artists themselves. As you destroy your family’s izzat and #followyourbliss in a *gasp* creative field, all the good kids who listened to mummy-daddy and studied engineering are sprinting toward sky-high salaries and enviable careers.

It’s the revenge of the nerds, and we’re living in an IIT geek’s world. The gap between virtual and reality is closing, and artificial intelligence is on everybody’s IRL minds. In  the 2018-2019 budget, Arun Jaitley announced a new Niti Aayog-led fund for AI research and development, doubling the Digital India allocation. Meanwhile, the Culture Ministry received a paltry 3.82 per cent hike that couldn’t even keep up with inflation. Apparently, the government is just like Indian parents when it comes being more proud of the kid who opted for Science over the one who opted for Arts.

For these starry-eyed dreamers whose thoughts flow in verse rather than formulae, it’s a tantalising flight of fancy to think that our STEM-abiding peers are programming their own extinction. Eventually someone is going to create a form of artificial intelligence with more intelligence than humans, and what will happen then? Will our smarthouses turn against us while our automatic cars drive us into the sea? Will we fall in love with robots, only to find that they can be just as crazy as humans? Would we rather humanity was enslaved by Skynet or the Matrix? And where is Season 2 of Westworld going?

It’s a long list of concerns, and at the very top is the pressing question of automation in the workplace. According to research from the World Bank, an estimated 69 per cent of Indian jobs are already at risk, and it’s not just low-skilled labour. Lined up neatly for the mechanical firing squad is the safe, secure Science and Commerce crowd; the beloved accountants, doctors, bankers, and IT professionals whose math scores put the rest of us to shame. When the rise of the machines becomes a reality, they will be coming for Sharmaji ka beta.

While AI is used for technical writing, and has even created original art and music, it’s still not clear how soon it’ll be able to recreate the free-flowing human thought process.

At long last, the tables have turned for the perennially stoned creatives who were always told that they would never amount to anything in life. Alarming terms like “practical”, “long-term” and “employment” have entered our lexicon. Turns out, learning how to come up with ideas is a lot harder for machines than taking on repetitive, data-based tasks.

While AI is used for technical writing, and has even created original art and music, it’s still not clear how soon it’ll be able to recreate the free-flowing human thought process. And that means the end of the creative Kalyug. After years of desperately trying to get any internship we could lay our hands on, being asked to work for “exposure”, and living on a nutritious diet of Maggi and chai, our time to shine has finally come.

Whatever the outcome, we can be sure Indian parents will be ON IT.

Dare we dream of a world where hypercompetitive Indian dads will force their little prodigies to take piano lessons, not extra chemistry tuitions? Instead of having to recite multiplication tables at dinner, will kids now be harangued with a pop quiz on the works of Tagore? If they receive 98 on 100 in History, will they be asked where the other two marks went? When these bright young minds are later accepted to study liberal arts at JNU, might their parents excitedly hand out ladoos to the neighbours, because now Sweetu will surely land a plum position making taste test videos for BuzzFeed, or a stable job as a freelance jazz guitarist? Forget MBAs – all the matchmaking aunties will be on the hunt for guys who express themselves through interpretative dance.

And the revolution won’t stop there. The government will sink funding into preserving crumbling monuments instead of selling them off to the highest bidder. Padmaavat will release in theatres in all its uncensored glory. Google will recruit new talent from spoken word poetry jams. Graphic designers will  be asked to give TED Talks like they’re the new Satya Nadella, and Chetan Bhagat will retreat into a Himalayan cave, never to be heard from again. Okay, so the last is stretching a fantasy too far. But together, we can build this utopia.

Maybe you think this is an idealistic fever dream of the future, imagined by a writer who has more whimsy than sense. You’re probably right. But hope springs eternal, and if anyone has the power to change the world, it’s Siri and Alexa joining forces.

And if it all comes crashing down, and the steady march of progress runs roughshod over creatives and squares alike, the jobless art majors still have one advantage. We already know what it’s like to live without money or recognition.

Bring on the Maggi and chai, already.