“The Mirage of Technological Singularity” – A Tech Saloon talk by Nachiket Mor

The Tech Saloon is an initiative at IIT Madras to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas among faculty, students, alumni, innovators, and entrepreneurs. Shivani Guptasarma and Parikipandla Abhigna recount their experience at the most recent Tech Saloon lecture by Nachiket Mor.

Despite the steady downpour and what was, for many, a long weekend, the IITM Research Park auditorium was more than half full on Friday evening for a talk by Nachiket Mor on whether technology could hypothetically evolve to a point where it becomes a substitute for humans – and why he does not believe it ever will.

When we arrived at the research park – on what was our first visit – with muddy shoes and dripping umbrellas wondering if we would make it in time for the talk, we were happy to meet Dr. Prabha Mandayam from the Department of Physics, a part of the Tech Saloon team, at the entrance to the auditorium. We also recognised Dr. Krishna Jagannathan of Electrical Engineering, who gave the audience a brief introduction to Tech Saloon – this being only the second talk – and his colleague, Dr. Gaurav Raina, who introduced the speaker. Together with Dr. Sivarama Krishnan, a member of the Physics faculty, and Tanmai Gopal and Rajoshi Ghosh, the founders of 34 Cross – a core-tech startup focused on making cloud development easy – these are the people who recognised the need for something like Tech Saloon and decided to address it, in August this year.

Some day, is it possible that technology could overtake us?

The exponential growth of computing technology over the past few decades has inevitably led to much speculation among scientists, technologists, economists and science fiction enthusiasts about where the limits to the capability and predictability of machines lie – if indeed such limits exist.

Dr. Nachiket Mor at the recent Tech Saloon talk
Dr. Nachiket Mor at the recent Tech Saloon talk

Dr. Mor is of the opinion that the possibility of a situation where technology overtakes humans – a  technological singularity – is ruled out by the innate complexity of financial systems and medical systems and that of the human brain itself. The reasons for his conclusion are, firstly, that machines assume a deterministic world with well behaved individuals – something that does not exist – and secondly, that he cannot imagine how any algorithm could deal with the layer upon layer of complexity everywhere – in the market as well as in the human body.

While computing can take data and fit it to an existing model, he said, it cannot pick out the signal from a huge amount of noise, cannot theorise or innovate. That requires ‘a lot more judgement, a lot more human character, than machines, at least the way I understand them, will ever be capable of.’

What, then, is the role of technology in the future? With a clip from The Matrix, amidst chuckles from the audience, the speaker made the case that the ability to search for information and acquire knowledge and skills using technology is a valuable asset and this is what technology in the future can be effectively used for.

He then described with a presentation how technology is being used with humans as an interface in the rural healthcare and finance management systems he is associated with, the Kshetriya Gramin Financial Services and the SughaVazhvu healthcare model. He projected the people working in the KGFS and SughaVazhvu in rural areas as ‘real-life Neos and Trinitys.’

Some interesting perspectives…

The talk lasted for about forty minutes, following which there were questions and comments from the audience. The issue was summarised by Tanmai Gopal as one of how to handle increasing complexity, and whether we should have humans to ‘absorb a certain level of complexity’ before it reaches customers, or whether everyone would eventually develop to the level of being able to deal with the complexity themselves. In this framework, Dr. Mor’s viewpoint is that while people’s comprehension will undoubtedly improve as time passes, so will the complexity that they have to deal with:

‘Today’s gap between the realm of the possible and the realm of the understandable will persist forever’

Dr. Mohanasankar Sivaprakasam, a faculty member in the Department of Electrical Engineering at IITM, discussed his view of technology in healthcare – and how it can empower experts to improve primary healthcare, where access is currently a big problem in both rural and urban settings. He drew from his experience with medical technology as head of the Healthcare Technology Innovation Centre. Dr. Raina then posed a couple of questions on the idea of payment banks and small banks, and the future of this idea, which Dr. Mor elaborated upon. The speaker was thanked and discussions moved on to continue over high tea.

The High Tea – Nothing to cheer insti junta up like good food and a gala mood!

One thing we’d heard from several quarters (including Dr. Jagannathan’s introduction) was immediately verified at the high tea – the snacks really were good. And there was ample opportunity to interact with the speaker, the organisers and members of the audience during the social – which is meant for exactly this purpose. The Tech Saloon team were happy to explain to us the idea behind starting the forum. Tech Saloon was conceptualised over a dinner conversation, in response to the current lack of interaction between faculty, students, alumni and the innovators working at the research park.

It is not a lecture series but a forum for discussion, the goal being to encourage sharing of ideas, meeting new people, having new conversations and giving rise to new ideas in the process.

Before every talk, participants can sign up or drop their business cards in a bowl. Afterwards, during high tea, there is a chance for introductions, discussions and debates. There was a general atmosphere of positivity and excitement about the potential of the research park and of the interactions that Tech Saloon is going to foster.

We also had a pleasant conversation with Tanmai, who as an alumnus emphasised the need for stronger student-alumni interaction and a culture where students are aware of the research going on in the institute.

What next?

The venue of these talks, for now, will remain the Research Park Auditorium, which can comfortably accommodate about a hundred and twenty people and is very conveniently located for both people from insti and those who work at the research park (for those who haven’t been to the research park, it’s just opposite the gate near Mandakini Hostel). The speakers will often include those like Dr. Mor, from multiple disciplines. The idea, in the words of the organising team, is to create a forum where one gets to hear from science and technology experts, innovators and entrepreneurs, thus creating an opportunity for dialogue across disciplines.

The next talk, ‘Why It’s a Terrible Thing to Start Off With a Great Idea’, is by Vijay Anand, a.k.a. the Startup Guy. It has been rescheduled for 6th November, having been postponed from earlier this month.

It will be followed by ‘The God damn Particle: the Higgs and More’, by Dr. Jim Libby from the Physics Department at IITM, on 13th November.

Suggestions for future events can be mailed to contact@techsaloon.co –  speakers with interesting track records and exciting ideas to share would be welcome.

The sessions are open to all, from insti or elsewhere. Anyone interested in getting exposed to ideas from a variety of fields – and discussing them over some good food – is welcome to take the bus or cycle to the Research Park gate and cross the road for an evening well spent.

Disclaimer: The views are not to be construed in any manner as the official views of IIT Madras.
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Shivani Guptasarma

Shivani is in the third year of a B.Tech. in Engineering Design and an M. Tech. in Biomedical Design, where she gets to study a wonderful mixture of subjects with prospects of someday developing tools and insights to help human beings. She is also interested in art, music, philosophy and languages.